Family In Crisis
Judge’s decision to send kids to detention center sparks controversy.
Whether in the court of public opinion or in the Pontiac courtroom of Oakland County Family Court Judge Lisa Gorcyca, it seems few can agree on what’s “best” for the three minor children of Omer Tsimhoni and Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni.
Ultimately, that issue — what’s best for the Israeli family’s 9-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 10 and 15 — has become a controversial topic, capturing attention locally and across the world.
On June 24, Gorcyca ordered the children to Mandy’s Place, a dorm-style wing of the county’s Children’s Village detention center intended for abused or neglected children, for civil contempt of court after they refused to have lunch with or talk to their father after Gorcyca had ordered them to have a “heathy relationship” with him. Their parents have been involved in a contentious divorce dispute since 2009.
At an emergency hearing on Friday, July 10, Gorcyca released the Tsimhoni children to spend time at a Jewish summer camp.
Their story made international headlines not long before their release, when attorney Lisa Stern of Hertz Schram PC in Bloomfield Hills was hired to represent Eibschitz-Tsimhoni and went to the press and Gorcyca to plead for their freedom.
A Facebook page created by a group of local Jewish mothers to call for the children’s release also added to the public attention. The page attracted more than 3,000 “likes” in less than 24 hours.
Stern initially agreed to speak with the JN about the case, but later declined. The father’s attorney, Keri Middleditch of Alexander Eisenberg Middleditch & Spilman PLLC in Birmingham, declined to be interviewed by the press.
A History of Conflict
The latest is another disappointing chapter in the family’s complicated saga that allegedly began in Israel, some six years ago, when Tsimhoni was traveling for business and returned home to find his wife had fled to the United States to divorce him and had taken their children with her.
The couple was married in Israel in 1995, but raised their kids in Ann Arbor until 2008, when Tsimhoni accepted a job in Israel with plans to move the family there permanently. In 2009, Eibschitz-Tsimhoni filed for divorce in Oakland County, citing her home in Bloomfield Hills as the family’s address.
An international controversy in its own right, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Cleland, after hearing testimony in a Detroit courtroom from both parents, ultimately found neither “fully credible or fully persuasive” and decided not to send the children back to Israel with their father.
Omer Tsimhoni, a traffic safety researcher and General Motors engineer, has been accused by his wife of assaulting her and threatening their children’s lives.
Eibschitz-Tsimhoni, a pediatric eye doctor and glaucoma researcher at the University of Michigan, has been accused by her husband of kidnapping the children to avoid an Israeli court terminating her custodial rights because of his allegations that she manipulated the children to alienate him.
Fast forward to last Friday’s emergency hearing, Gorcyca found herself both backtracking on earlier threats the three children would remain at Children’s Village until they maintained a “healthy relationship” with their father or turned 18, and defending her prior orders by chastising the media and public for rushing to judge her decision.
“While this court’s remedy in this particular situation may seem drastic and offensive, so, too, is the notion … that the only way to maintain a stable and loving connection with the mother is to vilify and reject the father,” Gorcyca said at the hearing.
The judge, while highly esteemed by many other judges and attorneys, was vilified by many on social media and in the press internationally. Outraged voices castigated what they labeled a punitive, psychologically damaging treatment of the children when ultimately their parents should be held responsible for their own neglect.
Some blasted her comparisons of the children to members of the Manson family, despite the judge’s protestations the three’s behavior was “unlike anything [she has] ever seen in 46,000 cases.”
As unique as the now-public facts of the Tsimhoni family’s legal battle may seem, for attorney Douglas Wartell, who’s specialized in contentious family law matters for nearly 40 years, parental alienation is far too common.
“The judge is trying to get at the truth, and it’s further complicated when the kids are being put in the middle,” says Wartell, co-founder of law firm ADAM, the American Divorce Association for Men.
“If Mom was encouraging parenting time, then maybe they would have been released [sooner],” he said. “Judge Gorcyca feels there was something fishy here, that Mom is doing what she can to poison the relationship.
“Parental alienation is a strategy some parents use in divorce proceedings when they have control of the kids and paint a picture that everything is horrible and talk about everything Daddy’s done wrong.
“Frankly, I’m sure they’ve both done good and bad; that’s what happens in families like this; but nobody knows the facts, and I’m glad the judge isn’t just falling for [Mom’s] stuff or separating one parent from the kids on a mere allegation,” Wartell said.
A Well-Respected Judge
Like Wartell, attorney Jordan Dizik at Hauer & Snover in Bingham Farms noted parental alienation alone does not make this case worth discussing.
“What makes this case unique is how the judge handled the alienation issue, ostensibly placing them in foster care,” Dizik said. “Ultimately, it’s too hard to say whether that was right or wrong without knowing every detail.
“Gorcyca is known as being very fair and very even-keeled on the bench. This is a five-year case, and nobody but the judge and the parties to the case know everything that’s happened. It’s hard to Monday-morning quarterback it, but I can say she’s a smart, competent judge, and presumably had reasons for doing what she did.”
Attorney Josh Faber of the Berlin Family Law Group in Troy echoed those sentiments when it comes to Gorcyca’s reputation as a judge.
“Our firm has had countless cases in Oakland County over three decades, and many with Judge Gorcyca,” Faber said. “There are only so many family law judges, and I have never had a negative thing to say about her. She’s the type of judge lawyers love to see pulled on a case; she works with attorneys and works with the parties.”
Faber suggests Gorcyca is particularly prepared to handle a matter as caustic as this one. “She’s a judge that cares about families and not just moving cases off her docket,” he said. “She cares about the people she’s working with and the families.
“I don’t view [sending the children to Mandy’s Place] as having been a punishment or see it as punitive in nature,” he continued. “Does it have an impact on the kids? Absolutely, but Gorcyca’s reasoning behind it had to be with the end goal of helping them, not harming them.”
Around the same time the Tsimhonis married two decades ago, Wartell was litigating a similar case, representing a father who hadn’t seen his children in three years.
“It sticks in my memory well,” Wartell says, as he recalls the facts of a case in Wayne County Circuit Court.
“This dad came to me wanting parenting time, and said his kids hated him, and that the problems started when he and his wife were getting divorced. As they fought for custody, he noticed his kids had head lice, and mom wouldn’t take care of it.
“Not knowing what to do, the dad went to the school and asked teachers and administrators to quietly take care of the problem. He wanted the kids removed from school to get treatment, and when they were, mom told the kids their father hated them, he wanted to embarrass them in front of the whole school and told every kid in school you have head lice.”
Wartell’s story continued, with a judge ultimately evaluating the family’s custodial environment, and threatening the children with never seeing their mother again if they didn’t have dinner with their father — not unlike Gorcya’s ordering the Tsimhoni children to have lunch with their father.
“The kids fight the order in court, but they go see the dad, who they’ve been told wasn’t paying child support and didn’t want to see them, so I told him to pull together every motion he ever filed and every support payment he made, and to explain to the kids, as if they were adults, everything that happened,” Wartell recalled.
“He called me in the morning to tell me it was the best night of his life and, by the time they were done, the kids didn’t want to go ‘home.’ They had a whole new perspective on their daddy and, without my involvement, wound up living with him.”
If Wartell’s case was similarly compelling but went unnoticed by the press, what makes the Tsimhoni case worth talking about now?
A Media ‘Spectacle’
“The level of spectacle here, that’s uncommon,” Faber noted. “There are not too many cases around here that get glorified or glamorized and picked up like this.
“The story of these kids is in the international press, and it has that international feel with the mom taking the kids from Israel. I’ve seen in it in the Jerusalem Post and on CNN. I’ve never seen that before,” Faber said.
When Eibschitz-Tsimhoni’s attorney made the facts of the ongoing litigation public and helped to publish court transcripts, it gave the public a chance to object to how the court handled the matter.
Farmington Hills attorney Shelly Loomus teaches law at Henry Ford College and has a master’s degree in social work. She has her reservations when it comes to Gorcya’s handling of the case.
“Without knowing all of the events leading up to her decision, it is unfortunate she felt [detention at Mandy’s Place] was the only option available to change the children’s behavior,” said the author of Winning Your High-Conflict Divorce.
“She is punishing them for their response to a situation not of their making,” Loomus said. “Having a relationship with their father is the desired outcome, but telling them to do it presumes they know how. Relationship-building is a process, made much more difficult for these children by complexities they cannot fully understand,” she said.
“Perhaps a more effective approach would be to focus on process and not punish the children for failing at the end result. Sadly, the children are now at greater risk for blaming their father and the court for their predicament.”
But attorney Dizik points out Gorcyca wasn’t the only person with a say in the matter.
“One fact some people don’t seem to bring up is that each kid was appointed a guardian ad litem — essentially an attorney that represents the best interests of the children — and not one objected to them being sent to Mandy’s Place, nor did dad’s attorney or even mom’s attorney. You have mental health professionals and a parenting time coordinator with eyes on this.
“There was basically a team of people that came up with the answer here, and their latest answer was to send them to camp,” Dizik said. “I’m sure that it’s a somewhat appropriate resolution.”
Similarly, Faber saw no need for Gorcyca to be “hands off.”
“There is a point where you can’t try to fix a family, but I’m not sure this case was at that point, where she could say ‘you don’t have to have anything to do with your father.’ There are cases where we terminate parental rights or it’s clear there’s going to be no relationship with the parents, but I’ve seen that in cases where children are being starved or parents are using their arms to put out lit cigarettes,” Faber said.
“The goal of the legal system is to try and encourage and foster relationships, because even if at the end of the day it’s rocky or not ‘normal,’ when that kid’s going off to college or walking down the aisle they will want to ultimately do that with both parents, not just one or the other and a stepparent.
“We look for normalization in the courts because the studies show some relationship with both parents is better psychologically for a child than no relationship. Courts try a lot before throwing in the towel.”
By Ryan Fishman, Contributing Writer