Sunday, May 6, 2007

Child Custody - Another View

Corpus Juris has a post below discussing the deplorable child custody issues confronting service members. I would like to contribute my own experiences in this field, with the caveat that I am not a service member. Also, in the interest of credit where credit is due, my ex-wife never pulled any of these shenanigans on me (her mother did).

I was divorced in Connecticut about 12 years ago, so the laws may have changed (although knowing Connecticut, they probably haven't). Every state has its own divorce and family law system, so my experiences may not be applicable in other states.

First, the circumstances leading to the divorce.

My wife and I both worked, and her mother took care of our son while we were at work. Mom -- and I use the term solely for brevity; I wouldn't have called her Mom to her face for all the money on Earth -- considered "child care" to be parking our son in front of the TV all day, every day. And the TV wasn't on PBS or Nickelodeon, either, it was on NBC, so Mom could watch her soap operas... which meant our son was also exposed to those moral giants (I didn't discover this till the court hearings).

Young children -- our son was two at the time -- will occasionally act up or cry. I walked in after work one day, just in time to hear Mom yell, "You little bastard, if you don't f***in' shut up, I'll beat the piss outa you." I walked in just as she backhanded him. Instead of doing the sensible thing -- scooping up our son and leaving -- I tried to find out what was wrong, and why she was yelling like that at a two-year-old. Well, Mom, being full-blooded Sicilian, called her son (who lived next door) and told him to come over and "teach me a lesson". Jimmy came over, all 6-03, 240 drunken pounds of him, carrying a baseball bat. I told him, "I put you in the hospital once. You want to go back?" (long story), at which point he decided he had to go mow his lawn. Mom called the cops, which was the best thing she could have done, because I had been a member of the department that would respond. I went outside to wait.

The cops showed up, interviewed Mom (whom they already disliked from previous contacts), interviewed me, then got between us when Mom came out of the house with a cast-iron skillet. She started tussling with the cops -- not a good idea -- and went for a ride in the back seat of a cruiser.

My wife got home, found out what had happened, bailed Mom out, and threw my ass out of the house. I had two hours to pack what I could into the back of my van. Her brothers then helped themselves to the rest of my belongings. My lawyer subsequently told me I had no recourse, in that I had been thrown out (the house was in her name; I moved in when we married).

It took three months to schedule a custody/visitation hearing. During that time, I had no contact with my son, despite my wife saying I could pick him up now and then - every time I got to the house, Mom would say "My daughter took him with her, so you're outa luck." Again, no recourse, according to the lawyer.

Mom also tried to get a restraining order against me, which was actually issued. The first day she had the order, she drove 50 miles to my job, walked up to my dek, and tried to have me arrested for being within 500 feet of her. Fortunately, the local cops looked at her address, and arrested her for filing a false report. Based on their investigation, the issuing judge rescinded the original restraining order, and granted me one against her.

During the custody hearing, we were awarded what is laughingly referred to as "joint custody": primary residence with his mother, while I had him one evening a month (four hours), and one weekend every two months. Apparently, my visitation was so limited because I was working every minute of overtime I could get -- I had to pay rent ($150), utilities ($50), groceries ($40, cause I had to scrimp somewhere), support ($74 a week), commuting ($40), etc, all on $9.50 an hour. That's $365 coming out of $380 per week, before taxes. I also had to provide full medical, dental, and life insurance coverage through my benefits, which further ate into the take-home pay.

The first time I swung by to pick him up for the evening, good old Jimmy told me my wife and our son had "moved", and he didn't know where they were. I knew where her other brother lived, and called a friend on that town's police department. Yup, sure enough, her car was in her brother's driveway. My lawyer managed to get an emergency hearing scheduled... for three weeks later.

At the emergency hearing, my cop buddy testified as to where my soon-to-be ex had "moved", the local cops testified as to Mom's behavior, and the cop where I worked testified about the restraining order business. The judge looked at Mom and my wife and -- finally -- did something in my favor: she told them that visitation was not optional, and if they continued to interfere with visitation, they could "spend the weekend playing leapfrog with the dykes at the women's prison."

I learned a few things during the actual divorce proceedings too:

  • I had the "right" to pay child support for the next 16 years, but if my ex spent the money on clothing for herself, trips for herself, or even crack, I had no say in the matter.
  • If she became a prostitute, or otherwise unfit as a parent, primary custody would bounce to her mother; the CT courts officially felt the "best interest of the child" was always with a female.
  • Despite visitation not being optional, her only obligation was to make our son available to me at her front door. If she moved to Hawaii, she just had to have him at the door; it was up to me to get there... at my own expense, of course.
  • If I got a pay raise, she could petition for an increase in child support; conversely, if I lost my job, I could not petition for a reduction or suspension. If I took a subsequent job at lower pay, I could not petition for a reduction. The only direction the support could go was up.
  • [Edited to add a point I missed] The husband is presumed to be father, which makes sense, but if a blood test specifically excludes the husband, the husband is still presumed to be the father... and hence, responsible for paying support.

To reiterate what I said at the top of this piece, my ex-wife did none of these things.

BUT SHE COULD HAVE... and I would have had no recourse whatsoever.

In fact, she has done an excellent job raising our son. She is also now estranged from her mother, having realized that Mom almost got her locked up.

The divorce laws -- as they existed in Connecticut at that time -- were quite medieval: the state assumed "as a matter of common knowledge" that a woman could not fend for herself under any circumstances, that the husband/father was always inherently at fault, that a male could never be as good a caregiver as a female, and that "the best interests of the child" required bowing to every demand of the mother (or more correctly, her lawyer), no matter how outrageous.

I recently spoke to a lawyer specializing in "fathers' rights" in Connecticut; he told me the main difference now was that if my ex were incarcerated for a drug-related felony, I could petition for primary custody. Not that I would be granted custody, mind you, merely that I could petition. The lawyer said he had not heard of a father being awarded custody, other than at the mother's request.

So, yes, Corpus Juris is right, custody is an ugly, ugly battle. But it generally isn't the father taking advantage of the mother, but the other way around.

Either way, though, the divorce and custody laws have to be revisited and brought into the 21st century. Service members, regardless of gender, should not be screwed over by unscupulous lawyers (and they should be severely sanctioned if they try it).

And fathers should receive "equal protection" under the law.