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Courts Use COVID to Take Kids from Parents

Activist judges have seized on mask violations as a flimsy justification for denying parents custody of their children.

In April 2020, NBC ran a story about a doctor in Florida who was kept from her children on the pretense that her job posed a COVID risk to them. That same month, CNN ran a story about an E.R. doctor who similarly lost custody temporarily because a judge decided her job was no longer safe.

“The Court does not enter this Order lightly but given the pandemic in Florida and the recent increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases, the Court finds in order to insulate and protect the best interests and health of the minor child, this Order must be entered on a temporary basis,” the judge wrote in that court ruling.

This phenomenon, however, is hardly limited to healthcare professionals with immediate exposure to the virus. On the contrary—even though COVID-19 has been consistently shown to pose no substantial threat to children—in a number of recent cases around the U.S., judges have used marginally COVID-related reasons to justify denying a parent custody or even altering a pre-existing custody agreement.

The American Conservative interviewed Melanie Joseph and Dr. Micheline Epstein, both of whose custody cases have recently received media attention. Both told TAC that their situations provide windows into widespread judicial tyranny in the U.S.A.

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In September 2020, Joseph went to court believing the judge would finally hear her motion after she had not seen her son since March of that year. Instead, her ex-husband produced a weeks-old photo of her not wearing a mask at a doctor’s office, which she had posted on social media; her judge, Dale Cohen, then went into a harangue about her flaunting of COVID rules, and suspended all custody time. The tirade was recorded.

“She’s one of these anti-mask people and she’s got the audacity to put that on social media, that she’s an anti-mask people, and to expose the child to a flight to North Carolina and to risk the child’s health over that is not acceptable to me,” Judge Cohen said in the hearing.

Joseph said her problems started when she moved from Florida to North Carolina shortly before the pandemic for her current husband’s work. When it was time to pick up her son for her custody time, in mid-March 2020, her ex-husband failed to respond to all communication and she was never able to see her son.

Her ex-husband, Michael Manley, said in an email that he did not respond because he feared she would kidnap his son: “She did send that email which was her first mistake, she wasn’t going on Spring Break, she was moving that week without me knowing. That is right when Covid started and nobody was going on vacation. She was trying to take him and make me deal with getting him back.”

But Joseph said that Manley blocked her from seeing her son from that moment forward. Manley claimed she had abandoned him by moving out of state.

“She doesn’t even try to contact him, this is a scam she is running to raise money for personal gain,” Manley said. “She moved out of state without any permission from myself or the court system, then expected she would have the same custody but from 800 miles away.”

Joseph did file to relocate in court, though that petition was still being heard at the time she moved. She also filed repeated motions with the court to restore the custody time that was in place; in fact, it was one of these motions which was supposed to be considered in the September hearing.

Joseph said her ex-husband’s attorneys proposed a settlement in which some custody time would be restored but much less than in the previous arrangement. She used to see her son the entire summer break; she now sees him for only 21 days.

Cohen recused himself from her case shortly after the National File first broke the story, but she said that reversing the current agreement will be difficult regardless, “because the case is settled. . . . The only way to change is to file a motion to set aside but that doesn’t happen that often.” She said that, according to attorneys she spoke with, she would need to show a change in circumstance or convince the court she had been coerced into accepting the current deal.

In another case, Cohen suspended a mother’s time sharing rights based on findings that “the Wife has gone to the beach during the pandemic and has not practiced social distancing, and that she “has gone on dates during the pandemic.” Joseph said she learned that Cohen later put a gag order on that case.

In late March, the National File did a follow-up on Cohen, finding even more mothers losing custody due to specious COVID-related decisions issued by him. “In the trial the mask issue was brought up. The only thing his attorney asked me was did you take your child out without a mask in October or November of last year? I said there was no mask mandate at the time. Our county mandate in Palm Beach County had religious and medical exemptions in it,” one mom told the National File, “The judge made the decision on my younger son and the mask thing was an issue in the judgment and the vaccination issue was an issue in the judgment.”

Joseph said many domestic violence victims contacted her to say they were treated as badly by Cohen as she was.

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Dr. Epstein, meanwhile, told TAC it has been more than a month since she has seen her daughter, thanks to Justice Matthew Cooper of the New York Supreme Court.

When she dropped her daughter off at school in early March, she was not wearing a mask on the sidewalk. A school employee demanded she put one on and Epstein refused, leading to an argument. The school employee reported the matter to the school who reported it to both parents; Epstein said her ex-husband then filed an emergency motion suspending her custody time.

Justice Cooper granted him the motion while further ordering Epstein to wear a mask in her own home as a condition of reinstating supervised visits. She has not seen her daughter since Cooper’s order in March.

Colleen Ní Chairmhaic recently took over as Epstein’s attorney and stated in a Facebook message that after watching the surveillance, “It did appear to me that the school nurse confronted Dr Epstein for not wearing a mask on a public sidewalk. The school who are mandated reporters did not call child protective services and the school counselor opined that the minor child is a delightful girl who is thriving.”

Sebastian Doggart, a documentary filmmaker and executive director of the Family Civil Liberties Union, said he’s working on a documentary about Cooper tentatively entitled Unfit to Sit. “A menace to society,” Doggart said of the judge. “He is truly a public menace.” Of his own dealings with Cooper, Doggart said that he was making another film when he was forced to testify, and Cooper refused to acknowledge his 5th Amendment assertion.

Cooper has also been the subject of several judicial complaints that allege improper behavior. One motion to recuse Cooper from a case alleges that his court “is not conducted in a civil tone, with Cooper often yelling at the plaintiff and never speaking in a civil tone to the plaintiff.” Another complaint from the same litigant makes similar claims:

On December 6, 2017, there was a hearing for a cross motion modification of support in front of Judge Cooper. At that hearing and apparently on the record I asked Judge Cooper why he had not informed the Court about his close family relationship with Hunter College where the other party works. . . . This however is not my principal concern. My concern was the way Judge Cooper dealt with the complaint. Rather than simply state, “this was not a concern,” he exploded in a personal tirade against me. He screamed and threatened me, this all in front of a crowded courtroom.

An email to Karen Lundell, who represents Epstein’s ex-husband, was left unreturned. The public information department for New York State Courts and Meredith Bush, who handles media for Cohen’s judicial circuit, also did not respond to emails for comment.

Michael Volpe has worked as a freelance journalist since 2009, after spending more than a decade in finance. He’s based in Chicago.

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