By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Holly's Colorado attorney, Richard Kennedy, says that the problem is really Ted--"I am aware of his activism," he says--and not his client, whom he suggests has never denied Ted visitation. Ted has filed one motion for contempt, which he later dropped during all the jurisdictional volleyball, he says, and has complained bitterly to the Texas courts about the obstacles he has encountered in exercising visitation. Ted now sees his son for 42 days in the summer and for several brief visits during the year.
But even if his personal problems resolve themselves, that won't stop him from pursuing his fathers' rights agenda. What Hulick insists on is gender parity. If a judge can award a custodial mom attorneys' fees when she prevails on a motion to enforce child support, then why not a noncustodial dad when he sues for visitation compliance? If a deadbeat dad can lose his driver's license for not paying child support, why not take away the driver's license of a custodial parent who interferes with visitation? If Dad can be put in jail for not paying child support, why not Mom for denying access?
But child support is easy to measure--either the money's been paid or it hasn't. With visitation the facts get fuzzy. What if Mom is running late or the car breaks down or the kids want to spend the night at a friend's house instead? What if Mom is withholding visitation until Dad gets current on child support? What if the kids are terrified of Dad, and Mom would rather risk jail than put them in harm's way?
"Visitation problems are difficult enough to enforce civilly," Judge Dee Miller says. "But they will be 10 times more difficult to enforce criminally, where a case must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt." Miller admits that only on "rare occasions" will she put a custodial parent in jail for denying visitation. It's more likely that she will send the parties to mediation, hoping they can settle their differences out of court. But in the meantime, months of denied access can take their toll on the parent-child relationship, and the aggrieved party may feel compromised by the outcome. Perhaps what is needed is a way to fast-track these high-conflict cases, something less punitive that won't give an alienating parent the added ammunition of saying, "Now he's trying to put me in jail!"
Because of its high divorce rate, Arizona's Maricopa County (Phoenix) has grappled with this issue and come up with a novel approach called a "family court advisory program." In a case of chronic conflict, the court appoints an attorney or mental health professional to operate as a quasi-judge, monitoring problems between the parties as they occur rather than months later.
"Because of joint legal custody, each parent has a vote, and there is a greater chance of stalemating on kids' issues," says Dr. Brian Yee, a Phoenix psychologist and family court adviser. "What is often needed is a tiebreaker, someone who can help resolve a dispute with a phone call." Most often the parties abide by the adviser's recommendation, but if they don't, they can appeal to the family court judge.
The beauty of the program, which Yee says is still a work in progress, is the speed with which it operates, nipping slights and affronts before they become all-out war. There are still those cases, however, in which the relationships have become so poisoned, the parties so wronged, that nothing short of a full-court, he-said, she-said swearing match has any hope of resolving the dispute.
On April 12, 2000, Doug Watkins finally got his day in court--sort of.
Brazos County District Judge J.D. Langley had scheduled the contempt hearing for 3:30 p.m., but an earlier case ran longer than expected, and the judge rescheduled the case for May 7. It was just as well. Outside the courtroom, Kandee's attorney presented Doug's attorney with what would later be referred to as a "smoking gun." It was a copy of a handwritten note, allegedly signed by Doug and Kandee and dated July 27, 2000, seven weeks after their divorce. It changed some of the terms of the visitation schedule set out in their original divorce decree.
"Due to financial hardship from divorce...Rodger Douglas Watkins agrees to come to Bryan, pick up children for visits and return them at scheduled time until situation changes."
If Doug had agreed to pick up his kids from Bryan, then why the Friday-night ritual, why the police reports, why the motion for contempt? "Every ounce of Doug's conduct is inconsistent with his undertaking this agreement," says his attorney, Channa Borman. "Besides, it didn't matter where Doug tried to visit the kids, his ex-wife refused to give them to him in Bryan as well as Denton."
Borman candidly admits that the alleged side agreement "is the worst aspect of the case, because it creates the idea that Doug is the bad guy. It makes him look like he was trying to set her up."
Doug claims the letter is a forgery and a bad one at that. The document, an apparent copy, is entirely handwritten except for the signature lines, which are typed. He says he has never seen the letter before, and the signature blocks could have been cut out of an existing document then pasted onto an original and photocopied.