Kathleen Murphy wants Maryland's judges and lawyers to stand up and listen to her silence.
The Westminster bank teller, who in 1992 was ordered to pay her ex-husband $315 a month in child support, on Dec. 15 staged the second of what she hopes will be many "silent marches" at the Carroll County Courthouse, protesting the way state courts handle domestic disputes.
"After you put your faith in the judicial system for your whole life and something like this happens to you, you go home and suffer in silence," said Ms. Murphy, who in October founded Get Results with Effective Efforts Now! Family Law Action Group (GREEN FLAG).
"But silence is a strong enough message, and I want people to get it."
While the march featured little more than a handful of people carrying handmade signs protesting court decisions made in divorce cases, custody battles and child support decrees, their message was clear -- the system needs to be fixed.
Ms. Murphy didn't know it, but GREEN FLAG comes at a time when a cadre of lawyers, law professors, judges and court officials agree that the way family law matters are handled in Maryland needs to be changed.
"There is a movement afoot in Maryland to have a family court," said Bonita Dancy, a master in Baltimore City Circuit Court who works in that court's newly instituted system that separates domestic cases from other types of civil litigation. "It's a groundswell. Because this area of the law is so active in the courts, it's not ever going to go away."
At least two major studies since the early 1990s on the creation of a family court system -- one at the behest of Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the other under the guidance of Attorney General Joseph J. Curran Jr. -- have concluded that Maryland's system of handling domestic disputes needs serious retooling.
"The courts here really treat family law in a pretty dysfunctional fashion," said Barbara A. Babb, a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School and a director of that school's Family Law Clinic.
Ms. Babb has been a part of both of the studies and is a chief author of much of the family court legislation that has been introduced in the General Assembly in the past three years. While a full-fledged Maryland family court is still a distant dream to its advocates, Ms. Babb said, the reality of a family law division in the state's five-largest circuit courts is within reach before the end of the decade.
In legislation expected to be introduced in Annapolis next month, family court advocates will propose phasing in family law divisions. Ms. Babb intends to discuss the proposed legislation -- drafted last week -- with Judge Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, in the coming week.
Family court is not a new concept in the American justice system, although only about 15 states have a formal court set aside to hear divorce, custody, child support, adoption and other domestic matters. To Ms. Murphy -- and others who feel bruised by their ride through the court system -- virtually any change in the way domestic matters are handled would be a relief. "I've never wanted to be a pest, but if I can't fix what happened to me, maybe I can help somebody else," she said.
Two years ago, Ms. Murphy's seven-year marriage to Lloyd N. Schaeffer, a former Westminster lumber company executive, ended in a drawn-out divorce in Carroll Circuit Court. Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. granted a divorce to Mr. Schaeffer, gave him custody of the couple's adopted 5-year-old son, allowed him exclusive use of the family home and ordered Ms. Murphy to pay $315 in monthly child support.
At the time, Ms. Murphy was working as a $7-an-hour bank teller. "Judge Beck never gave a reason for why he did what he did," Ms. Murphy said.
The judge repeatedly has declined to discuss the case.
Selma Black, a Mount Washington grandmother whose second marriage ended two years ago after nearly 20 years, also is outraged that her case is still winding its way through the courts. "You really become devastated," she said.
Her first marriage ended 30 years ago, when her first husband died. "This marriage is so painful to tear apart," she said. "After my first husband died, I healed as well as I could, but this is never ending."
Ms. Black, who, at 68, said most of her friends are about to retire "and live on the fruits of a lifetime of hard work," continues to be a part-time legal secretary and real estate agent. She wants to start a Baltimore chapter of the New York-based National Coalition for Family Justice, an advocacy group that works to help people in their domestic court battles.
"If we don't speak up, the horrible experiences in the court system will continue," Ms. Black said.
"In a family law case, you need a resolution," said Sally Gold, a Baltimore attorney who has done family law work for 18 years.