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After the judge in her Wisconsin divorce case ruled that her ex-husband — a man who had sought treatment for anger and alcohol issues — would get legal custody of and equal time with their four children, Julie Valadez vowed to fight back.
But in every key ruling that followed, the Waukesha County Circuit Court judge overseeing her case, Michael J. Aprahamian, found Valadez’s concerns about her ex-husband not credible and her actions unacceptable. Aprahamian took away her ability to co-parent her children. He held her in contempt four times. And after Aprahamian ordered her arrest, she braced herself for jail.
Valadez, whose accusations of domestic abuse had led to her husband’s arrest, ran through a string of attorneys and represented herself at times. Eventually she found a Milwaukee civil rights attorney to represent her, along with a public defender, and enlisted the help of a Washington, D.C., legal service for domestic violence survivors.
And in recent weeks, with a pair of rare appeals court victories and Aprahamian’s decision to remove himself from the case, Valadez has found reason to hope that better days are ahead for her and her children.
Appellate reversals in these kinds of cases are unusual, in part because of the time and money it takes to pursue them. Valadez’s case provides a window into the largely unexplored world of family court, the appeals process and the problems encountered by women who say they’ve been victims of domestic abuse.
A common concern in these situations is that family courts will favor shared custody even if one parent says the other is abusive, sometimes misapplying the law and forcing long, expensive legal battles. ProPublica reported in September on another woman’s lengthy family court ordeal, which also took place in Wisconsin’s Waukesha County, but before a different judge. That story explored how Wisconsin courts, in working to give fathers equal parenting rights, often fail to deal with the complexities that arise in these cases and downplay women’s concerns about their own safety and that of their children.
State systems, according to women’s advocates, often put mothers who survived domestic violence at a disadvantage, liable to be seen as noncooperative when the court seeks some sort of compromise.
Valadez, believing that her case was being mishandled, went to great lengths to be heard while also fending off accusations that she was unruly or was somehow failing to do what’s best for her children.
Then, late last year, Valadez won her state appeal challenging Aprahamian’s custody decision on the basis that Ricardo Valadez, her former husband, had not completed the legally required treatment for domestic abusers. In its rebuke, the state Court of Appeals in Waukesha County found Aprahamian had “failed to explicitly apply the proper legal standard” required in cases involving domestic abuse.
The court stated in its Dec. 29 opinion that the judge “read words into the statute that are not there” and “ignored words that are there.” It ordered Aprahamian to reconsider the Valadez decision.
In the wake of that ruling, a January court session drew several spectators from the community: mothers who wore “#Julie4Change” T-shirts, a reference to a website Julie Valadez set up to bring attention to her legal quest.
But from the bench, Aprahamian declined to immediately alter the custody arrangement. The two sides were ordered to appear in court again at a later date.
“Why do we have to wait that long?” Valadez whispered to her attorney.
Weeks later, in early February, Valadez won at the appellate level again, as the court found that the judge had erred when he held her in contempt for emailing him after he had told her not to, failing to sign a release of records and refusing to undergo a psychological exam.
The contempt charges were a reflection of the tense atmosphere inside the court and how Valadez’s own actions have come under heavy scrutiny.
Ricardo Valadez’s lawyer has said that Julie Valadez has made unsubstantiated claims against her ex-husband and undermined the relationship between father and children. Guardians ad litem appointed by the court to determine the best interests of the children also have generally favored her ex-husband and supported the idea that Julie Valadez is being unreasonable. The judge, meanwhile, described her as disruptive and unwilling to follow his instructions.
Aprahamian has since acquiesced to her request for a new judge and is now off the case. He said he could not discuss the case with ProPublica. Ricardo Valadez, through his attorney, also declined to comment.
The victories have given Julie Valadez a measure of satisfaction, but they have yet to produce the desired effect: She’s still separated by court order from her four children, ages 8 to 16. The next hearing is set for Thursday.
“It’s been torture,” Valadez said of the legal battle that’s been going on since 2018 and now includes more than 800 documents. “I don’t even know what will happen to our family; it’s truly horrifying.”
Alcohol, Outbursts and a Fractured Marriage
Julie Valadez was a bride at 19 and a mother at 21. Her husband was 27 when they married. He studied to become a pastor and also sold life insurance.
They had three more children over their 16-year union, and Julie spent her days taking care of the brood and doing volunteer work. Two of the children are autistic, and she primarily handled the doctor’s appointments and school schedule and arranged for help from behavioral therapists, life-skill helpers and outside specialists.
In court papers, she described enduring her husband’s intimidating and violent outbursts, property damage, verbal insults and alcohol abuse. In about 2014 she took refuge for a couple of days at a domestic violence shelter, her husband acknowledged on the witness stand. She then returned home.
The Valadez marriage hit a breaking point in December 2017 when, according to a criminal complaint, Ricardo Valadez came home drunk, yelled and cursed at his wife for being on her cellphone and smashed an iron to pieces. Officers with the City of Waukesha Police Department found him “visibly intoxicated,” handcuffed him and took him out of the house.
He was formally charged months later, in May 2018, with one count of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor classified as domestic abuse. It later was downgraded to a municipal ordinance violation after he started participating in counseling.
At one point, Ricardo Valadez described his therapy sessions in criminal court, saying: “I cried, and I dealt with my alcohol issues. We dealt with my anger issues. We dealt with, obviously, my whole life changing, no longer in a marriage and seeing my children as much as I wanted to see my children.”
He added, “I continue to do counseling just because I want to improve myself as a person. I want to be a better dad, obviously providing for my children.”
He pleaded no contest and paid a fine.
By then, Julie Valadez had filed for divorce and secured a restraining order against him, describing incidents of stalking, harassment and violence, according to court records. “He always has threatened me if I was to ever leave him,” she wrote in her request for the restraining order. “He has said a number of times that he would kill me; and if I was ever with someone else, he’d kill them.”
At one point during the divorce, Valadez said, she abandoned her home and moved with her children to a protected address under Wisconsin’s Safe at Home program.
Wisconsin’s family law prizes cooperation between exes, but the law anticipates that interaction between parents in abusive relationships can present a dangerous, if not lethal, situation.
The law instructs court-appointed attorneys for children, called guardians ad litem, to investigate possible domestic abuse in families and then advise judges on their findings. A 2021 study by the University of Wisconsin, however, found that guardians ad litem typically don’t have enough resources for evidence collection or expert help, and they lack training about domestic abuse.
Julie Valadez has argued in her case that the initial guardian ad litem did not investigate the abusive dynamics in her marriage; she alleged that a second such attorney, appointed later during the appeal, dragged her and her ex back into court over parenting issues after the custody decision, even though neither parent had filed a motion requesting circuit court intervention about the children.
As the case wore on, Julie Valadez exasperated the court officials, including the guardians ad litem and the judge. Aprahamian deemed some of her allegations about her ex-husband “vindictive and picayune.”
As a result of her complaints, police arrested her ex-husband twice for allegedly violating the restraining order — once after he sent her reproachful electronic messages about money and once after he stepped inside the house when she wasn’t there to bring a child to a school bus. Ricardo Valadez was not prosecuted for entering the home and was found not guilty of violating the restraining order for sending the messages.
Kurt M. Schuster, Ricardo’s attorney, accused Julie in court filings of creating an unsettling environment for her children. “I don’t think she’s capable of putting her children’s best interest above her own,” Schuster said in an interview.
To Julie Valadez, the notion that she has benefited in any way from the custody battle is laughable. For instance, she said, she took a huge financial hit when she left the large house that her husband was making payments on for an apartment she had to pay for.
“It was a disaster for me,” she said. “I lost everything.”
A Skeptical Judge
The Valadez divorce trial, in early 2020, lasted five days.
Julie Valadez testified in detail about her allegations of abusive behavior by her husband. She recalled one incident in which she said he was “very drunk and being aggressive verbally and physically” as they struggled over car keys and another in which she said he grabbed her arm “to the point where it hurt and left red marks.” She testified that he threatened her, saying she would regret leaving him and he would “make me pay for this.”
She described for the judge outbursts by her husband where, she said, he punched holes in the walls of their homes. “He had punched them next to my head or he kicked a hole in the wall,” she said in court.
While on the stand, Ricardo Valadez refused to answer certain pointed questions about his wife’s allegations of domestic violence, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The questions included: “Isn’t it true you have physically hurt Miss Valadez?”
Aprahamian issued a 34-page decision in April 2020.
He agreed with recommendations by a court-appointed social worker and the first guardian ad litem that the couple exchange the children weekly. The handoffs were to be done at a police station.
Shared legal custody, however, was a different matter because of questions whether the former spouses could cooperate (although the social worker thought it unwise for either of them to act without the other’s input). Julie Valadez argued that a restraining order she obtained in 2018 against her husband made communicating with each other problematic and that she alone should have legal custody.
Aprahamian made note in his ruling of Ricardo Valadez’s 2017 arrest. Referencing incidents that spurred the divorce filing, the judge wrote that there was a “pattern of domestic abuse occurring coincident to the initiation of this case.” But he said he would not take into consideration Julie Valadez’s other accusations.
“The Court does not find credible Ms. Valadez’s other allegations of abuse and battery, including uncorroborated allegations of sexual abuse, physical abuse, stalking and property damage,” Aprahamian concluded.
The judge acknowledged that Ricardo Valadez, whom he described as an alcoholic, had lied to the court about his sobriety. Still, he wrote, “As a general matter, the Court found Ms. Valadez not credible.”
“She was evasive in answering questions and repeatedly asked to have simple, straightforward questions repeated prior to answer,” Aprahamian ruled.
For example, asked by the then guardian ad litem Katherine J. De Lorenzo if she believed she could cooperate with her ex-husband if awarded joint legal custody, Julie Valadez said at trial: “I have been cooperative.”
“Can you answer the question?” the judge asked.
“If I would be cooperative, is the question? Can you repeat your question?” she replied.
De Lorenzo obliged but warned: “Try and listen to my questions. They’re pretty simply stated, Ms. Valadez.”
Valadez said in an interview that in this and other similar instances she merely was trying to make sure she understood what she was being asked.
Aprahamian concluded that Ricardo Valadez “likely would put his children’s interests above his own.” He ruled that Ricardo should have sole legal custody, giving him control of decision-making on major issues in the children’s lives, though he was instructed not to change the kids’ school or doctors.
For Julie Valadez, the ruling was a harsh blow. She worried about how her ex would manage all the special services the children needed and about his drinking and anger issues.
“It was just a dangerous situation,” she said. “To me it seems obvious.”
She first undertook handling her own appeal in June 2020 but later had assistance from Washington, D.C., attorney Jay C. Johnson, acting as pro bono co-counsel with DV LEAP, a nonprofit that seeks to help victims pursue appeals in cases involving domestic violence.
Judges have wide discretion in custody cases and appeals are rare, said Elizabeth Vogel, DV LEAP’s managing attorney. Many litigants in family court don’t have a trial attorney, discover it’s hard to find an attorney to pursue an appeal and face short deadlines to file challenges.
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DV LEAP saw merit in Julie Valadez’s case because the judge had recognized a pattern of domestic abuse but had concluded wrongly that her husband still had satisfied conditions for custody despite not receiving adequate counseling.
“Julie’s case is, sadly, such an excellent example of how judges take liberties in their reasoning to get around statutes that are meant to protect survivors,” Vogel said.
The Court of Appeals agreed that Ricardo Valadez was not entitled to sole legal custody because he had not shown he had successfully completed state-mandated treatment for batterers from a certified program.
Also, though Aprahamian required “absolute sobriety” from Ricardo and ordered the exchange of children at the police department, the appellate court ruled he did not make the safety of Julie and her children a “paramount concern” in determining who the children would live with, as required by state law.
Reversing the judgment by Aprahamian, the appellate court sent the case back to family court for reconsideration.
After the favorable appellate court ruling, Johnson tweeted that the decision “sets strong precedent for domestic abuse victims who are seeking custody of their children.”
Appealing to a Higher Court
During the year and a half that the case was on appeal, Vogel said in an interview, Aprahamian appeared to subject Julie Valadez to “an extreme level of retaliation” through his multiple rulings.
That’s not unheard of. Women across the country have told ProPublica that family courts have not only overlooked their allegations of domestic abuse but have acted to punish them by taking away much or all of their time with their children for making what the court considers to be false, or minor, allegations of abuse.
When these women openly complain, file motions or defy the court orders, judges can view them as mentally unfit or hold them in contempt.
In Valadez’s case, tensions between her and the judge never seemed to abate, and along the way she lost the ability to regularly see her children.
Aprahamian appointed a new guardian ad litem, Molly Jasmer, in September 2020 to interact with the appellate court and represent the children’s best interests.
In April 2021, Jasmer filed a 38-page brief with the appellate court outlining why Aprahamian’s ruling was correct. The brief was also signed by Ricardo Valadez’s attorney.
A month earlier, Aprahamian had taken away Julie Valadez’s parenting time with her second oldest child, then 13, after she didn’t make the boy available to meet with Jasmer. Because the judge had already ruled on custody a year earlier, Valadez questioned Jasmer’s involvement.
Jasmer declined to comment for this story.
Valadez contested the no-contact order not just in family court but in a suit she brought against Aprahamian and Jasmer in federal court in June 2021. That suit was dismissed.
“From my standpoint, it’s not personal,” Aprahamian said of the federal suit in a July hearing on the Valadez custody case. “It’s like ‘The Godfather.’ This is just business.”
Less than a month later, Aprahamian issued a bench warrant for Julie Valadez’s arrest for failing to comply with his directive to sign over certain records and undergo a psychological exam requested by Jasmer. At the same hearing, he suspended her parenting time — in effect, preventing her from seeing any of her children except under limited, supervised circumstances.
Her attorney at the time, Will Green, was taken aback. “Holy cow,” he said in court.
“Am I saying she is going to cause harm to them intentionally? That’s not what I’m saying,” the judge explained. “I’m finding she’s taken steps that are not in the best interests of the children and continues to do so.”
The judge had expressed frustration, for example, with Valadez bringing her children along with her when she served Jasmer with the federal suit.
Psychological testing is widely used in custody cases when there is a concern about a parent’s fitness.
The use of such tests, however, can be unwise when there’s a history of abuse, according to the Domestic Abuse Guidebook for Wisconsin Guardians Ad Litem. Abuse victims, it notes, may reasonably show symptoms associated with a large range of mental health difficulties, such as anxiety, paranoia, trouble sleeping, frequent worry or blaming others for their problems.
Ricardo Valadez was not asked to undergo such an exam.
“I was found to be a fit parent,” Julie Valadez said of the initial custody order. “I was never found to be an unfit parent. They had provided no valid reason for me to have a psych eval.”
Aside from some therapy sessions together, she said, she hasn’t had any significant time with her one son for nearly a year and her other three children for several months.
Valadez avoided jail when the Waukesha County public defender’s office got involved and persuaded the Court of Appeals in September 2021 to quash the bench warrant and stay the jail term during her appeal of the custody decision.
She received additional help when, last fall, William F. Sulton, a Milwaukee civil rights attorney, agreed to represent her.
“The case is so unusual in that the judge tried to put her in jail,” Sulton said. “So I really believe she was at risk of losing her liberty.”
Said Sulton: “Unfortunately, the court system does not treat unrepresented people with the respect that they deserve. And so it is not uncommon to see judges and other lawyers singling out, with draconian measures, people who are unrepresented.”
In reversing Aprahamian last month, the appeals court found that the type of contempt the judge used was “punitive” and not lawful — except in one instance when the judge used it to preserve order in the court when he took issue with Julie interrupting him. It vacated the three other contempt rulings.
Getting those rulings took months of perseverance, as Valadez chased down transcripts, switched attorneys, filed court documents and appeals and studied the intricacies of Wisconsin law and court procedures. She believes her appeals exacerbated tensions inside Aprahamian’s courtroom.
“They didn’t want this,” she said. “It’s a big deal to get reversed like they did.”
At the crux of the appellate court’s ruling in the custody case were the counseling sessions Ricardo Valadez attended as a result of his criminal case and Aprahamian’s decision to accept those as proof of rehabilitation even though they weren’t certified by the Wisconsin Batterers Treatment Providers Association.
Ricardo Valadez’s lawyer said his client has received additional counseling. A few days after Christmas, he filed a new document with the court stating Valadez completed a 20-week domestic violence treatment program from a certified provider.
Aprahamian’s replacement will now have to rule on custody and other related issues. Sulton said in an interview that the latest treatment program completed by Valadez should be disregarded because it came too late and is inadequate because there is no proof it reduces violence.
Still to be determined is when Julie Valadez can be an active mother to her children again.
“I just want to get my kids back,” she said. Their Christmas gifts, she said, are still waiting for them, by the fireplace in her apartment.