By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It was all he could do to keep from going crazy, a little nuts, when he thought about how much he missed his kids. He claims he never anticipated the War of the Roses his ex-wife would wage--with his words twisted, his actions demonized, his own children turned bitterly against him. He considered himself one of the good guys, a loving father of three whose greatest crime was marrying badly.
Admittedly, he had suffered some financial setbacks and had grown distant from his wife and kids, tinkering late into the night on his latest software invention. But it was nothing like she said: that she felt like a single parent, that he loved his computers more than his kids, that he never lifted a finger to care for them. And to say it in front of the children--to disparage him time and again until they began to question his love for them--that had to stop.
Therapy seemed like a viable option, a safe place for the couple to air their grievances. But once Doug Watkins, at the time an employee of Boeing Co. in Denton County, started to open up, he couldn't hold back: He didn't love her, he said; she was ruining his relationship with the kids; her mean-spiritedness felt like "the black cloak of death that sucked the goodness right out of him."
Nowhere does the cliché "there are two sides to every story" ring truer than in custody disputes. Regrettably, however, Kandee Watkins, Doug Watkins' ex-wife, has failed to respond to several phone calls and has refused a written interview request. What follows is Doug's version of events, as well as those incidents that could be substantiated from other interviews and police and court records.
The way Doug tells it, once he revealed his true feelings in therapy, Kandee wanted him gone. A few weeks after they separated, she took their three kids and left without a word, he says, stripping the house bare. Four days later, he learned she had moved to College Station and was living with her parents. When he went there to see them, his in-laws filed a criminal trespass warning against him.
With each side blaming the other for the breakup, divorce seemed inevitable. Kandee filed in Denton County in November 1999, just a week after she left town. Visitation was seldom easy, often hostile and sometimes nonexistent. Despite a bitter divorce trial in June 2000, which included testimony that Doug had been sexually inappropriate around his own children, though no one had seen fit to initiate a Child Protective Services investigation, the judge granted Doug joint custody of his daughter, Jana, then 11, and his son, Jeffrey, age 10. Justin, their oldest, was not his biological child, though the boy never knew it until the separation. "We should have told him a long time ago," Doug says. "He only found out after he wanted to live with me, and his mother told him I wasn't his real father."
Doug, now 35, thought the divorce would calm things down, but it seemed as though Kandee, 34, was just getting started. Not only had the judge granted him extended visitation, he also required Kandee to bring the kids to Denton for each visit. In the 18 months since his separation, Doug counted 35 out of 51 times when she didn't show. Her reasons were many: The kids were sick or refused to go, the car broke down--and where the hell was his child support, anyway? (Denton County child support records show that Doug was current on his payments as of April 5, though in the past he'd occasionally fall behind a month and then quickly catch up.) He didn't see his children for months at a time; phone calls from them were filled with anger, the kids berating him for being so mean to their mother. Only when they were out of her presence, Doug says, did they begin to show him any affection, as if to do so in front of Mom would be an unpardonable betrayal of her love.
Doug filed two motions against Kandee for contempt of the court's decree concerning visitation. He also sought help from Texas Fathers for Equal Rights in Dallas, a controversial fathers' rights advocacy organization that has made denial of child access to the noncustodial parent the clarion call of its movement. Doug Clark, the group's executive director, encouraged Doug to pursue criminal charges against Kandee, insisting she had interfered with his custody. Despite reporting her alleged interference to the police at least 20 times in both Denton and Brazos (Bryan-College Station) counties, neither district attorney would take the case.
For at least six years, fathers' rights groups around the state have lobbied for legislation that would leave no doubt in the minds of prosecutors that interference with court-ordered visitation is a crime. The issue, however, has become so mired in gender politics--fathers' groups on one side, women's groups on the other--that legislation is still pending in the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee, which often seems like ground zero in the battle of the sexes. To pass the legislation, fathers' groups need the support of state Representative Toby Goodman, the Arlington Republicanwho both chairs and strong-arms the committee.