In this chapter I recount “the summer from hell” (2002) including my first unhappy experiences in Wisconsin Family Court. I do not know whether other states do better (or worse) than Wisconsin, so I can only tell my story as clearly as possible.
4. The Summer from Hell
David Weiss, December 8, 2010 (Day 10 of the fast)
I find that I procrastinate starting these blogs now. The story must be told. But I dread venturing again into this narrative of powerlessness. It is hard—no, it is impossible—not to relive the feelings I recount. I am mucking about in shit, and trying to do so with poignant eloquence, which means I need to linger over wording when every impulse is to run away as quickly as possible. Thus far I have narrated the most terrifying chapters of my story. From here on, things get rather banal.
But I mean “banal” precisely in the way that Hannah Arendt did in characterizing the Nazi bureaucracy as demonstrating the “banality of evil.” Earlier this fall, after my most recent courtroom experience, I put it this way: This is the nature of structural evil: it destroys lives without malice. Therefore, it is at once morally innocent and purely evil. It is bureaucracy become psychopathic.
That has been my experience in Wisconsin Family Court.
My crimes have been multiple. I have been guilty of holding out foolish hope for reason to enter the room. Of waiting too long for some measure of civility. Of having too little money to buy myself a “place at the table” early enough. Of delaying past what turned out to be prudent before seeking aid from the court. And then of thinking that Family Court had any interest in offering aid at all.
2002 was the summer I effectively lost my rights as a joint custody parent … and I have not yet regained them. No court decision has ever confirmed this, but the practice of the court, from June 2002 though November 2010 has been to ignore, minimize, dismiss any claim I have to an equal (or even a recognized) voice in shaping the time I have with my daughter.
In 2002, three years after the divorce and one year into a new marriage, I was preparing to blend households with my wife, Margaret, up in Minnesota. After a courtship of more than a year and a long-distance marriage over the past year, our families (my son and daughter; her three daughters) were well acquainted. Despite the requisite territorial anxiety that comes with blending households—especially involving four teenagers—there was overall real eagerness for the move among all our kids.
I’d provided my ex with two-months advance notice of the move dates and my intent that our daughter be present and participate in this important rite of passage for our new family. But as the move approached (and perhaps driven by envy-anger that this move would now make my daughter fully part of a blended family household) my ex simply balked at everything.
Ultimately she refused to allow me to pick up my daughter at the appointed time a day before the move. I drove 3 hours to Wisconsin, only to find the house deserted—intentionally to avoid any pick-up. Thankfully, I had asked a dear friend to ride along, so I drove home without my daughter, devastated, but not alone. In the days around the move my ex refused to allow me even to speak to my daughter by phone, except for one conversation in which I managed to tell her that I loved her, but that I would not be able to pick her up to join us in the move because her mother didn’t think it was a good idea. She wailed and asked, “Why? Why?” through her tears until her mother hung up the line. Although not physical, the decision to exclude my daughter from the move is probably among the greatest acts of violence her mother has committed against her.
That summer, because time was not on my side, it became her weapon of choice. All summer. I saw my daughter five times over those three months. At each good-bye, neither she nor I knew when we would see each other again. My ex never agreed to any placement time with me without a specified end date, so every time she said good-bye, she knew—to the hour—when the next “hello” would come. But at my end, every good-bye was shrouded in uncertainty and anxiety.
I hired an attorney three weeks before the move. That’s way too little time to make an effective legal response, and I need to take responsibility for holding out hope too long. But my attorney waited another eighteen days before even filing a motion, effectively silencing the very claim I had hired him to make.
I was clear with him from the beginning that I had left an abusive marriage three years earlier, and that I had been struggling ever since to have the minimal placement that the stipulation provided me as a joint custody parent. I emphasized the extent to which the dynamic of control and abuse in our marriage had now transferred itself to the placement arena. And I specifically warned him that my ex would do whatever possible to delay or subvert any resolution. I might as well have been speaking to the wall.
I should be more gracious. He had 25+ years experience in family law. He came highly recommended. I paid him over $2500 in legal fees. But he was utterly useless to me at best, and dismissive toward me at worst. Whether he could not fathom a husband as the victim of violence, or simply chose to hear everything I said with undue skepticism, I don’t know. But he represented me in ways that allowed my ex to frustrate my placement time all summer. He never took my concerns, perspectives, or insights seriously. He pursued a strategy all summer without ever consulting me—or even informing me of it. He repeatedly left me out the loop as he negotiated for my time with my daughter. I hired an attorney thinking it was the only (and regrettable) way I could be empowered in the situation, but the truth was that because even my own attorney wouldn’t listen to me, I had less power than ever.
I would have gladly replaced him, but from June 10 – June 30 it seemed like every day mattered as the move approached, and all I could do was hope that this attorney was doing everything he could on my behalf. By the time that June 30, and the move, arrived without any agreement, the rest of the summer was whizzing by and to start over with a new attorney would have been to forfeit any hope for justice that summer. I didn’t so much “choose” to stick with him as I felt I had no other choices available.
As the summer unfolded it became clear that there was no joint custody here. Every day I had with my daughter was negotiated by two attorneys. Of the four placements that happened after attorneys got involved, not one was for the dates I proposed; not one was “mutually agreed upon”; each one was dictated to the date and hour by my ex. She claimed all the power, and the system allowed her to have it.
I watched as the lie of joint placement was revealed. It meant absolutely nothing. Not to my wife. Not to my attorney. Ultimately not even to the court. I could not understand how it could take so long—sixty-three days—to get a hearing on an expedited (time-dated!) matter like summer placement. I learned much later (I believe after the hearing had happened) that the real reason for the long delay was not that there were no openings in court, but that my attorney—without consulting me—had passed up multiple openings on other judge’s calendars because he wanted my case heard only by one particular judge. Why? Because the one judge he wanted to hear my case was the only one in family court with a reputation for being misogynist! His exact words.
Never mind that my entire summer had evaporated while he waited for a misogynist judge to have time to hear my case. Never mind that I would have said immediately, “I’m not looking for misogyny, I’m looking for justice!” I chose to do one of my candidacy exams in graduate school on the insights of feminist theology because I’m persuaded that the experiences, voices, and wisdom of women have been unjustly silenced in our world. As a feminist man I was deeply committed to extricating myself from the “privileges of patriarchy,” and in this matter I did not need—or want—misogyny on my side. I only needed justice.
On August 13, 2002, the judge heard my case. Two days later his order was finalized. He refused to rule on anything of substance—except to say that it was clear that I had lost placement time over the summer, but that there was not sufficient time left in August to compensate me for it, and to confirm a set of dates for the last two weeks of August and for several months into the fall. Stunningly, he took no position on my ex’s irrational argument that the onset of kindergarten was intended to reduce my summer placement time. He gave me permission to seek to compensatory days for the ones I lost in summer 2002, but made no provision to mandate that I receive such time; I would need to fight for it in a separate court battle if I wanted it. And he passed us on to Family Court Counseling Services, to let them sort everything else out.
All told, despite a 1999 stipulation that clearly provided me with 34 days of placement time each summer, from June 1 to August 31—and its three year-old promise of increased summer placement as our daughter grew older—three years later and my ex had successfully trimmed my placement for summer 2002 back to 30 days. And made it a nightmare to secure every one of those days, for both me and my daughter.
The first time we spoke after the move my daughter’s plaintive question, recorded in my journal for July 3, 2002, was, “Daddy, do you know yet when you’ll be able to come pick me up?” Imagine her sense of confusion at being caught in this limbo at age 6. I could only tell her, “No, sweetheart, I don’t know yet, but I’m working to make it as soon as possible.” A week later we finally saw each other, but now thoroughly caught up in the damning uncertainty of a parent-child relationship hijacked by a court system, my daughter’s anxiety was palpable. I wrote this poem on July 11, 2002. (Charlotte was a favorite stuffed companion of hers.)
Tonight you ran
from the door
giddy with glee,
a giggle bright
on your face
and Charlotte tight
in your arms.
But when we hugged
your grip was fierce
as though the ache
of these days,
of our mutual absence
has etched fear
on your soul
as well as mine.
This chapter is less about my ex’s continued attempts at control than about the system’s impotence to stop these attempts during this summer … an impotence for which my own tardiness is partly to blame. But not solely.
For a second time I encountered an attorney who simply could not hear the way that a legacy of domestic violence has the power to distort post-divorce relationships. In fact, as the summer drew on, and it felt increasingly like my daughter was indeed being held hostage by my ex, my attorney chided me for my growing “hysteria.” I do not know what ‘training’ attorneys get in this area of abusive relationships, but the inability of my attorney to sit up and listen when I alerted him to this dynamic cost me dearly that summer.
Beyond this, I experienced the extent to which this attorney, at least, was not really interested in listening to me or including me in his strategy. Despite my intelligence and insight—and despite this being my case and my daughter—I was almost entirely excluded from any communication about the why of the steps being taken. Some of this happened with my knowledge; some of it happened despite my persistent questions. Altogether it served to insure that I was less empowered than ever once I had hired someone to empower me.
Finally, I also discovered the extent to which the “justice” system is really about playing the game. All of the jockeying for the “right” judge served only to insure that I never got justice.
Again, while this is my story, every parent and every child deserves better.
* * *
This entry is the fourth written during my 21-day fast for justice in family court. Next I recount my continuing experiences in Wisconsin Family Court. You can learn more about the fast, including ways to support me, at https://tothetune.wordpress.com/hungry.