Las Vegas attorney David Chesnoff, right, files the annulment decree Monday for Britney Spears and Jason Alexander at the family court in Las Vegas. (Las Vegas Review-Journal/Associated Press)
When pop singer Britney Spears entertained a 55-hour Las Vegas marriage in 2004, this is where it ended: the Clark County Family Courts and Services Center in Las Vegas.

The wedding was a Vegas classic, with vows exchanged in the early morning hours amid implications of alcohol and impaired judgment. The union was obviously bad for business, and someone must have conveyed this to Spears in the hours that followed. On Monday morning, her lawyer came to Family Court to file an annulment on her behalf, accompanied by the paparazzi. The marriage was dissolved as quickly as it was made, and the Oops-I-Did-It-Again girl can now claim legally that it never happened.

Although it is miles from the Strip, the Family Services Center is an important safety valve for our treasured tourists. If you wake up in the morning, broke, hung-over and accidentally married, it is good to know that you can visit the Self-Help Center for the appropriate form, claim temporary insanity, and at least erase that last part. Thereby, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,"™ and you are free to come back later and do it all over again.

Annulments are just one of the many "Family Services" offered here. The term, of course, is a bureaucratic euphemism for less cheerful proceedings. Truth-in-advertising would call it the "Clark County Family Catastrophe and Damage Control Center." When marriages fail, families explode, kids go ballistic and parents get high, this is the place where government steps in and tries to pick up the pieces.

I must emphasize from the beginning that government is not well suited to this task. If you are experiencing difficulties in a romantic or parental relationship, the last thing you want is Clark County to become your counselor. The Family Court, like the rest of the legal system, can only solve problems with sledgehammers. Once the statutes, filings, lawyers and liabilities kick in, there is very little room for subtle and creative solutions.

Divorcing couples who cannot agree on child custody will see their kid divided somewhere down the middle, a la Solomon. Parents who are accused of abusing their kids may find themselves condemned to a seemingly endless nightmare of counseling, evaluations, testing and court hearings while their kids are held in limbo in an undisclosed location. Even becoming a foster parent — a good guy in the eyes of the system — opens you up to countless state regulations and intrusions into your privacy. There will always be something ironic and Big Brotherish about the term "Family Services." These are services that you don't want your family to ever need.

People shouldn't have to work out their conflicts in a place like this. They should learn to love one another and just get along. The only reason you need Family Services is because, frankly, one or more parties is crazy. You may not be able to tell it by looking at them, but if you get to know the participants in any contested case, you will probably see that at least one of them is irrational and infinitely destructive and can only be stopped by a court ruling and firm legal enforcement.

The Family Services complex is a de facto mental health treatment facility for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, gambling addiction, and a lot of other profound emotional disorders that don't yet have names. The court system is not well-equipped to handle these problems, but at least decisions are made and conflicts are eventually resolved in some surgical manner.

Addictions and mental illnesses permeate this place, but none is more pervasive (and absorbs more court resources) than that special affliction called romantic love. Ah, love! It's a heightening of the senses, an eruption of passions, a joining of two hearts, dancing in the rain, breakfast in bed, a dozen red roses, springtime in Paris.... In other words, it's an exquisite delusion that can't possibly live up to the victim's expectations.

Love is a suspension of critical judgment that allows a person to become passionately attached to a mannequin or hopeless cad who they would have nothing to do with if not for certain sexual cues. If you are going to fall "madly" in love, it follows almost as a law of physics that you will eventually fall just as madly out of love, and when that time comes, the Family Services Center is here to serve you.

The complex, occupying a large portion of a city block, provides one-stop shopping for all of your dysfunctional family needs. The most obvious facility is the Family Court, a modern three-story office building that houses 18 courtrooms concerned with divorce and child support, restraining orders, juvenile justice, and child abuse and neglect. (Marriage licenses are not issued here but are still handled in the big courthouse downtown, closer to the "action.")

Behind the court building is the Juvenile Detention Center — or "Juvvie" to kids who want to sound tough — where your young miscreants are housed in a prison-like setting.

Just beyond Juvvie is quite a different facility, Child Haven — or "Child Heaven" to some of the younger kids. This is a cluster of home-like "cottages" managed by a caring staff where children who have been taken from their parents due to abuse or neglect are temporarily housed and schooled.

Child Haven and Juvvie couldn't be more different — one warm and welcoming, even if firmly structured, and the other cold, stern and antiseptic. Separating the two is a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. It's a fine line between Child Heaven and Child Hell, and there are times when a kid could end up at either one, depending on not much more than chance.

As a former foster parent, former divorce litigant and former acting patriarch of a troubled family, I have visited this complex way too often. I can confirm that this is a place of great pain, most of it hidden just out of view. Occasionally, coming here was filled with joy, but more often it felt more like chemotherapy, where doctors fill your bloodstream with poison in a crude and often ineffective attempt to kill a cancer. After a couple of sessions of chemo, you don't want to go back, and even just driving by the building fills you with dread.

Now I have returned here as a ghost, wandering the halls and rattling my chains in search of peace. I step into courtrooms unannounced and listen to the proceedings. I strike up conversations with people in the hallways and ask them questions about what is going on. I don't want to be a victim of my past but the ruler of it, and to do this I need to understand this place that I fear.

I am seeking some kind of internal balance, much like adult victims of childhood sexual abuse are drawn to become prostitutes and strippers (or "sex workers" in the terminology of Las Vegas): It is a way to master something that you had little control over the first time around.

I suppose you could call me a journalist, conducting investigations and reporting to you what I find, but I don't pretend to be neutral. I now know the difference between Good and Evil, and both can be found here, sometimes one in the guise of the other. I am not reluctant to evaluate what I see and speculate about the hidden cause of things.

The mainstream media, both local and national, swoops in from time to time, reporting on high profile cases and the most obvious problems of the system, but they don't stay long. Their coverage is dominated by soundbites and stereotypical human interest stories: citizen victimized by an overzealous government, citizen neglected by an inattentive government, citizen demanding that government be changed while not actually doing anything to make it happen.

Inevitably, the media reports that the court and family services systems are "in crisis," but that's nothing new. (Hey, we're all in crisis.) Occasionally, there are thoughtful stories in the newspaper, but they easily get swept away by a tsunami like Britney. You know the truth is in trouble when they call in the News Choppers — as in, "This is News Chopper 9 reporting live from above the Family Court building where the marriage of Britney Jean Spears and Jason Allan Alexander has just been annulled." Whatever kind of journalist I may be, I am not a News Chopper.

In the testimony I am about to give, I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God. This oath is subject, however, to certain philosophical dilemmas, such as "What is truth, anyway?" and "Is there really a God?" Furthermore, I don't think you really want the whole truth, because that would be exceedingly tedious and involve a great deal of paperwork and redundant testimony. Instead, I will give you my impressions of the truth based on the best of my memory and what strikes me as important at the time.

Hard-core journalists often go to the scene of wars and famines to report from the front lines on the tragedy and human suffering found there. I choose to travel to the Family Services Center in East Las Vegas. People don't kill each other here, but you feel a similar sense of despair whenever you scratch the surface and understand what is really going on. In most of the cases involving children, the kids have been repeatedly betrayed by the adults who are supposed to be protecting them. After their court date, most of them will go back to the same degrading circumstances they came from, and there isn't much that anyone can do about it.

We're not talking about a few isolated tragedies, but whole truckloads of it wherever you choose to look. Processing the worst family dysfunction of a city of over a million, this facility is a wholesale transit point for tragedy — a sort of regional Wal-Mart distribution center for trauma and despair.

I come here because I want to understand human suffering, not just in Las Vegas but everywhere in the world. I am also trying to figure out what my own role should be in helping those in need. If there is some innocent child being cruelly damaged somewhere, do I have a responsibility to try to save them? Where does my responsibility begin and end?

I am not claiming that the plight of an abused kid in Las Vegas is worse than that of, say, a street orphan forced into prostitution in Bombay or a destitute Guatemalan family making the desperate journey across Mexico to try to find work in the U.S. It is all the same suffering: an exquisite combination of dread and aloneness that devastates people's personalities. The world says, "You are worthless," but still you refuse to die. Instead, you take refuge in some clever self-deception, a twisted delusion about yourself or the world that permits you to keep your self-esteem even if it loosens your grip on reality.

The fact is, I come to the Family Services Center because it is convenient. In Las Vegas, unlike India or Mexico, the water is safe to drink, and you are never very far from a good buffet. (Do I look like Mother Theresa?) The complex itself is safe and structured. Thanks to the heavy security, I am not going to be robbed or killed here, and the rules that govern this place are reliable and understandable.

This is my courthouse, and I have a citizen's right to be here, while I don't have the right to intrude into people's homes as they pummel and demean each other. The Family Services Complex is a comfortable place to collect data on the brutal world outside. Then, if the circumstances are appropriate, I can make field trips into the real world to explore the conflict behind a court case and what it means for the rest of humanity.

To most of the clients who enter it, the Family Services Center is a place of quiet agony and seemingly indecipherable bureaucracy separating them from freedom. To those who work here, however, it's just a job, no more depressing in itself than working in a hospital. Everyone knows their role, has their friendly clique of coworkers and quickly stops seeing most of the suffering of the clientele.

County employees and other court regulars have their senses dulled by another ghost wandering these halls, the beautiful and seductive Anesthesia. As light and invisible as the wind, she slips silently into courtrooms and offices and sprinkles pixy dust into people's coffee.

Anesthesia makes sure that you don't look any deeper into a particular case than your immediate job requires. She keeps you busy with meaningless activities, like raising houseplants or doing crossword puzzles, and makes you think that the rest of the world is doing just fine. She assures you that there is nothing to worry about: As long as you perform your assigned microscopic task, someone else will see the big picture and take care of the rest.

Anesthesia and I were married once, but we got a divorce. From time to time, she calls to me, tempting me with sweet oblivion, but I can't go back. Once you see beyond the happy facade of the world to the intimate destruction that flows just below the surface, it is hard to put the demons back in the box. I don't wanna do that drug no more: Anesthesia. I want to see things as they really are.

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Footnotes and Links

¹Britney Spears' 55-hour Marriage Annulled (Las Vegas Review-Journal). Also: Britney's Annulment Filing and Decree. (Smoking Gun)

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