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Powerful Valrico family court psychologist has a troubled past

Published Nov. 16, 2013

TAMPA — Over a 24-year career, Valrico psychologist James Flens has become one of the most prominent experts-for-hire in Florida's family courts. He wrote the book — literally — on psychological testing of children in bitter divorce cases, and sits on a powerful committee that reviews misconduct allegations against lawyers.

Flens has made far-reaching recommendations to judges on children's parenting needs and talked at conferences across the country about how to take the measure of family dysfunction. His influence extends beyond the field of mental health: As a member of a state Bar panel that decides whether Hillsborough County attorneys should be investigated for ethical lapses, he serves on a sort of grand jury for the local legal community.

But some say it is Flens' own behavior that deserves scrutiny.

Police and court records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show Flens has been embroiled in several troubling episodes in his personal and professional life. A civil jury found that he stole more than $4,000 from a client assigned to him by a family-court judge — an amount the client says Flens has yet to repay.

Despite boasting on his website of expertise in "intimate partner violence," Flens has twice been accused of beating up women, including his ex-wife. As a young man, he was also put on probation for an aggravated battery charge after he admitted attacking a man outside a Brandon pizza parlor.

Flens, 55, said in an interview that these incidents have no bearing on his competence as a court-appointed custody evaluator or as an assessor of complaints against attorneys. He said that records of his transgressions have surfaced because a disgruntled parent in a custody dispute is trying to discredit him.

"I'm not sure how this would have anything to do with my ability to conduct my work," he said.

Florida Department of Health records show Flens has not been disciplined by regulators since obtaining his license to practice psychology in 1989.

Yet some wonder why a professional with Flens' track record would be entrusted with decisions about the well-being of children or the fate of lawyers facing ethics complaints. Michael McCormack, the former client whose money was taken, said the idea of Flens assessing misconduct allegations against others is "hilarious."

A lucrative crossroads

As a psychologist who works primarily in the family courts, Flens and others like him stand at an unusual crossroads between social science and the law. Those who occupy it have enormous influence over cases whose emotional stakes are among the judiciary's highest.

Expert witnesses who testify about the best custody arrangement for a child can salvage or ruin a parent's life, and their opinions shape the upbringing of the kids involved. These fateful choices command a high price. Court-approved psychologists routinely bill themselves out at rates of hundreds of dollars per hour; a single evaluation can cost litigants $10,000 or more.

Flens wields additional power as a member of one of the Florida Bar's grievance committees for the 13th Judicial Circuit, which includes Hillsborough County. The committees determine if there is probable cause to bring disciplinary action before the state Supreme Court against lawyers accused of malfeasance.

McCormack met Flens in the summer of 2006, when a judge appointed the psychologist to conduct a custody evaluation for McCormack's daughter. McCormack provided an $8,000 retainer, from which Flens said he would subtract pay for his services at the rate of $250 per hour.

Within months, however, McCormack and his ex-wife agreed between themselves on a custody plan. Flens had worked only about 15 hours on the case, according to court records, leaving a $4,250 refund due. In early 2007, having failed to return the money, Flens found himself hit with a lawsuit.

Following a 2008 trial, a jury ruled in McCormack's favor, finding that Flens had "a felonious intent to steal" the money. An appeals court later upheld the verdict, and Flens was ordered to pay McCormack $19,000, including penalties and interest.

Court records indicate Flens offered through his attorney to repay the original $4,250 after the suit was filed. "I never suggested that I did not owe this man money," Flens said.

Dale Sisco, Flens' lawyer in the case, noted that the trial judge initially set aside the jury's finding of civil theft, though that finding was reinstated by the appellate court. "It's not like it was, from a legal viewpoint, a clear case," Sisco said.

McCormack diagrees. "It was all black and white, cut and dried," the Odessa resident said. "We had the law on our side. We had the facts on our side." What he still doesn't have, he said, is the $19,000, not a dime of which Flens has paid.

'You tried to kill me'

It was not the first time Flens, who has made much of his living from the law, had been accused of doing something illegal.

In 1979, when he was 20, Flens was charged with aggravated battery after he punched a 17-year-old during a dispute outside a restaurant, sending the man to the hospital. Flens received 18 months' probation.

More than a decade later, deputies were called to his home and found his then-wife, Karen Flens, with a swollen cheek, split lip and swollen elbow, according to an August 1990 incident report. She told investigators her husband had struck her six times during an argument over their impending divorce.

She said he then forcibly placed her hands around a pistol and fired it into the bedroom wall, saying, "If you call the police, I'll tell them you tried to kill me." Karen told deputies she did not want her husband prosecuted, according to the report, and no charges were filed.

"I was too afraid to press charges," Karen Flens, who now goes by the name Karen Burge, recently told the Times. "I was young. I was scared. I ended up leaving the country for a while because I was so traumatized."

Flens said the police report on his ex-wife's allegations does not tell the full story, but he declined to explain what else happened that night. "Twenty-three years have passed," he said. "It was a very unfortunate situation for everyone involved."

Another unfortunate situation took place this year. On May 15, sheriff's deputies were called to Flens' home in Valrico's River Hills Country Club and found a 42-year-old Tampa woman outside, her head bloodied.

A Sheriff' Office report says Andrea McLeod was drunkenly swinging her arms and purse at Flens on his lawn. Flens' neighbor said he had come to him for help after finding her outside.

"Flens, in fear for his safety, struck McLeod once in the face with a closed fist," according to the incident report. She fell to the concrete, hitting the back of her head, which began bleeding. McLeod is 5-feet-4 and weighs 120 pounds, the report states.

Deputies arrested McLeod after she kicked and insulted them. "It was determined that no battery took place and Flens' actions were taken in self-defense," the report states.

Flens told the Times he does not know McLeod. A woman who answered the door at her home declined to talk to a reporter.

'Lack of oversight'

Kathleen Russell of the Center for Judicial Excellence, a California-based advocacy group that supports reform of the family courts, said Flens' background raises questions about the vetting of psychological experts. "To me, it really points to how broken the family court system is, in terms of the complete lack of oversight," Russell said.

It is unclear if Flens' history could affect his responsibilities within the legal system.

Kenneth Marvin, director of lawyer regulation for the Florida Bar, said there are no qualifications for non-lawyer members of grievance committees beyond residing or working in the judicial circuit they oversee. After learning of the history of allegations against Flens from the Times, Marvin said he sent records of the incidents to Bar officials for review and, if necessary, further action.

Flens, who edited and partially authored the 2005 handbook, Psychological Testing in Child Custody Evaluations, said his long career in the court system and his colleagues' esteem are more relevant signs of his job fitness than the incidents in court and police documents.

"People who know my professional credentials and work," he said, "have not questioned my work."

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Aimee Alexander contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

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