Access Denied

In the he-said, she-said world of child visitation disputes, dads like Doug Watkins say fathers have no rights

Also in May, the Watkins family submitted to a social study so the judge could make the most suitable custodial arrangements regarding the children. In her report, Dallas social worker Nancy Stark found that "Mrs. Watkins has played a significant role in the alienation of the children from their father, has interfered in visitation...and is punitive in what she wants as access between the children and their father in the future." Stark faults Doug for being selfish about his own needs and so insensitive to his children's that he might have damaged his relationship with them. But she reserved her harshest criticism for Kandee, whose views on visitation--let the children choose if they want to go or not--Stark described "as a deliberate attempt to sabotage the relationship between the children and their father."

In June, during the divorce trial, Justin Watkins testified against his stepdad, claiming that Doug and the neighbor woman had sex in front of Justin's two younger siblings, which Doug and the woman adamantly deny. Doug's attorney could have cross-examined Justin, brought out the fact that the divorce had turned his world upside down after he learned that Doug was not his biological father. But Doug figured Justin had been through enough; his attorney asked no further questions. If Denton Judge John Narsutis believed Justin's testimony, it certainly wasn't reflected in his ruling: Doug was granted joint custody of Jana and Jeffrey and awarded generous visitation privileges.

Of course, he claims he seldom got to exercise them. For each visit, the court ordered Kandee to transport the kids both to and from Doug's house in Denton, which was something she seemed reluctant to do. If she didn't show up on Fridays, Doug says, he would drive to Bryan on Saturdays. Too often she would tell him the kids were sick or they refused to go, or she would simply make herself unavailable. Father's Day came and went, most of the summer, the kid's birthdays, Thanksgiving--and all he got, he says, were the crumbs she would toss him. A shortened weekend, a lunch, a few minutes on the phone. More than 85 percent of the time, he says, he was frustrated in gaining access to his children.

Doug Watkins claims that his ex-wife has interfered with his visitation rights and alienated him from his children.
Doug Watkins claims that his ex-wife has interfered with his visitation rights and alienated him from his children.
During much of their 13-year-marriage, Doug Watkins (seated right) claims that his wife, Kandee (seated left), tried to put their kids in the middle of their arguments.
During much of their 13-year-marriage, Doug Watkins (seated right) claims that his wife, Kandee (seated left), tried to put their kids in the middle of their arguments.

"God knows what she was telling them," he says. "They had to be thinking I didn't want to see them."

In September 2000, he filed a motion to hold Kandee in contempt of court for denying him visitation. But the case was delayed and then transferred from Denton to Bowie County, where it was continued again. Doug did see his kids twice in December but only after his lawyer contacted her lawyer. And with Christmas coming, he grew desperate. He agreed in writing to share the transportation duties with her through the following March. According to the agreement, it was her responsibility to bring the kids to Denton over Christmas. The problem was, she never showed up. She claimed the kids were celebrating Christmas in Arkansas, then San Marcos, says Doug, though his sister says she saw them at a Wal-Mart in Bryan. He finally celebrated Christmas with his children in a Bryan hotel room, but not until February and only after Jana phoned him, wanting to know why they hadn't received their presents.

In January he learned from Fathers For Equal Rights that he might be able to press criminal charges against Kandee for interfering with his custodial rights. So now with each abortive visitation, Doug contacted the police in both Bryan and Denton. Bryan detective Leslie Melanac interviewed Kandee and determined, according to Doug's Dallas attorney, Michael Gray, that "none of the excuses the ex-wife gave for not taking the kids were legally valid, and they had solid cases against her." (Melanac declined to comment for this story.) But with the law unclear and so much discretion given to prosecutors, neither county's district attorney would present the case to a grand jury for possible criminal charges.

"While we do not have a set, absolute policy concerning filing interference with child custody," wrote Brazos District Attorney Bill Turner in a letter to Gray, "it is our experience that a pending civil contempt hearing generally resolves the custody matter more efficiently and effectively than filing criminal charges."

Left to pursue a civil contempt case, Doug turned introspective, breaking off his relationship with his neighbor, focusing mainly on building his new computer business and trying to see his kids. As therapy, he designed a Web site dedicated to his war of attrition with his ex-wife. To an anonymous Internet audience, he recounted his "visitation nightmare":

"People say--What did you do to her? Here is what I did. I tried to love my children...Yes This Is Nasty! But My Decree Must Be Enforceable!"

In some ways, Ted Hulick is lucky. Because his marriage broke up before his son was born, he never knew what it was like to live with him, and then, all of a sudden, not to do so. Because his ex-wife Holly refuses to speak to him, his 5-year-old has a phone in his room, and "We are finally beginning to communicate," Ted says. Because she moved from Texas to Indiana to Colorado and back to Indiana again, he is winning a protracted legal battle that has resulted in the Texas courts maintaining their jurisdiction over any future custody, visitation and child support disputes.

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