Courts & Crime

Cost of economic downturn shows itself in domestic court

MODESTO, Calif. — 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'd 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 courthouse doors.

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.

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