February 10, 2007 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
In Law school, third year students are cautioned about the dangers of representing friends or family. “If they have a weak case, or are clearly in the wrong, it will be difficult for you to tell them the truth, and if you do take the case and lose, don’t expect to ever be paid!” was the parting advice of one of my teachers at Loyola University School of Law.
But he added, “All of that said, for those of you who have gone into this profession because of a deep desire to help others, then you will indeed be there, as a lawyer, for your friends, mom or dad, brother or sister, trying to help even when you know better.”
I knew better when one Sunday, not long ago, Charlie called me. I’ve known him since high school, through two disastrous marriages, into his third at present. Charlie is a Social Sciences teacher, a good teacher, loved by his students, liked by his colleagues, and yet is one of the weakest people I have ever known. The son of a successful and somewhat domineering father, Charlie grew up saying yes when he should have been saying no.
He said yes to the demands of his first wife — at age 21 when his friends advised against marriage to the considerably older, manipulative, completely dishonest woman with a fiery temper. He said yes a few years later to her unreasonable demands during their divorce, accepting thousands of dollars in debt he did not owe, losing a successful, part-time business, just to avoid a fight.
Enjoying the role of the rescuer, Charlie kept on bailing her out years later, until, at age 40, he met his second wife, one of his students and half his age. She was a product of poverty, alcoholism, welfare, and insecurity, but for Charlie, “It was such a high taking her to a supermarket and telling her that she could buy anything she wanted,” he told me years into their marriage. He needed to be needed and deeply loved their two beautiful children, a boy just like him, and a daughter — a very strong daughter — just like his young wife.
But age matters, and suddenly, when he was 50 and she was 30, “I realized that I married an old man,” she told me, adding, “And he never loved me!” It was untrue and an excuse to leave what everyone thought was a happy family. It was a horrible divorce, and once again, Charlie caved in on everything. While he felt better able to care for the children, and they wanted to stay with him, he left them with their mom.
And then he met his third wife, physically a lovely woman who just happens to be in serious need of marriage to a U.S. citizen. She was almost 20 years younger, from a land with a dramatically different culture and did not like the idea, at age 40, playing the role of stepmother.
And then came that phone call, one Sunday night. It was from Charlie. His son, age 11, informed him there was no food in the house and that mom was frequently drunk. Charlie asked for my help.
An hour later we met at my office, Charlie, his son, and new wife. Talking into a microphone, the little boy–so much like his father, frail and weak in character– tearfully said that he wanted to live with his dad, and that his sister had threatened to kill him. Charlie had been aware for years that mom had a drinking problem and that his daughter frequently beat up his son, but had done nothing. But now, he promised to do everything possible so that father and son would live together.
Strangely, during our two hours interview, even though asked to sit at my conference table, to lend her presence as comfort for her step-son and husband, the new wife was distant, remaining in the waiting room, with a look on her face that broadcast a clear message: I am not involved. Don’t count on me to be mother. I did not get into this marriage with the idea of becoming a step mother to anyone’s kids.
Custody change takes time
Changing custody rarely happens overnight, and the road to winning full custody of a child takes time and money, both of which they had. For a moment, when I heard him say that he would do everything possible so that the two of them would live together, I thought that, finally, my friend had discovered inner courage.
There is no greater duty owed by a parent than the protection of your flesh and blood. A father owes that to his son. Charlie owed that to his boy. The lawyer I referred him to — a well respected Family Law Specialist — explained the lengthy process and agreed that the case was strong.
While it is fairly simple to obtain temporary custody of a child under these circumstances-with evidence of obvious neglect-what the children say, and how the parents act during the first hearing in Family Court will determine if custody remains with, in this case, Charlie, or if Billy would be returned to his mother pending a more formal hearing, assisted by counsel for the child.
It is unusual for a judge to speak with an 11 year old child, but it can and did happen in this case. When asked, “Why are we in court today?” even though instructed to tell the truth, the real story of why he wanted to live with his dad, the frightened little boy-so much like his weak father — answered, “Because my dad wants me to live with him.” It was the worst possible answer, leading the judge to feel he had been coached.
Custody was returned to his alcoholic mother – temporarily – pending a further hearing. And then something predictable happened, something that I warned of, and Charlie’s attorney warned of. Kids want to remain where they are. “Never let an 11 year old child tell you where he or she is going to live,” we cautioned.
After spending a weekend with Mom, Billy called dad and said, “I want to give her another chance. I want to stay with her.” When this comment was relayed to Charlie’s wife, this was all she needed to hear, and phoned me.
“Well, as we haven’t won this case, and it is costing money, and Billy wants to stay with his mother, we have agreed to let him decide,” she told me. “That’s easier than being a step-mother, isn’t it?” I replied. Charlie repeated the same justification for abandoning his son to a clearly impaired mom. “We will let Billy decide. It’s what he wants.”
“But you can’t let an 11 year old boy decide!” I yelled. “You sat there in my office and swore to protect him, promised to do everything possible to protect him. He is your flesh and blood – this is your son! How dare you abandon him like this! Where is your courage! You are doing this to please your wife, and just think, what kind of a woman asks a father to abandon his son?” “I am ashamed of you.” I said.
Charlie’s reply? “You should come over here and apologize to my wife. We will all give each other a big hug, and things will return to normal.”
“Apologize to your wife? You’ve got this all wrong. It is you who should apologize to everyone you turned to for help. Most of all, to your son, for letting him down. You sacrificed your son for what your new wife wanted. That’s a pretty shabby commentary on her morality as well,” I said, angrily.
We haven’t spoken since that day, almost one year ago. Every time I drive by his school, I hear my law professor’s warning.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.