Sunday, November 1, 2009

Review of "The New Star Chamber: The New Jersey Family Court and the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act" by David N. Heleniak. Part 1 of 2

David N. Heleniak is an attorney in New Jersey. Holding a MA degree in Theological and Religious Studies from Drew University, he is the vice president of RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting), a non-profit organization that works to improve the effectiveness of the approach to domestic violence ( and the senior legal analyst for True Equality Network, a group dedicated to educating on how the failures of numerous federal programs and the abuses of federal funding systems affect the sovereignty of the American family (

He is the author of several works, one of which is titled The New Star Chamber: The New Jersey Family Court and the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, published in the Spring of 2005 issue of Rutgers Law Review, adaptations of which were published in the New Jersey Law Journal, New Jersey Lawyer, and The Liberator, America's Shared Parenting Quarterly (PDF: (Video: It is this text that I want to summarize on this and next week posts.

The text starts with a disturbing quote by Dean Roscoe Pound: "The powers of the star chamber were a trifle in comparison with those of our juvenile courts and courts of domestic relations." From there, Heleniak develops an exposé on how the family court system, particularly in New Jersey, violates basic constitutional rights.

The title of the text refers to the Star Chamber, so named because of the star pattern painted on the ceiling of the room in Westminster Palace, where the king of England's council met, that was intended to be a more efficient alternative to the common-law courts, but that in fact, it became the embodiment of unfair judicial proceedings. Heleniak argues that through The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, the New Jersey Legislature has been allowed to create, in the Family Part of the Chancery Division of the New Jersey Superior Court, a modern day Star Chamber.

The Act permits a self-proclaimed victim to file a complaint alleging the commission of an act of domestic violence, and to request a temporary restraining order. If the court determines that an act of domestic violence has occurred, it can authorize any of the following reliefs:

- An order giving the plaintiff exclusive possession of the marital home.

- An order requiring the defendant to make mortgage or rent payments.

- An order restraining the defendant from making contact with the plaintiff.

- Temporary custody of a minor child.

- The suspension of parenting time for the defendant or limitation of visitation to supervised visitations.

- Monetary compensation for losses suffered by the plaintiff to be paid for by the defendant.

- An order requiring the defendant to receive professional domestic violence help.

- An order requiring the defendant to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

- The award of temporary custody of personal property, such as an automobile, checkbook, and other personal effects of the defendant.

The Act also provides for imprisonment for any person convicted of a second or subsequent nonindictable domestic violence contempt. As it is easy to see, the potential for abuse of the Act is immense. The advantages of a restraining order to the complainant are a temptation hard to resist: exclusive possession of the home, temporary and probably permanent sole custody of the children, and the opportunity to make the other person’s life miserable.

The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act authorizes a chancery judge to bar a defendant from ever setting foot in his house again, yet make him pay the mortgage payments; make him pay large sums of money to the plaintiff; bar him from seeing his children; force him to see a psychologist and/or psychiatrist against his will; temporarily give the plaintiff exclusive possession of the defendant's car, checkbook, and other personal effects; bar the defendant from ever speaking to any individual that the plaintiff does not want him to speak to; force him to turn any firearms he has and bar him from ever possessing another firearm in his life; and make the defendant pay a "civil penalty" of $500.00, and if the defendant refuses to comply with any aspect of the judge's order, he can be tried for contempt and imprisoned. Lastly, he is labeled an abuser and his name is put on a list of domestic abusers known as the New Jersey Judiciary's Domestic Violence Central Registry, a societal stigma that will follow him the rest of his life.

Knowing all this, it should not be a surprise that in many divorce cases, allegations of abuse are used for tactical advantage.

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