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"Justice Delayed is Justice Denied"
LaMusga v. LaMusga

The 1996 landmark California Supreme Court case In Re Marriage of Burgess was supposed to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

Suzy Navarro, her husband Todd, her sons Garrett, 11, and Devlen LaMusga, 9, and their daughter, 3, moved this week from their little rented house in Pleasanton, California, to a spacious new home purchased in Mesa, Arizona.

They just could not wait any longer.

The latest iteration of a rancorous seven-year battle with the boys' father, Navarro's first husband, Gary LaMusga, has been languishing in the California Supreme Court since September 2002. No court has prohibited the family from moving with the two boys to Arizona, but no court has been willing to modify the father's visitation schedule to accommodate the move. And the issue to be decided? It is whether the family may move -- not to Arizona -- but to Ohio.

Two years ago, Navarro's husband had a job offer there. That job is long gone. It was Suzy Navarro's second request to move to Ohio. Once before, she had asked the court to permit her to move with her sons back to the state in which she grew up and has family in order to go to law school, a life-long dream. That dream was thwarted when her first request to move was denied. The case now pending in the California court system is her second request, made five years later. But while the California Supreme Court ponders its decision, there is no more job for Todd Navarro or future awaiting for the family in Ohio. After moving alone, without his family and infant daughter, and waiting nearly a year for them, Navarro's husband moved back to California in late 2002, to take a job at half the pay.

Recently, Todd Navarro got another much-needed job offer in Arizona. Once again Suzy Navarro tried to get the assistance of California courts to modify her boys' visitation schedule with Gary LaMusga. But this time Navarro was told by Superior Court Judge Kennedy on June 16, 2003, that because the Supreme Court is hearing the matter of her prior request, now moot, that he was without jurisdiction to rule on this one.

Also pending in the court system is the request the children's mother made in February 2001 to increase the below-guidelines child support originally established in 1996 when Suzy and Gary LaMusga were divorced. A trial date on this issue only recently has been set for January 2004.

During the seven-year-long forced march through an expensive legal nightmare, Suzy Navarro, her husband, her sons and their baby half-sister have endured repeated litigation expenses and intrusions into their family and homelife. Court-ordered custody evaluations, mediation under the auspices of the court's family conciliation services, occupational evaluations and psychological counseling continually have disrupted the family's schedule, as well as the children's schooling. But they have not been able to improve the problem that caused the courts to deny Suzy Navarro's first request to move five years ago: her sons' father's tenuous, detached relationship with his children.

Meals, bedtimes, education and study habits, after-school play, and issues of personal hygiene and moral conduct all have been sacrificed to accommodate court orders made to appease LaMusga, whose claims have succeeded in holding the lives and futures of five other people twisting at the mercy of the system. While the "wheels of justice" grind, Suzy Navarro's dream of becoming a lawyer has been frustrated, her husband's career has been jeopardized, her family's finances have been devastated, her children's lives have been destablizedů and the lives of all of them have been poked, prodded, harangued, analyzed, and meddled with.

And so last week Suzy Navarro and her family just picked up and moved.

Background

Suzy and Gary LaMusga, a well-to-do businessman, divorced in 1996. At that time, the California family court awarded sole physical custody of Garrett, then 4, and Devlen LaMusga, then 2, to their mother, who had been their primary caregiver since their births.

Suzy Poston, the youngest of eight children, had grown up in Ohio, and had moved to California to join her husband when they married in 1988. The marriage lasted seven years. A finance major in college, she had dropped out of graduate school in 1982 for lack of funds. She got a job as a flight attendant, then rapidly was promoted into management. As she gained success, Suzy saved her money and held onto her goal of becoming a lawyer, perhaps specializing in business or aviation. But marriage to LaMusga meant a move to a new state, the cessation of her blossoming career with the airlines, and a lifestyle as homemaker and stepmother to LaMusga's troubled teenage daughter from his first marriage. In a few years there was a baby, and then another one.

After her divorce, Suzy Poston LaMusga was ready to try again. She asked the court to permit her to move with her children to Cleveland, Ohio, where she had been accepted at Case Western Reserve Law School. Her brother-in-law taught there, and close relatives lived nearby, including first cousins her children's age.

But the California court said "no." The boys were too young. Gary LaMusga needed more time to develop a relationship with them.

So Suzy stayed. And cooperated. And did everything the courts and therapists told her to do. Over the next few years, LaMusga's relationship with the boys did not improve, despite therapy, despite efforts by all parties. The parents had difficulty getting along, and disagreed about LaMusga's sometimes harsh parenting practices. In 1998, Suzy met Todd Navarro and remarried. The next year they had a baby daughter. A year after that, in December 2000, Suzy Navarro again asked the California courts if she could move. The growing family needed money. Todd Navarro had been offered a position in Ohio that nearly doubled his salary. Suzy Navarro had started thinking about the possibilities back home, the lower cost of living, the help of extended family that she did not have in California, of ending the ongoing conflicts with Gary LaMusga, and of maybe finally going back to law school. In order to not lose the position, Todd Navarro moved to Ohio ahead of his family and they waited for California courts.

But in August 2001 Superior Court Judge Terence Bruiniers again said "no." LaMusga still had a "tenuous and somewhat detached relationship" with his sons, which had not improved in the nearly five years since the LaMusgas' divorce.

The court reasoned that a move of more than 2,000 miles would interfere with relationship therapy between LaMusga and his sons. He told the boys' mother that if she moved to Ohio, the children would be removed from her custody and sent to live with their father, notwithstanding the difficult relationship that he (and his now-third wife) had with them, and notwithstanding that this would separate them from their primary caregiver and sister.

The Navarros appealed. Six months later, however, after enduring the strain of living apart from his family for nearly a year, Todd Navarro resigned his new job, and returned to California, taking a job at half the pay. Three months later, in May 2002, the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District in San Francisco reversed the trial court's decision. But it was too little, too late. Gary LaMusga appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court, where fifteen months later, the case still is pending.

LaMusga v. LaMusga is being hailed as a revisitation of the landmark 1996 California Supreme Court case of In re Marriage of Burgess . In that year, the same one in which the LaMusgas divorced, the Court held that a custodial parent has a presumptive right to relocate with his or her children.

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In connection with this case, the findings of a new study by fathers' rights icon Sanford Braver released by the APA on June 25, 2003 (see http://www.thelizlibrary.org/liz/braver-wallerstein.html), are being touted as showing that children suffer detriment from post-divorce relocations, but controversy exists regarding what that study actually shows. Statements made by Ira Ellman issued in connection with the press release by Arizona State University, as well as his class syllabus on law and public policy, indicate that the Braver study (which he co-authored), as well as an article published in June 2003 by Joan Kelly and Michael Lamb actually were conceived and carried out for the intended purposes of moving public policy and changing California law. The writeup of the actual findings of the study "Relocation of Children After Divorce and Children's Best Interests" and the APA press release misrepresented those findings and ignored the rather controversial and surprising correlations the study actually did make. See http://www.thelizlibrary.org/liz/braver.html

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The website of the National Coalition For Family Justice of California, Inc.., a court reform advocacy group, can be accessed here. For more information on this case, see the liz library.

marjorie g. fuller nancy williams olesen pamela panasiti stettner michael e. lamb michael lamb michael lamb dawn gray joan kelly joan b. kelly joan kelly lawrence e. leone bill austin william g. austin william g. austin, Ph.D. harold j. cohn, constance ahrons constance ahrons good divorce connie ahrons sanford l. braver frieda gordon james m. hallett jim hallett sid brown sidney brown sidney j. brown sidney j. brown, Ph.D. lynette berg robe michael gottlieb Ph.D., tammy-lynn gallerani, richard a. warshak richard warshak warshak kenneth c. cochrane neil s. grossman neil grossman neil grossman, ph.d. david r. lane david lane maureen stubbs fred norris dianna gould-saltman susan ratzkin jeffrey m. lulow dale s. frank leslye hunter ronald s. granberg association of certified family law specialists acfls acfl james r. flens jay flens james r. flens, ph.d. jacqueline singer james livingston jay livingston stephen r. liss warfel shiller