I Didn’t Use an Attorney in My First Child Custody Hearing and It Has Cost Me Everything

This post is one in a series of how I wound up having virtually no access to my son despite the fact that I am a good dad, have a good job, have no criminal record and have no alcohol offenses. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on attorneys fees and was hit with a $15,000 judgment just because I fought for my right to see my son on holidays and summer break and spring break. I’ve nearly spent myself into bankruptcy and can no longer afford to pay money into this broken family courts system. And though it is embarrassing to write this in such a public forum, I love my son and I’m certain this is happening to thousands of other single fathers and mothers across the country. If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. It’s time to shed a light on this craziness that is tearing families apart.

Family-LawIt’s Spring Break here for most of the school district’s in Texas, and for the umpteenth time, I will not have any access to my 8-year-old son during the break due to the money my ex has thrown at the Travis County family courts system.

Anyway, how did I get into such a mess? In July 2014, I’d finally had enough of the ex big-footing my time with the kiddo. I finally tired of depending on her mood being the determinant of whether or not I got to see my son or not: if we were getting along, she’d let me see him; if we were arguing, she would not let me see him.

I’d had enough, but the way I initially went about trying to get more access to my son was a mistake that will probably haunt me the rest of my life: I did not hire an attorney.

I figured since women can just walk right into the attorney general’s office to collect child support from dead-beat dads, I could walk right into a courtroom and get expanded standard possession of my son, especially when the Texas Legislature has presumed that expanded standard possession is in a child’s best interest for non-custodial parents.

And so I paid about $300 to file a SAPCR (Suit Affecting Parent Child Relationship), Googled everything I could about what to expect in my case, and showed up at my September 4, 2014, hearing as a pro se litigant. I thought I was ready.

But boy was I wrong.

We get to court at 8:30 a.m. Since we are near last on the court docket, we (the ex-, her attorney, and myself) wait in the hallways outside of the courtroom until we are called by a judge. Little do I know that it wouldn’t be until 3 p.m. until a judge is ready to hear my case.

In the meantime, the ex’s attorney starts trying to negotiate with me. (The judge had told us before we should try to settle the case if we could, so I stupidly did just that.) So me and the ex’s attorney are in the first floor hallway outside of the cafe at the Travis County courthouse. They came at me with so many demands that I found myself on defense all day long. Through her attorney, the ex was saying she wanted to have a say in whether or not I could introduce the kiddo to a significant other. Saying she wanted the right to be with the kiddo every Thanksgiving and every Christmas. Saying she wanted me to abide by a food list when I have the kiddo because of his peanut and tree nut allergy.

I kept arguing with the ex’s attorney about what I wanted. But he told me the ex had experts lined up to testify against me for what she wanted. She was gonna say that I drank too much (though I’ve never had a DWI or alcohol-related offense); She had doctors lined up to say that I was unable to care for our son because he had peanut allergies; and she had people that were going to testify that I was verbally abusive to her (On multiple occasions the ex would show up where I was and take the kiddo from me and I would curse her). At this point, I got scared — I hadn’t prepared for this kind of fight to have proper access to my kiddo. Before this day, I thought a judge would look at me, see that I don’t have a criminal record, see that I have a job and had paid my ex- more than $35,000 over the years in voluntary child support before this hearing, and see that I deserve expanded standard visitation rights.

And it never occurred to me that I could just stop negotiating with the ex’s attorney and just go before the judge and let him make a ruling. The later it got, I just kept backing myself into this mental corner of, “ok, we’ve come this far, it’ll be my fault if I back out now.” So the day goes on and on and I just started getting mentally tired and losing focus. And this attorney with his veiled threats and fancy words just kept wearing on me. I’d balk at some of the ex’s demands, saying, “I know my rights,” and her attorney would calmly reply something like, “… well, we can always roll the dice and let a judge handle this and you never know how a judge is going to rule.”

You ever see those movies when someone is questioned in a police station for a crime they did not commit? The detectives keep asking them the same questions in different ways over and over and over until finally, the person admits to something they didn’t do. They got tired and they figured that if they’d just say what the cops wanted to hear, they could go home and clear everything up later. That’s how I felt that day.

Then – and this is where things went downhill – the ex, who had been on the other side of the courthouse, comes over to me and starts talking to me, begging me to let her have the kiddo on holidays because she couldn’t be without him; She is crying these big tears. And by now, it’s 7 hours after we’d got to the courthouse, and I was just tired and not thinking straight and feeling guilty – guilty that i would take the kiddo away from his mom. I stopped thinking about myself and my kiddo’s rights to his dad, to me. I was just in a fog and I wanted to go home.  I felt like the bad guy all of a sudden, that there must be something wrong with me that I wouldn’t negotiate. And she kept saying, “we can work things out, we can work things out.”

Her attorney had scribbled “to be worked out amongst the parties” next to several of the bullet points in the deal, including holiday possession, and so I figured we would come back a later day and work that part of it out. Her attorney also crossed out “Temporary Orders” and wrote in “Final Orders” — I had no idea what that meant at the time, but I do now: Had it stayed at a temporary orders hearing, I could have come back a month or two later and changed things. When the ex’s attorney changed the orders to “Final Orders” it basically sealed my fate. It was a simple, yet clever thing her attorney did and had I had an attorney of my own at that point, it would never have happened.

I wound up signing what they call a Rule 11 agreement that basically made me my son’s glorified baby-sitter:

  • I only get overnights every other weekend (not 1st, 3rd, and 5th weekends). I have to pick him up from the ex’s house at 9 a.m. Saturdays and return him on 5 p.m. Sundays.
  • My visits do not include holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Spring Break. My “extended” summer break is four days. (I didn’t realize I was giving this away during the negotiations.)
  • The ex used the kiddo’s peanut allergy to make it so that anytime I feed him food, it has to be from a list she approves of. And in the 18 or so months since this order went down, she has made it so that I can’t take my son to any restaurants although she can. If I’m too tired to cook I cant just run out and by the kiddo a quick hamburger or slice of pizza. I am forced by this stupid order to cook him food on a list the ex provides. I also am not allowed to take the kiddo to eat at the house of any of my relatives. To this day, my son has never eaten the cooking of his maternal grandmother. (When I “agreed” to this, I thought both the ex and I had to abide by the same food list. I didn’t realize this list only pertained to me.)
  • Even though we are both joint managing conservators (JMCs), the ex gets to make all the rules about the kiddo’s education and medical treatment.
  • Even though the kiddo is as healthy as any other kiddo his age, I am forced to carry a back-pack around with me when I have the kiddo. This backpack, according to the order, must always contain, epipen, rescue asthma inhaler and spacer, as well as, wait for it… baby wipes, sunscreen, and a place mat for eating at the restaurants that the ex won’t let me take the kiddo to.
  • I am only allowed to travel with the kiddo by car. No trains. No busses. No airplanes. She has a flight lined up with our kiddo to go to Washington, D.C., in a few weeks. If I wanted to go to D.C. with the kiddo, I’d have to drive him.

After the great child-custody robbery was complete, we finally stood before a judge. He asked us a few questions, but never himself read the order. Then he signed it, and that was it. My fate was sealed. The judge never heard that I was a good father. Never heard that I love and care for my son. We could have agreed to send the kiddo to spend the every other weekend with Charles Manson and he (the judge) would have never known the difference.

Anyway, right after court was over, I mean like 30 minute later, I woke up from whatever fog I was in and realized that this was not a fair deal. I remember we both attended a ‘Meet the Teacher” night at the kiddo’s school that same evening and afterwards, I tried talking to the ex about redoing some things in the agreement, particularly holidays since the part of the order that had talked about holiday possession had been scratched out. But she wouldn’t talk to me. I sent her text messages and emails in the coming days and she never returned one. She knew she had herself a one-sided deal and didn’t even want to talk to me about it.

Over the next 18 months, I would spend thousands of dollars on two attorneys to try and get me out of this mess. And as you’ll see in future posts, neither attorney was successful in even getting me to a hearing where my story of being a good, caring father could be told in open court. The ex beat them away with monied family court professionals who’ve successfully made me out to be a monster before unwitting judges.

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