Less than a stranger

She said it was abuse. He said it was manipulation. By the time a Denton court got through with this messy custody battle, a good mother would lose her kids forever.

Katherine Andrews wasn't certain what she heard or what it meant.
At the front of the Denton courtroom where Andrews had spent the previous three weeks, the judge pronounced the verdict in legal code: "Question No. 1 is answered 'Yes.' Question No. 3 is answered 'Yes.' Question No 4..."

Andrews couldn't focus on the consequences buried in those words--or wouldn't. "I tapped my lawyer, asking, 'What does this mean?' He just stood there. He looked shocked," the 40-year-old former flight attendant recalls. "I saw several of the jurors were crying and some friends of mine in the courtroom were crying, and I thought, 'This can't be.'

"When it hit me, I was so stunned, I couldn't cry. I remember my lawyer saying something like, 'I couldn't see how this could ever happen.'"

The jury's decision in the child custody suit, handed down on September 10, 1993, indeed was stunning.

After sorting through the murky evidence, jurors concluded that Katherine Andrews had coached her two young kids into making false sexual abuse allegations against her ex-husband.

Then--in a radical move--they decided her actions were so damaging to the kids that they terminated Andrews' rights as a parent--cut her off, dropped her dead.

The decision barred her from seeing Adam, then 10, and Katie, then 8, until they became adults.

In an instant, she went from being their mother to being less than a stranger.

At the trial, there was no suggestion that Andrews had engaged in criminal behavior or harmed her children in any way, outside of several counselors' opinions that the ordeal of being made to tell tales about their father had caused the kids emotional harm. In fact, witness after witness brought by Andrews--and even some of those testifying for her husband, a pilot and captain for Southwest Airlines--said she was a nurturing mother, someone who loved her kids dearly and in turn was loved by them.

Her ex-husband's lawyer did present broad, circumstantial evidence that the children's stories may have been coached. But while several experts said they believed the kids were lying, others, including a psychologist on the faculty at Southern Methodist University, told jurors they thought the kids were telling the truth about the abuse.

The law and jurors' attitudes are typically so protective of parental bonds that there are cases where parents have killed a spouse or severely neglected their children and still were allowed to retain parental rights. The Andrews verdict ran so much against the grain that it seized the attention of legal and child advocates nationwide. To them, it was the starkest example to date of a backlash against parents who raise sexual abuse allegations in the course of custody fights, and proof that the controversial theory of "parental alienation syndrome"--which critics label "junk science"--has gained currency in the courtroom. The disorder supposedly affects children who have been "brainwashed" by one parent into developing an irrational hatred of the other parent.

There is a more immediate and troubling side to the Katherine Andrews story as well, one going to the heart of trust in the courts.

The scent of old-fashioned courthouse politics hangs so close to the case that the verdict comes close to flunking the smell test. Out-of-court relationships between some of the parties seemed to seize hold of the case from the start, when a visiting judge from Fort Worth who'd made some essential early rulings told Andrews' lawyer he thought the kids were lying. This was before he'd heard any testimony to support that conclusion.

Then Curtis Loveless, a politically influential Denton lawyer who was named in the children's stories of sex parties at the ex-husband's house, gave a campaign contribution to the kids' court-appointed attorney on the very day the trial began, records show.

The children's ad litem, Jake Collier, ended up arguing to the jury that his clients were lying and that he wouldn't take issue with jurors if Andrews were banished from their lives. As their advocate, he should have been championing their interests, which all the experts in the case defined as keeping the children's mother in their lives.

Loveless and Dallas attorney Kathy Kinser, the ex-husband's lawyer in the custody trial, came up with an additional $1,000 in contributions for Jake Collier over the next several months. They were among Collier's biggest financial backers in his failed and somewhat embarrassing bid that year to get elected to a state court bench in Denton.

Those connections and clear evidence of several others may well come back to haunt the case, which is far from over.

After three and a half years, state appeals courts have overturned the jury's verdict and ordered a new trial, raising the possibility that Andrews will see her kids again, perhaps soon. The Texas Supreme Court decided in late February to let stand a lower court ruling overturning the verdict. It found there was insufficient evidence to show that terminating Katherine Andrews' rights was in "the best interest of the children."

By Texas law, custody battles are supposed to turn on what is best for the kids. But far different motives seem to have played a role in this case, as a spiteful ex-spouse, a local political heavyweight, and a high-priced law firm teamed up to convince 10 of 12 Denton jurors that Katherine Andrews, who has never received as much as a traffic ticket, was a serious danger to her kids.

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