Family law cases spilling over into Stanislaus County Superior Courts

Court workers call the Modesto law enforcement officer "a sweetheart," even as he transformed into a man who became explosively angry and punched through walls in his house.

He was losing his wife. He already lost his house and his overtime pay.

"All I've ever done is work for my family," he told a court mediator, his anguish and frustration growing. "That's what men do."

Officials say anger over the economic meltdown and its impact on families is spilling through the doors of the Stanislaus County Courthouse in downtown Modesto.

As economic conditions have worsened, more parents are fighting over custody of their children and there are more reports of domestic battery from homes where there was no pattern of it before, court officials said. Numbers from the Stanislaus County Superior Court illustrate the extent of the problem:

Applications for domestic violence restraining orders have jumped from 1,498 to 1,938, an increase of 29 percent over the past five years.

In the past year, nearly 3,300 more people used self-help services for family law-related matters because they couldn't afford a lawyer, putting the total number of clients at more than 10,000.

Self-help services for child custody and domestic violence cases increased 14 percent and 66 percent, respectively, in the past year.

Belinda Rolicheck, executive director of the Haven Women's Center in Modesto, said more women have been seeking shelter and services. But she's been noticing a different type of client.

"What we're seeing is women who normally might have had other resources — possibly because of the economy and job losses — who don't have the same resources they had," Rolicheck said.

The loss of self-esteem that comes with being laid off after a lifetime of steady work has taken a violent turn, said Sandy Lucas, the family court director.

Lucas said there's been a spurt of domestic battery cases, and not what the court workers call "frequent fliers," or those who are court regulars for domestic violence.

"We're really seeing the dissolution of families," Lucas said. "Everybody's lost everything."

Valley hit hard by meltdown

Economic conditions in the Northern San Joaquin Valley have been worse than in many other parts of the state and nation.

Personal incomes here average $29,463, about 29 percent lower than those in metropolitan regions nationwide. Stanislaus County's unemployment rate was 16.3 percent in July. Foreclosure rates are among the worst in the country.

A clinical psychologist in Modesto said the flailing economy has been a topic in every one of his 30 to 40 patient sessions each week.

"I have not seen a patient in the last six months who hasn't mentioned something about the economy and the recession," said Donald Strangio, who's practiced for 30 years.

Strangio said families are moving in with relatives because they've lost their house or can't pay the rent. Many are adult children with families of their own.

It's a breeding ground for family distress, Strangio said.

"It's a recipe for a lot of conflict when people have lived in their own home for years — the stress with crowding and noise and clutter," he said.

And try getting along when you live under the same roof with your ex.

Lucas said she's come across a half-dozen families in the past six weeks in which divorced parents are living together months later because they can't afford to move out.

The pressure the recession is putting on families doesn't appear to be easing, despite reports that economic conditions are starting to improve.

One day last week, the family law offices at the Stanislaus County Courthouse were bustling, with a line snaking out the door.

It's like that every day now, court employees said. They hustle to keep stacks of booklets with information on domestic violence stocked. The slot holding restraining order applications is empty by the end of the day.

"It feels like a full moon every day now," Lucas said. "It's really a phenomenon."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at or 578-2337.