The Calm before the Storm

In this chapter I recount the events of March-September 2006.

7. The Calm before the Storm
David Weiss, December 13, 2010 (Day 15 of the fast)

All school year long, but especially as spring begins to hint at another summer, my daughter continues her regular requests, “Isn’t there some way I can have more time with you?” She even says she wishes she could trade her primary homes—going to school in Minnesota and splitting her summer between her two households.

Driven by a blend of anger and frustration, love and hope—fueled as well by her tears and her persistent pleas, I asked for the moon. In March I filed a motion seeking four things: (1) her attendance at the Young Authors Conference; (2) to increase her summer time with me from half the summer to one-half-plus-eight days—from 50/50 to about a 60/40 split; (3) to change her school year placement to Minnesota—in which case I said the 60/40 summer split would favor Wisconsin; (4) to change her custody status to sole custody with me.

It was not a very realistic set of requests—except to a father who had experienced repeated unreasonable interference with his custody rights over the years. I reasoned, if my ex could not be trusted to be share custody with me, then it should be awarded solely to me. And that if my daughter truly wanted to have her school years in Minnesota, she deserved to have that opportunity. An attorney would’ve pressed me to make a more modest request. But, by the irony of judicial bureaucracy, my motion was stamped on my daughter’s 10th birthday. What father would not seek the moon for his own child? A hearing was scheduled for late May. Because the “misogynist” judge from August 2002 had since retired, the case was passed forward to the judge who had replaced him.

In April I worked to prepare myself. I found a young family law attorney who practiced in Wisconsin about a thirty-minute drive from the Twin Cities. I hired her to tutor me in how to represent myself at the hearing. We reviewed the data and my arguments together. She gave me a crash course in legal protocol. I began to sense the constraints of legalese that produce at best the thinnest form of justice and at worst allow monstrous injustice to masquerade under a false name. But with my motion I had put my ante into the game, purchased a peasant’s place at the gambling table. And had bet the moon.

That month the court appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL) to be my daughter’s legal voice (in Wisconsin the GAL is a licensed attorney charged with representing a minor’s best interests). Three names were proposed. I recognized all of them because I had found ways to ask about well-respected GAL’s in the Wisconsin county where the hearing would be held. I agreed to any of the three persons proposed. None of them could take the case because the hearing was only a month away. So another person was appointed GAL, someone that no one I had inquired of knew anything about. No wonder. Most GAL’s are family law attorneys by trade. This man was a social security disability lawyer who did a little GAL work “on the side.” It was not his area of expertise, interest, or passion as I soon came to realize.

At my attorney-tutor’s suggestion I gave him the names of several family, friends, and pastors to attest to the goodness of our home life here in Minnesota. He never called a single person. He interviewed my ex and my daughter in person, but declined my request to drive down for an in-person interview, saying that a 20-30 minute phone conversation would suffice. He would make a recommendation bearing on the next four years of my daughter’s life without ever meeting me in person—or speaking to anyone besides me about her life in Minnesota.

I told him about the patterns of abuse that lingered into our placement conflicts. I told him about my ex’s efforts (reported to me by my daughter) to intimidate her into silence. I told him he would hear very different input from our daughter depending on which parent had driven her to his office and was waiting just outside the door. I said he had no idea of how pervasively controlling my ex could be, with her intimidation reaching right through closed doors to stifle my daughter’s words. And I told him about the therapist’s inappropriate treatment of my daughter for fifteen months without my knowledge or consent. He listened with polite indifference to everything I said, thanked me for my input, and then ignored every alarm I tried to sound.

The only thing “accomplished” in our conversation was that I agreed to take my requests for sole custody and trading school year placement off the table for the May hearing and focus solely on the Young Authors Conference (YAC) and summer placement. This left me with two very modest reasonable requests. I added to these the hope for a clarified and strengthened “conflict resolution” provision that my ex couldn’t so easily ignore as she had the one in our 2003 stipulation. And that, ideally, because my daughter growing relationships with her siblings and had made a few friends at church, it would be nice to see my school year placement increased from 15 to 18 times during the school year. Despite my discontent with the GAL’s desire to treat this as merely as “territorial spat” (his phrase), I went into the May hearing feeling confident.

My parents drove up from Indiana, ready to testify on my behalf. My pastor was available by phone. Three members of my church drove four hours to be present as witness to the goodness of our home.

When Margaret and I arrived the GAL was waiting for us, hoping to broker a settlement before the hearing. He presented a proposal drafted by my ex’s attorney. It allowed my daughter to attend the YAC and gave us four extra days of summer placement—half of my request. In this respect it matched the GAL’s recommendation.

It also added in language that the GAL would be assigned to draft a school year calendar that would “minimize” my daughter’s transitions between households. I saw red. I objected that such language would be exploited to decrease time. He said, “don’t pay any attention to the wording, it doesn’t bind me to do anything at all.” We went back and forth. I was not pleased with the language. It had been crafted by her attorney, and it felt like a Trojan horse. He promised repeatedly that he would “not take a single day” of placement time away from me and my daughter. And he warned me that I had no idea who my ex’s attorney was, that I did not want to go into court against her—that I would be wisest to settle on this and let him do his job over the summer. I agreed to settle.

It felt like a hollow victory. I got some of what I wanted: YAC and extra summer time. Not as much extra summer, but I got extra nonetheless. I got language that made the GAL a “default” mediator, but also language that basically said for the next four years nothing was going to change. School year placement remained the big unknown. I would never know if I settled too soon. I felt pressured into the deal, and even if it was a good deal, the pressure didn’t feel right. I felt like the GAL himself was intimidated by my ex’s attorney, and his fear was a bit contagious. The summer, while spent in another round of fun activities, had the uncertainty of the fall’s schedule hanging over it. That summer was indeed “the calm before the storm.”

Going into the summer I again stressed to the GAL that it would be good for me to bring my daughter to him to hear her wishes for school year placement. That he would hear different things said if I was the parent she had “to face” when leaving his office. He decided that summer that he didn’t need to hear anything at all from the child he represented. He crafted a school year calendar for four years without a word of input from her.

He released his proposal in August. It didn’t include the 18 placements I had hoped for. It didn’t even preserve the 15 placements I’d had each of the past four school years. Each year I lost 2-4 days of placement time during the school year. Not much. But it virtually erased the extra four days I had just gained over the summer. Neither my daughter nor I were trying to shift a couple of days from school year to the summer. We were seeking more time. And he had given his word, emphatic and clear—“not a single day” would be taken away during the school year.

With the GAL’s recommendation filed with the court, but not yet finalized, I felt I had to object: it almost entirely undid any actual increase in time. My ex objected that it was far too generous. She indeed wanted to exploit that word “minimize” for everything it connoted, which in her mind meant she was entitled to propose fewer weekends and fewer days. Her proposal was for 10 school year placements, trimming 10 days off my previous school year time with my daughter—and her summer proposal removed the 4 extra days each summer! Altogether her proposal asked to reduce my time with my daughter by two weeks, to trim back by more than 15% the precious little time we had together—the time she knew her daughter wanted increased. With her proposal, the writing on the wall was clear for all to see. She was out for blood. And the calm before the storm was giving way to the storm itself.

A hearing was scheduled for October 31, 2006. It was a festive day for many families. Not so much for me. By nightfall it would be “Beggars’ Night,” and I would be reduced to a beggar.

Reflections …

There have been moments in my life when I have acted with arrogance, but this spring and summer are not among them. My actions were framed by too little money and too much hope. To this day, I believe I had all the ingredients for a winning case. Not just YAC, but all eight days of summer placement, and, at a minimum, a preservation of all my school year time. What I didn’t have was the money to hire an attorney. And the foolishness to believe I could persevere and win without one.

Despite knowing that the child psychologist who treated my daughter had done so without my consent, she was the only health professional he consulted about my daughter’s best interests. The therapist who had pin-pointed her “behavior issues” as related to anxiety about “making another trip to see dad,” but had never found it worthwhile to ask dad about it or to include me in any “treatment.” Had the system been interested in fairness or justice, had it wanted to really understand either the dynamics driving the parental conflict or the desires in my daughter’s heart, the GAL had the power to do so. He had plenty of resources he could draw on. What he lacked was the interest to do so. The child at the center of my heart was just a little money on the side to him. And she would remain that for the next four years. (I, on the other hand, would become a thorn in his side, though even that would never get him to actually advocate for my daughter.)

* * *

This entry is the seventh written during my 21-day fast for justice in family court. Next I recount my day in Wisconsin Family Court, the day that defined the next four years of my life. You can learn more about the fast, including ways to support me, at https://tothetune.wordpress.com/hungry.

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