PHOENIX - A lack of oversight in family court systems across the state may be putting vulnerable families – in challenging custody situations – at risk.
Families from Scottsdale, San Tan Valley and Mesa are fighting for new laws that would require more protection for parents who are court-ordered to have supervised parenting time with their children.
Although parents have the right to choose the person or agency that will serve as a third-party observer during visits with their children, there are no rules requiring supervisors to have a license or a background check.
"The system we have right now is not working to keep children and families safe," said Marissa Prins Verburg, a mother of two from Mesa.
"We ought to ensure that people that hold power over vulnerable children and families ought to be held to some sort of standard," she said.
Prins Verburg is one of four people named as original victims in an extensive fraud investigation into a supervised visitation company based in the East Valley. Additional people have come forward since the case was made public in 2012.
According to a police report filed by Maricopa County Sheriff Detective Stacy Frederick, the owners of Legacy Family and Children's Services, Ciara and Michael Coultrap, "have deprived their clients of the right to receive honest services."
They're accused of misrepresenting their credentials to intimidate families and influence court decisions.
"Ciara Coultrap has testified under oath that she has a Ph.D. in Psychology from Northcentral University, which she does not," Frederick wrote in the report.
Frederick said they also gave recommendations to the court about child custody and "would not allow the clients to see their children" if they refused to pay for services that were recommended and provided by the Coultraps' agency.
The Coultraps are now facing forgery and fraud charges. Ciara Coultrap is also facing perjury charges.
Michael Coultrap denied any intentional wrongdoing.
"Ciara and I provided the highest level of ethical service that we could," he said. "Mistakes were made…clerical errors were made, but we always operated with the highest level of ethical and moral constraints."
"Lives have been destroyed," said Jesse Hughlett, who was also named as a victim in the report.
Hughlett, a San Tan Valley father of two, was ordered to have supervised visitation with his two sons. At the time, he lived in Florida, and a judge ordered him to have four supervised visits with his children before they would be permitted to visit him out of state.
He hired the Coultraps to be supervisors.
According to Hughlett, the Coultraps insisted he needed additional supervised visits. They recommended a "psychological evaluation, weekly therapy sessions, and continued supervised visitation," according to court records. None of those additional services were recommended or required by the judge.
Hughlett said the couple also suggested they could file reports with the court–for a fee–to affect his custody of his children and sway a judge in his favor or against him.
"It was kind of like, 'You have to decide now. Do you want us to be on your side?'" he said. "And, 'If you don't want us to be on our side, then there's a potential we could be on the other side.'"
Michael Coultrap denied any bribery.
"People offered us bribes," Coultrap insisted. "If I was taking bribes, I would not have reported to the court that I was offered a bribe."
When the ABC15 Investigators asked Michael Coultrap if he felt qualified to work as a supervisor, he pointed out there are no state standards or court policies supervisors must follow.
"There are no current laws in Arizona regulating who's appropriate and who's not," he said. "Yes, my personal credentials, I'm qualified to be a supervisor, and I've been doing so for quite some time."
In many cases, an unpaid family member may be permitted to serve as a third-party observer during a parent's court-ordered supervised parenting time.
However, many times, families hire and pay an independent agency, like the Coultrap's agency, to do the work.
Almost anyone can become a supervised visitation provider.
However, the Maricopa County Superior Court does offer a roster of professionals who work with the courts and are licensed by professional boards or state agencies. The roster includes licensed attorneys, registered nurses, nurse practitioners and other, licensed behavioral health professionals who have not been disciplined within the last three years.
Although a professional's credentials are verified before that person can be listed on the roster, there is no guarantee the credentials are ever re-verified.
Despite the court's list
of professionals, there is no rule that requires a supervisor to be listed on the roster in order to work inside the court system.
"The court has no record that either Ciara Coultrap or Michael Coultrap have at any time applied for or been placed on the Behavioral Health Roster," a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Superior Court system told ABC15.
Regardless, the two were permitted to give testimony in court.
LEGISLATIVE AND COURT REACTION
"I think something needs to be done," said state Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, (D-30).
McCune Davis said she is willing to help close the loophole in the court system, but points out the legislative process can be very slow.
"I think that there needs to be some level of oversight and some mechanisms by which their work is evaluated in order for parents to make good decisions," she said.
McCune Davis said the legislature could pass a law, but she said that more immediately, she believed the courts could work together to "set up a process by which the folks who provide these services are credentialed, or provide some basic information to the court before families are referred to them."
The ABC15 Investigators repeatedly asked members of the Maricopa County Superior Court and the state's Supreme Court to respond to the suggestion that the courts could take action more immediately.
However, both courts repeatedly denied our requests for on-camera interviews.
Instead, the Administrative Office of the Supreme Court offered this statement:
As outlined in state statute, a family court judge has the ability to order supervised parenting time. When this occurs, the matter is handled on a case by case basis. The Administrative Office of the Courts does not have the authority to regulate private businesses, unless otherwise directed by Arizona law. It is imperative that consumers seeking services to assist with supervised parenting time orders check references and conduct due diligence; much like one would for a therapist, day care center, or other organization that interacts with children, to ensure the best possible outcome for both parties.