Santa Cruz, CA

Family court reform bills move through respective committees

Robert J Hansen
Senator Susan Rubio and supporters of SB 331 and SB 690 standing in the Capitol steps on Monday, July 10, 2023.Photo by(Photo by Robert J. Hansen)

A bill that would prohibit family courts from ordering children to reunification “treatments,” and a bill that would expand the statute of limitations on reporting domestic violence both were passed through their respective Committees last week.

Piqui’s Law or SB331, is named after a 5 year-old-boy who was brutally murdered by his father, would prohibit court-ordered family reunification therapy or “camps” as part of a child custody or visitation rights proceeding, that is predicated on cutting off a child from a parent with whom the child is attached.

Two Santa Cruz children, Maya and Sebastian Laing, were physically removed from their aunt's home by “transporters” and taken to a reunification camp by court order last October.

Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Rebecca Connelly ignored the children’s claims that their mother had sexually abused them, instead accusing their father, Justin Laing, of parental alienation and ordering them into reunification to mend their relationship with their mother.

They were forced to live with their mother, Jessica, who was allowed to move to Washington without informing their father.

Maya and Sebastian ran away from their mother and are now in California and relatively safe.

“When me and my brother had the courage to talk about how our mother abused us, we asked for help from the police and the court,” Maya said at the committee hearing via telephone.”Instead of being protected, we were turned over to our abuser.”

Assemblymember and committee co-chair, Bill Essayli called reunification barbaric.

“For us to have a process in this state to provide this reunification treatment … it is frankly barbaric that we rip people away from their kids,” Essayli said.

The bill would provide that a person is qualified to testify as an expert in a child custody proceeding in which a parent has been alleged to have committed domestic violence.

Piqui was one of 851 children nationwide who have been murdered by a divorcing or separating parent since 2008, according to statistics collected by the Center for Judicial Excellence.

“Protecting children and survivors should always be a top priority, but unfortunately, family courts continue to fail,” bill author Senator Susan Rubio said.

Aramazd Andressian, Jr. - known as Piqui - was smothered to death by his father in 2017 during a court-approved visitation. 

Eight days earlier, Piqui’s mother, Ana Estevez, had reportedly sought sole custody of the child, with only supervised visitation rights for the father. 

Approximately 1 in 15 children in the United States is exposed to domestic violence each year, according to the legislation.

Most child abuse in America is perpetrated in the family and by a parent, and intimate partner violence and child abuse overlap in the same families at rates between 30 and 60 percent.

“As a former prosecutor, I have seen far too many evil, abusive individuals who should be nowhere near a child during these custody proceedings—which is why I voted and spoke in strong support of the bill in committee,” Essayli said via Twitter. “I have seen the system repeatedly fail domestic violence victims and child abuse victims all the time. We have to do better.”

Piqui’s law is supported by many child advocacy groups, several California cities, the domestic violence clinic at the University of California, Irvine, School Law, One Moms Battle and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. 

It is opposed by those who practice or endorse therapies that could be eliminated by the bill. The bill is opposed “unless amended” by other stakeholders who fear that it undermines judicial discretion to determine the “best interest of the child” on a case-by-case basis, according to the opposition.

SB 690, also authored by Senator Rubio, was passed and moved to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

If made law, would allow survivors of domestic violence 15 years instead of five to file charges against their abuser.

“Our mission to protect victims persists undeterred. Together, we will continue pushing for stronger protections and advocating tirelessly for children and victims,” Senator Rubio said.

Rayni Ramirez was married to a former CHP officer for 20 years and after leaving him in 2016, going through the divorce and custody process was unable to report the crimes sooner.

“If there’s one thing I can leave you with today is that victims need time to heal and understand their circumstances before coming forward,” Ramirez said.

Public Safety Committee Vice Chair Juan Alanis, who was a detective of domestic violence, has spoken with hundreds of domestic violence survivors who were silenced.

“Many of you … having the courage to come up and testify,” Alanis said. “I’ve spoken with hundreds in my county, most of them were silent because they thought of their families first. That’s who the victims are protecting, are their families.”

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Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Focused on holding elected officials, police and the courts accountable to the people throughout the greater Sacramento area.

Sacramento County, CA

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