July 25, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Chances are that you know someone going through a divorce, or who has never come to terms with that disastrous stage in their lives. If so, today’s story might fit in the “clip and save” box, taken out at the proper time, handed to that friend for a quick read. It began with an e-mail sent from “Becky” in Kelowna, British Columbia.
“I have quite a family law legal dilemma and need some objective advice I used to read your column religiously, every week, when we lived in Selma, and now really need some honest direction,” she added.
I’ve learned over the years of both practicing law and writing this column, there are clients — and a few readers — who aren’t looking for “objective, honest advice,” but, who expect me to tell them what they want to hear. It’s something I’ve never done. A lawyer has a duty to tell the truth and to not validate nor justify a client’s destructive behavior. During a lengthy phone call with Becky, I would learn that if the road to self destruction were NASCAR, she would qualify for the grand prize.
Becky is a poster child of how unresolved anger combined with tossing common sense out the window plays right into the hand of a manipulative former spouse. She wrote seeking a sympathetic ear and hoping for advice which would lift her out of the abyss she had created. Advice she would receive. Sympathy I reserve for those people who deserve it.
Her story began “about five years ago when with court permission,” Becky and her two children moved from the lush agricultural San Joaquin Valley to Canada’s equivalent, the Okanagan Valley in south central British Columbia.
“I was in a horrible marriage with a physically abusive addict and had no choice but file for divorce. My Fresno attorney got me custody of our two children and child support. My ex was given supervised summer visitation rights, which for more than four years he never exercised nor did he make arrangements for them to visit him in California. He never phoned, sent no birthday, Christmas cards or presents. As you would expect, he also has never paid a cent of child support in all these years,” she added.
Becky re-married soon after returning to Canada and today has three children with her Canadian husband, from 20 months to 4 years of age.
Let’s fast forward just two years after the divorce. Becky is living in Canada with her new husband, their 2-year-old child, and the two children from her first marriage. As there has been a complete lack of contact with dad in California — and no support of any kind — this allows Becky and her husband the chance of removing that guy from their lives once and for all. Here’s how:
A California or Canadian court would easily have found the refusal to act as a father — for at least a year — amounted to abandonment of the children. Parental rights would have been terminated, and resulted in Becky’s husband being able to adopt.
That would have taken place had my reader only behaved in a rational manner and consulted an attorney. However, she did nothing. Nothing at all, allowing the clock to tick away to the year 2008, when her former husband “subsequently achieved sobriety and took me back to court for visitation.”
“In early 2008 he was granted summer visits with phone calls twice a week, a webcam visit one day per week, also one day a week visit if we were to travel to California. Christmas 2008 we visited friends in Fresno and our 15-year-old son spent a day with his father. Our 13-year -old daughter would not see him, and she has refused to speak with him on the phone.
“I did not put up the webcam, feeling this is an invasion of my privacy, and my daughter still refuses to speak with her father. I am not going to order her to do so.”
In March of 2009 Becky “received court papers charging me with contempt of court for not putting up the webcam and for not requiring my daughter to speak with her father. I asked for a telephone appearance which was denied. With all of my kids, I can’t make the trip to Fresno, and the court put out a bench warrant for my arrest for not showing up at the last hearing.”
Acting as her own lawyer, my reader “filed papers in the British Columbia court asking for a change of venue since we all live here. That was denied and I just don’t understand why. The court clerks won’t give me any answers and the family law facilitator never returns my calls.”
“Can I get this warrant lifted? What should I do?” she asked.
I determined that my reader had the financial ability to retain a lawyer, but chose to represent herself. There is an old saying, “Only fools represent themselves,” proven so correct in this case.
“While a court would not require you to stand over your 15-year-old and force him to talk with his father, they would indeed find you in contempt of the court’s order for allowing a 13-year-old daughter to basically tell her father where to go,” I told her. “You had a legal obligation of putting her on the phone with dad — if she said nothing, at least you could say that you tried, and showed your daughter respect for the law. But you clearly had no intention of obeying the court’s order,” I told her.
“The only time you challenged jurisdiction — feeling that the case should be under control of a Canadian court — was after you were in violation of court orders. It isn’t credible, but your actions have invited the potential of the children’s father asking for full custody of both kids. Since the Fresno court has continuing jurisdiction over this case, such an order could be made.”
Becky, it is time you cut out this nonsense and retain a lawyer in California. You need to apologize to the court, to the children’s father, and most of all, to your kids, for it is they who you have failed,” I concluded.
I waited on the line, hearing only silence, until on came an automated voice from Telus, the phone provider in British Columbia. “If you would like to make a call, please hang up and try again.”
I did not.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.