Jacqueline Franchetti's daughter Kyra, 2, was shot to death by her father as her parents were locked in a heated child-custody dispute, prompting Franchetti to become an advocate for family court reform.
Jacqueline Franchetti was going through a contentious custody battle for her 2-year-old daughter with Roy Eugene Rumsey, who she said was abusive and suicidal.
But over Franchetti’s objections, a New York family court judge granted Rumsey permission to keep Kyra overnights at his home in mid-2016. Weeks later, on July 27, Rumsey shot the toddler twice in the back as she slept, set his house on fire, and then turned the gun on himself.
According to domestic violence groups, such tragedies are all too common. By the time Kyra was murdered, advocates had been spinning their wheels for the better part of a decade trying to get lawmakers involved in reforming family courts to place more of an emphasis on children’s safety, but they couldn’t get traction.
That changed when Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP came in to help.
“They really made us feel like we were their top clients, and they were doing this pro bono,” Franchetti told Law360. “They were so dedicated, so patient, so involved.”
Pillsbury was part of the push behind a nonbinding resolution that urges state legislators to require family courts to bring in experts to thoroughly investigate allegations of domestic violence. The measure, which became known as House Concurrent Resolution 72, was intended to help raise awareness of the issue and encourage states to adopt a set of child-protection policies.
Though nonbinding, history shows these resolutions can serve as powerful tools to raise awareness and as blueprints for state legislators to craft their own bills.
The last House resolution to touch upon the family court system passed in 1990, when Republican Congresswoman Connie Morella of Maryland won unanimous support for her resolution urging family court judges to consider spousal abuse allegations in child custody proceedings. Since then, 36 states have adopted that resolution's recommendations.
More recently, winning legislators' support for House Concurrent Resolution 72 was a deceptively difficult task, according to Pillsbury's lobbyists and allied activists.
The effort had previously languished with another law firm, and a network of domestic violence groups weren’t completely united on a way forward. It took Pillsbury attorneys more than 900 hours of work over two years to pull it all together and persuade hesitant legislators who worried that they might be stepping on courts’ toes, the Pillsbury attorneys told Law360.
Pillsbury joined the effort around March 2016 after an appellate client, the domestic violence legal aid organization DV LEAP, told Pillsbury’s appellate lawyers that another firm’s efforts to advance family court reform had stalled.
Laughlin said he was stunned to learn about the hundreds of deaths of children, many of them under 5 years old, at the hands of their own parents — even after the other parents raised concerns with family courts. There have been at least 657 children killed by a parent during a custody dispute since 2008, according to the domestic violence advocacy group Center for Judicial Excellence.
“It didn't rise to the national attention, which was shameful,” Laughlin said.
Soon after Pillsbury came aboard, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who had been the point person for the domestic violence groups, announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer and was unable to continue leading the charge. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa., took up the groups’ banner.
The Pillsbury lobbyists worked with Joan Meier, a George Washington University Law School professor and founder of DV LEAP, to refine the proposed resolution to avoid political pitfalls that could jeopardize support on the part of advocacy groups or legislators.
For example, they reworked language that could have been seen as gender-biased against fathers to avoid angering fathers' rights groups, as fathers aren’t always the abusers. To assuage some legislators, they also made it clear that the resolution was about raising awareness, not about imposing unfunded mandates.
Saperstein, Laughlin and Hennessey brought Franchetti and other parents of murdered children to meet with legislators. Franchetti said she would walk around the Capitol with Laughlin and pitch to every member of Congress in sight. She pitched them in elevators, in parking lots and, of course, during formal meetings.
“Certainly in the meetings there very often were not dry eyes in the room, and it was very common for us to get hugs at the end,” Franchetti said. “It was not uncommon to see them shaking their heads in disbelief and dismay that this is what’s happening in our country.”
Gradually, legislators signed on. Some pushed back, saying that judges they knew had assured them the resolution wasn’t necessary and that judges already keep kids safe.
In January, the effort hit another stumbling block as sexual harassment allegations against Meehan became public. He stepped down in April.
Meanwhile, more parental murder cases hit the news, particularly as the resolution neared the finish line this year.
In May, a 46-year-old woman jumped out of a Manhattan hotel’s 25th-floor window with her 7-year-old son, killing them both. In June, a New York man and his 2-year-old son were found with gunshot wounds in a car parked in Virginia, a day after the father, Jovani Ligurgo, reportedly failed to show up to a scheduled child-custody exchange.
The turning point came when Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, decided to champion the resolution. Sessions, an influential Republican and chairman of the House Rules Committee, put the full weight of his influence behind it.
When the resolution passed in September, it had 86 co-sponsors, including 53 Democrats and 33 Republicans.
"Even one death of a child is too many, and the fact that several of these were preventable had the family courts been better equipped to handle these extremely sensitive cases is sickening,” Sessions said in a statement announcing the resolution’s passage.
Advocates pushing for experts to examine domestic violence allegations will now seek another round of state-by-state legislative action to reform family courts — an effort that Pillsbury will remain involved with, according to Laughlin and Saperstein.
The resolution that Pillsbury helped shepherd to passage will be key in that next phase, Meier said in a statement.
“It is not hyperbole to state that this resolution, by catalyzing improved state court practices, will save some children’s lives and protect others from a childhood full of abuse,” she said.
Brandon Lowrey is a features reporter for Law360. He previously reported on Justice Brett Kavanaugh's approach to access to justice cases. Follow him on Twitter. Editing by Kelly Duncan.
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