Access Denied

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

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."

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.
Ted Hulick has gone public with his private visitation problems, turning them into a legislative crusade for fathers denied access to their kids. He is pictured here with his second wife, Lisa, and their daughter.
Robert Allred
Ted Hulick has gone public with his private visitation problems, turning them into a legislative crusade for fathers denied access to their kids. He is pictured here with his second wife, Lisa, and their daughter.
Doug Clark, the executive director of the Texas Fathers for Equal Rights in Dallas, advocates on behalf of parents (mostly fathers) who are being denied their visitation rights.
Mark Graham
Doug Clark, the executive director of the Texas Fathers for Equal Rights in Dallas, advocates on behalf of parents (mostly fathers) who are being denied their visitation rights.
As president of the Texas Fathers Alliance, Dave Shelton lobbies the Legislature promoting the issue of fathers' rights. He is pictured here with his grandson.
Mark Graham
As president of the Texas Fathers Alliance, Dave Shelton lobbies the Legislature promoting the issue of fathers' rights. He is pictured here with his grandson.
If women's rights or fathers' rights groups hope to pass family law in Texas, they must receive the blessing of state Representative Toby Goodman, the powerful chairman of the house committee that deals with juvenile and family issues.
John Anderson
If women's rights or fathers' rights groups hope to pass family law in Texas, they must receive the blessing of state Representative Toby Goodman, the powerful chairman of the house committee that deals with juvenile and family issues.

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.

But in the he-said, she-said world of visitation disputes, where the truth is regularly embellished and perjury is often a matter of perception, placing a custodial parent (mostly mothers) in jail for denying the noncustodial parent (mostly fathers) visitation is something politicians, prosecutors and judges are all loath to do. Divorce is messy business: Feelings run high; there is plenty of blame to go around and never enough money. The paralyzing fear of losing a relationship with a child can bring out the worst flaws in a parent's character. Violence may erupt during a visitation, as it did so tragically last week, when John Battaglia, a Dallas accountant, allegedly murdered his two young daughters after he argued with his ex-wife on the telephone. Yet absent access, the relationship between parent and child can be irreparably damaged. Complicate this with a parent who is hell-bent on destroying an ex's relationship with his or her children, and the courts must intervene quickly. Only they don't.

Doug Watkins has never been accused of physically abusing his children in any way, though they have clearly become his obsession. To see them, he has driven thousands of miles and made so many phone calls to his ex-wife it must seem as though he is harassing her. A reserved man, he leads a colorless life, isolating himself out of fear that his behavior might be misinterpreted in court. Unlike those fathers who have turned their personal pain into a public crusade, he isn't interested in the issues surrounding gender politics or equal justice. He just wants to see his kids.


Although Ted Hulick's marriage ended after only a year, the bitterness his divorce engendered may last a lifetime. That he and his wife Holly didn't know each other well but got married anyway seemed a forgivable mistake. What was unforgivable, at least to Ted, was that only four months into their marriage, Holly became pregnant, consulted a divorce attorney and interviewed for a medical internship in Indianapolis instead of Fort Worth, where they lived. (Holly, through her lawyer, declined to comment for this story.)

It didn't help matters that Ted sued for custody of their son within weeks of his birth. Or that Holly agreed to give up all child support payments if Ted agreed to terminate his parental rights. The message he gleaned from Holly's offer scared the hell out of him: I value you so little as a father, I will let you buy your way out. "That told me all I needed to know about my chances at getting to see my son," he says. "That's when I got involved in Fathers for Equal Rights."

Since its inception in the early '70s, the fathers' rights movement has been cast by its natural enemy, the women's movement, as a paragon of political incorrectness, a financial obstacle to women claiming their rightful place in the workforce. To them, this pack of radical crusaders seems interested in only one thing: dodging child support payments. And if that meant feigning a fight for custody in order to gain some strategic advantage in child support negotiations, they were willing to stoop just that low.

Dave Shelton, former executive director of the Dallas branch of Texas Fathers for Equal Rights, believes this reputation is mostly undeserved. "The beginning of the father's movement was a response to the women's movement," Shelton says. "As moms started going to work in the '60s, dads were forced to start helping more with their children. And you know what? They liked it."

With divorce growing rampant by the late '70s, some men felt the courts were relegating them to the role of Uncle Dad, a visitor who takes his kids to McDonald's twice a month and forfeits his status as a parent. Those fathers who decided to fight for custody were confronted, at times, with a prejudice that presumed Mom was the best parent simply because she was Mom. "That's when our numbers started growing," Shelton says, "and the fathers' rights movement began to confront bias in the courthouse."

It didn't help their reputation when Shelton and his ilk protested regularly in front of the Dallas County Courthouse, calling family court judges "bigots and child killers." Or when they openly confronted an ACES (Association for Children for Enforcement of Support) candlelight vigil or called its Dallas leader, Linda Benson, "the High Priestess of the Meal-Ticket Mamas" because the organization supported an increase in child support in the '93 legislative session.

Texas Fathers for Equal Rights only became a viable political force after it went indoors and began to lobby judges and legislators, demonstrating with studies and testimonials rather than placards and name-calling. Armed with the latest research, they insisted that children of divorce were more likely to thrive when they had loving relationships with both parents. Fathers weren't just a biological imperative; they were necessary for the well-being of their kids.

"Fathers for Equal Rights felt they needed to hit us over the head with these facts, which gave them the appearance of having a militaristic attitude," recalls Dallas family court Judge Dee Miller. "When they began soft-pedaling, we became more responsive."

Worried that gender bias in the courtroom was now favoring men, the National Organization for Women (NOW) issued an "Action Alert on Fathers' Rights" to its state and local chapters in 1996. "These [fathers'] groups are fulfilling their objectives forming political alliances with conservative Republicans by working for the adoption of legislation such as the presumption of joint custody," NOW warned. "The success of these groups will be harmful to all women but especially harmful to battered women and children."

This "action alert" came too late in Texas, because the Legislature had already amended its joint custody statute in 1995, due in part to the efforts of the Texas Father's Alliance, a statewide political action committee headed by Dave Shelton. The change leveled the playing field for both parents, mandating that Texas family courts presume that joint legal custody was in the best interest of the child unless the facts showed otherwise.

Even though Ted and Holly agreed to settle their case and become joint custodians over their son, it was an unmanageable arrangement at best: First, Holly moved from Fort Worth to Indiana before their son was born, and second, "she hated my guts," he says, partly because he had sued her for custody. The belligerent letters he wrote her about his legal strategy--"you'll never get a dime out of me"--didn't exactly help the couple's chances of becoming successful co-parents. Although there were never any allegations that Ted had physically abused Holly, she would later contend that Ted was harassing her through the legal system as he began to immerse himself in family law.

Ted says if not for Texas Fathers for Equal Rights, he doesn't know how he would have survived the tumult of his divorce. It offered him a kind of legal group therapy: lessons in do-it-yourself divorces that at times have gotten the organization in trouble with the State Bar grievance committee.

Certainly there were men in the group who had soured on women completely, men who thought their ex-wives were living the good life with their new boyfriends on their child support payments, men who were willing to leverage their fatherhood to get those payments reduced. But many of these men, Ted claims, were just like him, finding visitation with their kids difficult, or worse, flat-out denied by their ex-wives. The few noncustodial moms who were part of the group also complained about the same visitation problems--problems that, according to the most reliable divorce studies, affect 20 to 25 percent of all noncustodial parents.

Ted's position was particularly precarious: Because his son was both an infant and living in Indiana, he had to rely on his ex-wife to see his son. In Indiana, she filed a protective order against Ted, claiming he was harassing her by phoning too often. ("I was just trying to schedule a visit," he insists.)

His frustration with the judicial system led to his activism, and after he moved to Houston in 1996, he became a legislative liaison for Texas Fathers for Equal Rights. His mentor was Shelton, and together with several other fathers' rights activists, they began to lobby the Legislature for the '97 session.

As always, the issue of visitation compliance was high on their agenda. They argued that the civil remedy of placing custodial parents (read: moms) in jail for contempt of court was ineffective: too costly (attorneys' fees could easily top $3,000), too slow (months of delays were routine), too unjust (moms were generally let off the hook with a stern warning).What noncustodial parents needed, they contended, was a criminal sanction to deter wayward custodians from this type of meddling. That it might be viewed as vengeful by their children and ultimately harm their relationship with Dad seemed of less concern.

Fathers' rights activists thought the Legislature had made it a crime to thwart visitation in 1993, when it amended the statute that made it a felony to interfere with child custody. But the statute was so vague that if prosecutors or the police didn't want to get involved in visitation disputes, they could hide behind its uncertainty.

Hulick and Shelton lobbied for a bill that would authorize the police to issue a traffic ticket for violations of visitation orders. "There is no arrest, just a ticket--a Class C misdemeanor," Hulick recalls, "which would at least make a record that a violation has occurred." Naïvely, he thought the bill would sail through the Legislature, but he didn't anticipate the fierce opposition the bill would encounter from domestic-violence and other women's groups.

"Individuals who have perpetrated family violence very often try to exercise control of their former victims through the visitation process," says public policy director Bree Buchanan of the Texas Council of Family Violence, which advocates on behalf of 68 women's shelters across the state. And what better way to perpetuate that control than with the additional threat of police involvement.

Hulick and Shelton were successful in getting two bills sponsored and passed: one that allowed judges to give aggrieved noncustodial parents makeup visitation, the other authorizing judges to extend standard Wednesday-night visitation from two hours to a full overnight stay. But state Senator Rodney Ellis, the Houston Democrat who sponsored the ticketing bill, let it die a slow death in his committee.

Undaunted, Hulick returned to the '99 Legislature with another ticketing bill, a dressed-down version of its earlier self, which authorized only a $50 fine for a visitation infraction. The bill passed the full Senate, but it needed the support of state Representative Toby Goodman, the powerful chairman of the house committee that considers family issues. Hulick approached Goodman's chief of staff Peg Henley, who Hulick says "has absolutely no sympathy for fathers' issues and is closely tied in with women's groups." Although Shelton had better luck meeting with Goodman, Hulick believed Henley was preventing him from lobbying her boss.

"To say that she screens people [prevents them from seeing Goodman] is an insult to Toby Goodman," Buchanan says. "Yes, we [domestic violence groups] can certainly talk to her about our concerns, but her only allegiance is to Chairman Goodman."

Although Goodman has supported some fathers' rights legislation, including joint custody, he bagged the ticketing bill and never let it out of his committee. That's why Hulick was shocked this session when Goodman sponsored legislation that would unequivocally make it a felony for a custodial parent to deprive the noncustodial parent of access to his or her child.

The problem was, Goodman didn't know exactly what he was sponsoring. "The bill came out of the Department of Public Safety, which wanted help with missing children who are kidnapped by their parents," Goodman explains. "But it went way too far." Goodman never intended it as fathers' rights legislation. "If we criminalize every technical violation of a visitation order, the number of cases would explode...I don't want DA's offices in the possession enforcement business."

That Hulick offered a much narrower version of the bill didn't matter. Once Goodman began to hear from prosecutors and domestic-violence groups, he left both bills pending in his committee, where they remain today. Again, Hulick underestimated the resistance. Armed with research that suggests that fathers who have joint custody or visitation are twice as likely to pay full or partial child support as those who have no relationship with their children, he thought they could mollify women's organizations. He was wrong.

"The real problem isn't fathers who can't see their children; it's fathers who won't see their children," says Linda Benson of the Dallas ACES. "True denial of visitation is really a minor problem. Fathers' groups blow it way out of proportion."


Doug Watkins' only savior was his divorce decree, which he followed as though it were divinely inspired. Every other Friday, during what he calls "ritual Fridays," Doug and his friends waited for his ex-wife to bring their children to Denton, in accordance with the court's order. He planned dinner, went grocery shopping and rented a weekend's worth of videos, knowing that 6 p.m. would come and go and she probably wouldn't show. His friends then signed affidavits, swearing to the non-event and giving him proof he could use in court.

"This piece of paper is the only thing that tells me I can see my kids," he says, holding up the decree. "If it's worthless, why have I spent so much time and energy getting someone to enforce it?"

He must have known that enforcement wouldn't be easy where his ex-wife was concerned. Throughout much of their 13-year marriage, he says, she put their three kids in the middle of their marital problems, and he claims she divided their loyalties by insisting Doug didn't love them the way she did.

After they separated in October 1999, Kandee packed up the kids and drove to Bryan in the only working car they owned. Doug needed the car for work and brought it back to Denton without Kandee's knowledge. "When Kandee found out, she went on a tirade," says Doug's sister Tonya Dixon. "She brought the kids [Jeffrey and Jana] over to my house and said to me, 'Tell my kids why their father loves his car more than he loves them--they want to know.'"

Doug claims that Kandee had the use of a second car at her parents' home. His kids, however, didn't see it that way: "Dear Dad, I love you. Thanks for stealing the car!!!" Jana wrote him. "You're are a bad boy." Her postscript included the line: "Mom is not telling me to say this." So did Justin's, who also wrote, "I am disgusted with you...if the car is more important than us, keep it."

Doug aggravated matters just two months after his separation when he began dating a divorced neighbor who was more Kandee's friend than his. In April 2000, after Doug and his kids went on an Easter egg hunt with the neighbor and her kids, Kandee stormed into his home, Doug claims, and hurried their crying children out the door. "I remember her telling Jana she would never see her daddy again," Doug says.

On May 19, Doug was entitled to a weekend visit, or so the temporary court orders stated. Parked outside his house, Kandee phoned the Denton County Sheriff's Department, telling a deputy who arrived at the scene that her kids were afraid to go inside. Doug says that just 20 minutes earlier, he had seen his children at a nearby 7-Eleven parking lot, and they seemed fine. But according to a police report, "Ms. Watkins stated her children had told her that Mr. Watkins and his girlfriend are always drunk, Mr. Watkins' girlfriend called Jana Watkins a cunt and a slut and calls Jeffrey Watkins a son of a bitch and a motherfucker." The deputy also reported that the children were crying, were frightened and "confirmed the allegations made by Ms. Watkins," which both the neighbor woman and Doug would later deny, but not before the deputy arrested Doug for some unpaid traffic tickets and put him in jail. There would be no court-ordered visitation that weekend.

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.

"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.

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.

It certainly doesn't help that Doug did sign an earlier "side agreement" when he wanted to get his kids over Christmas (though Kandee disregarded it, Doug says) or that his stepson Justin was willing to testify that he witnessed Doug signing this agreement. "I just don't put it past Justin to lie for the benefit of his mother," Borman says. "But if an agreement existed, why didn't Ms. Watkins mention it to Detective Melanac? That certainly would have shut down any police investigation."

Prior to the May hearing, Kandee's attorney Larry Catlin would comment by saying only, "We completely deny their allegations. We have a very solid defense."

Judge Langley heard that defense on May 7 but seemed uncertain about the authenticity of the side agreement, so he fashioned his own remedy: He ordered that each party share in transportation duties by changing the site of the visitation exchange to Waco; he insisted that Kandee get an answering machine to avoid any further miscommunication between the parties; "He refused to hold Kandee in contempt," Catlin now says. "But he forbid the parties from entering into any side agreements for 18 months."

"That eliminates the only defense she has," Doug contends. "The judge said that any deviation from the visitation schedule other than the kids going to the hospital would result in him taking action."

Although Kandee will spend no time behind bars, Doug feels he has accomplished a great deal. Between hearings, Judge Langley ordered that Doug receive two visitation weekends "in order to get the train back on track," he said.

On April 20, Doug drove to a Waco parking lot where the court arranged for him to pick up his children for his first visit. It had been nearly three months since he had seen them, and they seemed giddy as they left their mother's side. Jeffrey hugged him immediately, and Jana held his hand after she got inside his car. He says he could sense the distance that time and their mother had put between them. But he spent much of their visit doing the small things that might bring them closer: Doug would brush his daughter's hair, wrestle playfully with his son. He tried to avoid speaking about their mother or bringing up the past. And every so often, he would give them the kind of reassuring glance that let them know that somehow everything was going to be all right.

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