Beyond Contempt

The child-protection system wants to shut down family-rights activist Suzanne Shell. And vice versa.

She started drafting court filings herself, she says, because Kender wasn't interested in fighting the Fremont Department of Human Services' allegations of neglect. "He told us, 'You can't fight DHS,'" she says. "He said it was too big a monster to fight, and the fastest way to get April's daughter back was to agree to their treatment plan."

"There are parents all over the country whose rights are being violated and who don't understand their rights," says Grant. "If you look at the cases in Fremont County, the court-appointed lawyer has an incentive to deal cases. Like a public defender, he has to make them go away. People who want to have a jury trial -- they're a pain in the ass. He doesn't get paid more for that. He gets paid to deal cases."

Kender says he was doing his best to represent April. "There's two approaches to take when you get into one of these kinds of cases," he explains. "One is to attack the system, and the other is to do whatever you need to do to get through it. If you attack the system, that's like walking into quicksand and wanting to attack the quicksand. Whenever that happens, you go down. You lose your children."

Ruffled feathers: When Suzanne Shell isn't tending to 
the poultry on her farm in eastern El Paso County, she 
conducts seminars in parental rights around the 
Mark Manger
Ruffled feathers: When Suzanne Shell isn't tending to the poultry on her farm in eastern El Paso County, she conducts seminars in parental rights around the country..

After Kender withdrew from the case, another attorney was appointed to represent April. She eventually dropped her demands for a trial and admitted to the county's petition. Her daughter, who'd been in foster care for six months, was soon returned to her. That would seem to bear out the wisdom of Kender's approach, but Shell and her followers see it as one more example of the court holding kids hostage in order to pummel the parents into submission.

"People believe that if they tell the truth, the courts will do the right thing," says Shell. "The courts aren't set up to do the right thing."

April's case is far from over. Last fall, after being home for fifteen months without incident, her daughter was again placed in foster care. "They're claiming that April's boyfriend is a possible pedophile, which is a bunch of BS," says Korn. "I don't believe he is, but I would never take that risk. He's never been in the same room with my granddaughter alone."

Korn insists that the latest action was retaliation against her family for getting involved with Shell. The removal came at the same time Korn was organizing a meeting of parents in the Penrose area who were concerned about social services and the court system. "I was feeling really powerful," she says. "We finally had people who were corroborating what we were saying, and all but two of them had never heard of Suzanne Shell. I walked into a meeting with forty people that night and told them they just took my granddaughter again. The next weekend, five people showed up. The rest jumped ship. They're scared."

Two weeks ago, April's third court-appointed lawyer filed a motion asking to withdraw from the case, claiming that his client and her associates had "tacitly, inferentially and directly" threatened him with ethical grievances and a lawsuit. Shell had recently written him a letter, demanding that he attend one of her seminars and informing him of her plan to "broadcast this compelling story worldwide."

"You are out of your element," she wrote. "If you are not fighting for April all the way with big brass balls, you are against her.... Whatever happens, I'll be watching and the cameras will be rolling."

Coyle says his office isn't on any particular crusade against Shell. "We're a consumer-protection agency," he says. "We don't want to regulate every conversation going on in the state. But when it does involve harm, or it's clear several people are getting bad legal advice and their rights are affected by it, we investigate."

Grant points out that UPL cases tend to be complaint-driven. "It's very selective," he says. "In traffic cases in some jurisdictions, the cop acts as the prosecutor. He practices law without a license every day. Probation officers file motions asking the court to revoke someone's probation, and they aren't lawyers. Victims' advocates offer legal advice to alleged victims all the time. The Supreme Court winks and nods at people in the system who practice law without a license."

Shell is only a threat to the system, Grant says, because the system is unjust. "If she's convicted of contempt, she would be made a martyr," he adds. "That would be a bigger mistake than letting her go."

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