NEW JERSEY -- Half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, but some experts say getting through the family court system can be like going through purgatory. They describe the process as fraudulent, corrupt, and sometimes deadly. And the case of the Seidle family, which dozens of witnesses watched play out on a New Jersey street this week, may have stemmed from the painful process of tearing families apart.
Neptune Police Sgt. Phillip Seidle is accused of running his ex-wife Tammy off the road and shooting her at point-blank range with his service revolver in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The entire incident played out in front of the couple's 7-year-old daughter, one of nine children they shared.
Just last month, the Seidles ended a messy divorce after a long custody battle. In the original court filings, obtained by PIX11 News, Tammy claims her husband "held a loaded gun to her head" and "cocked it in a threatening and intimidating fashion" and even "kicked her in the stomach" while she was pregnant.
On another occasion she said Seidle "punched her in the face" after she questioned him about charges for "pornographic materials" on their cable bill. Still, it took two years in and out of family court to end the marriage.
As Seidle ended an hour long standoff with police Tuesday, multiple witnesses said he repeatedly yelled that he didn't want to go to court anymore as he held the gun to his head.
"Family Court in New Jersey in our opinion is fraud and racketeering," said Greg Roberts, founder of the Family Civil Liberties Union. "I call it the greatest fraud every perpetrated on the American public."
Roberts said the family court system tears families apart. While lawyers lob verbal grenades at both sides and collect money, the family is the casualty laying in the wake.
"They treat families like criminals," Roberts said. "Once you get into the family court system, you cannot get out of the family court system until your earnings and your savings are decimated."
The documentary "Divorce Corp" estimates divorce to be a 50-billion dollar a year industry. With little oversight, lawyers are incentivized to keep their clients in court to make as much money as possible.
"When you have money, when you have assets, and when you have big income these big firms have absolutely positively no interest in resolving your case, even if you want to," lawyer John W. Thatcher said in recordings obtained exclusively by PIX11.
Thatcher is a lawyer based in Clinton, N.J., who's been practicing family law for more than 40 years. PIX11 News called and emailed Thatcher for comment, but he did not respond. In the phone recordings, Thatcher describes a system where lawyers keep their clients in the system as long as possible to reap big profits - a process known as churning.
"Everybody in the matrimonial business, all the lawyers are buddies," Thatcher said during the phone call. "Everybody knows everybody. So if you and I are opposing matrimonial lawyers and Joe Schmo comes in with millions of dollars, you and I are like, you and I go back to the Mercedes dealership and buy another car. We know we're going to make huge dollars and we work it with each other that way."
Rachel Alintoff knows that system all too well. She said she lost custody of her son, who has been diagnosed with autism, when he was 2 years old without a hearing. That decision was overturned, but last year New Jersey Courts stripped her of custody again. Now she has a RICO lawsuit against Gov. Chris Christie and the State of New Jersey to change the process.
"From the moment that I stepped into the Family Court System in Monmouth County New Jersey, I was shocked at how little justice I was given," Alintoff said.
"If you step into the family court system, you can guarantee that if you don't have deep pockets or a politically connected law firm, you are going to have your constitutional rights denied and your civil liberties ignored," Alintoff added.
The FCLU estimates that Alintoff's is one of 50,000 families in the tri-state area affected by a broken family court system. Roberts said children often become pawns in the system because each state receives federal funding for every dollar of child support collected.
"So in many cases, child support is determined, child custody is determined by who is going to transfer the most money in child support and the state gets the most money," Roberts said.
PIX11 News reached out to New Jersey Courts and asked to sit down with any of the presiding judges from the family division, but they denied our request citing the Code of Judicial Conduct. However, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Court System told us the state receives 66 percent reimbursement for the cost of collecting child support.
But exactly how that money is spent is unclear.
Former attorney Susan Settenbrino and author of the book "Unchecked Power Guide: The Entrenched Power and Politics in the New York State Court System" said that's because the disciplinary committees are not doing their jobs.
"There is no meaningful oversight or accountability within our court system," said Settenbrino. "Not over the $2 billion budget, not over the manner in which judges and attorneys behave. And it's really gotten to the point where we have, I believe, a very dangerous system that is compromising the lives of the families."
New Jersey Courts also pointed us to a study that shows 91 percent of divorce cases in New Jersey are closed within 12 months. But Settenbrino said families shouldn't be there in the first place.
"The family should never have to go through a court system because what's going on is their being destroyed economically, emotionally, mentally, and for what?" she said.
So with so much at stake, Roberts said the reform needs to come from a higher power.
"The federal government needs to step in and make corrective actions just as they did with the Veteran's Hospital Administration Association. It is not going to be solved at the state level because they are all in cahoots," Roberts said.
The FCLU has filed a complaint about the system with the Federal Trade Commission. PIX11 News reached out to the FTC for comment, but a spokesperson told us they could not comment on ongoing cases.