16 August 2010

Tarrant County custody case has been ensnarled in bitterness and fighting for 12 years

Note: Interesting reference to a "Rule 11" agreement in this story (though the author calls it a "Chapter 11 agreement").  My, that sounds familiar...

Star Telegram

Link to original story

Posted Monday, Aug. 16, 2010

By Melody McDonald

Except from a distance, Anna hasn't seen her firstborn son in more than six years.

The last time was in 2003, around Christmas, when she was a single mother addicted to prescription pills.

Anna's ex-husband, Todd, has custody of their son.

For more than a decade, Anna and Todd have been in and out of court, fighting over visitation, parental rights and, lately, whether Anna should be reintroduced to her son at all.

Experts say their dispute illustrates the extremes to which parents will go in cases involving children, with both sides spending tens of thousands of dollars on attorneys fees, court costs, social studies, counselors and drug tests.

Emotionally, the toll is even more straining.

"I just thought the whole thing was insane," said attorney Steven King, who represented Todd for 11 years before withdrawing from the case in January. "There were such strong personalities involved. It got to where I felt like nobody would listen, and I said, 'Forget it. I can't do it anymore.'"

Todd, 38, declined to comment for this article.

But Anna, 36, who has remarried and had another child, agreed to share her story, partly because she hopes her son will read it someday and realize that, while she made some mistakes, she never stopped loving him.

The Star-Telegram is not identifying the parents or the child to protect the identity of the boy, who is now 13.

"I'm not trying to take custody," Anna said. "I'm not trying to disturb this child's life. I just want to have some sort of relationship."

But it appears it could be too late.

Two years ago, Anna said, she haphazardly entered into a settlement agreement with Todd, saying she would stop the fight if their son has no interest in knowing her.

Recently, a court-appointed counselor informed the parties that the child does not want a relationship with his mother. In a hearing scheduled for this month, state District Judge Randy Catterton could sign a final order, bringing the case to a close.

Catterton declined to comment on the case because it is still pending but said most contested cases in his court are resolved in about a year.

"I've never seen a case that has taken this long to get resolved," the judge said. "And I have been doing judging and lawyering a very long time. It is just a very unique case."

According to district clerk records, nearly 13,000 family court cases are pending in Tarrant County -- 605 of which are more than 11 years old, although some cases were closed for years and later reopened. The oldest case still pending began in 1972.

The collapse

Anna and Todd met while attending Baylor University and married in December 1995 -- a union that Anna says was troubled from the start.

She said things became more complicated after she became pregnant. And in July 1998 -- 14 months after their son was born -- Anna left her husband, and he filed for divorce.

Over the next 12 years, Anna and Todd repeatedly found themselves in 231st District Court before Catterton or Associate Judge Lisa Beebe.

They fought over which days Todd should have the child; how and where to exchange the child; and whether Anna's parents should have access. At some point, Todd began recording their phone conversations and, according to court records, private investigators were hired to keep tabs on Anna.

From September 1998 until April 2000, records show, Todd had registered dozens of "violations" against Anna, including times she cussed at him or yelled in front of their child. Likewise, Anna documented all the times Todd returned their child late, and her parents routinely videotaped their exchanges of the child.

"It was a nightmare from the beginning," King said. "These things can become personality contests -- and this one was. ... Everything was a fight."

As the battle continued, Anna, then a teacher for the Irving school district, said she started to unravel, alternating between depression and anxiety.

"I think the private investigators were the last straw for me," Anna said. "I started feeling like a bad person because that is all I was hearing. It got to a point to where I had a mental breakdown."

In mid-2001, Anna said, she started experimenting with cocaine. She also became addicted to hydrocodone pills, which she had been prescribed after a partial tonsillectomy.

"I just wanted to escape how I was feeling and my life, basically," Anna said.

Eventually, she said, when she could no longer legally get the pills, she started forging prescriptions.

"That went on for a while, and I got away with it easily," she said. "I was a teacher, and I was very creative and very skilled."

But on March 7, 2002, Anna got caught trying to slip a prescription to a pharmacy in Waco.

Anna said she entered a treatment facility, later pleaded guilty to fraud and was sentenced to four years of deferred-adjudication probation.

But her troubles were far from over.

'I'm down and get kicked'

On May 11, 2002, the police were called after Anna and her parents got into a terrible fight at their Southlake home.

Anna asked Todd to come and get their son.

"She was adamant that I keep [the child] until she could get out of the ... residence," Todd would later say in a sworn affidavit.

Anna was committed to two psychiatric facilities, where she received medication for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression, according to court records. She was released May 20, 2002 -- the day her son turned 5.

As she left the hospital, Anna said, she was served with a temporary restraining order, filed by Todd, prohibiting her from contacting her son. Todd also wanted custody, citing the fight with her parents, whose home.  Anna would be returning to.

"I'm down and get kicked in the ribs," Anna said.

In a hearing a few days later, a judge named Todd the primary caregiver and ordered him to stop having Anna followed. He also allowed Anna to have supervised visits and talk on the telephone with her son.

Anna said the supervised visits often ended with her and her son in tears. Eventually, in October 2003, after Anna and a court-appointed supervisor got crosswise, she said, she decided to step away for a while.

"I stopped with the supervised visitation," she said. "I saw him one last time, when he was 6, right near Christmas. ... I thought it was going to be a temporary thing. I was trying to get my stuff together and get myself back on some sort of balance."

In the meantime, Anna's parents sought visitation rights -- fighting for two years before stopping litigation.

"It gets delayed and delayed, and the kid is growing up," said Anna's father, Chip, who estimates that he and his wife have spent more than $200,000 helping Anna fight for their grandson. "It is just terrible. ... This whole system is not for the child, but for the attorneys or the client who has the most money."

Meanwhile, Anna got therapy, remarried and, in December 2006, had another child, a boy.

Still, she said, she longed to see her firstborn.

"I never stopped loving him or wanting him, and I never will," she said. "He is still my child."

Battle renewed

In spring 2006, Anna turned to the courts in hopes of being reunited with her son.

"I didn't think I was going to get full custody back, but I thought I would have regular visitation," she said.

Todd filed a motion to terminate her rights and to seek child support, which had been suspended in May 2002.

"She had dropped off the face of the earth," King said. "We rocked along and Todd was hoping she would get better. Then she gets back in and hires this lawyer. ... And it just went on and on."

The judge ordered Todd to bring the child for a supervised visit with his mother so a social worker could observe their interaction. According to court documents, Todd wouldn't allow the meeting, prompting the judge to appoint psychologist Barry Norman to evaluate the child to determine the best course of action.

Norman reported that the child, then 10, didn't remember his mom and stated that he didn't want to see her, although he was curious about her.

"There are things I have heard about her," the child told Norman. "She may hurt me or take me away or try to convince me to live with her, and that would not be fair."

Norman recommended reintroduction therapy to gradually familiarize the child with his mom. He also suggested that Anna, with a history of emotional instability that has included substance abuse, be involved in a 12-step program of her choice, perhaps indefinitely.

On May 22, 2008, the judge ordered Anna to complete a 12-step program and the parties to undergo therapy with psychologist Marta Otero to reintroduce the child to his mother.

But, according to Otero's report, Todd canceled appointments and made excuses why he or his son couldn't attend. Over four months, Otero consulted with the child three times, noting that she should have seen him 10 to 12 times.

"During those three meetings, the child stated that he didn't want to know his mother and that he has a good life with his father," Otero stated in her report. In one session, the child said his dad told him that his mother "takes drugs all the time and is messed up."

Anna said her son's perception of her is heartbreaking.

"I didn't murder somebody," she said. "I'm not a crack addict on the street. That is the saddest thing. My kid has a completely distorted view of the world and of me."

Dr. Amy J.L. Baker -- a nationally recognized expert in parent-child relationships and parental alienation -- said parents in high-conflict cases often ask her whether they should continue the fight or just stop.

"Sometimes, when you keep using the legal system, it can backfire," Baker said. "On the other hand, if the other party gives up, then the other parent says to the child, 'See, she really doesn't care.' ... No matter what you do, it will be used against you."

In the child's hands

In October 2008, the parties were back in court, with each side accusing the other of not following the judge's orders.

Anna's lawyer accused Todd of interfering with reintroduction therapy. Todd's camp wanted proof that Anna had attended a 12-step program.

But sometime during the hearing, according to court records, both parties reached an agreement -- called a Chapter 11 -- that essentially put the case in the child's hands.

According to court documents, both sides agreed that if the child, after completing therapy with Otero, did not want to have a relationship with his mom, the case would be dismissed. Todd would not try to terminate Anna's rights; Anna would not pursue visitation.

Anna says now she didn't realize what she was signing.

"When I got home, I thought, 'It shouldn't be his choice. I know what his choice is going to be,'" she said.

But as it turned out, the case wouldn't turn on the child's word -- not that time.

Two months later, Otero discontinued sessions with Todd and the child, citing Todd's "lack of cooperation." Among other things, she noted that Todd was confrontational and unsupportive of her role.

Several months later, Todd filed a complaint against Otero with the Texas State Board of Examiners and Psychologists. Although complaints are confidential, an official with the board said Otero has a clean record, and her attorney, Michael Flynn, said she was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Otero declined to comment, but King, Todd's attorney at the time, said he disagreed with his client's actions against Otero.

"Just because you disagree with them, you don't go filing complaints on them," King said. "I don't know what all he accused her of, but I don't think it was appropriate."

Sam Boyd, Anna's longtime attorney, called Todd "quite a competitor."

"Until the system takes the time to pay attention to parties that don't obey court orders, there will be another occurrence like this," he said.

On July 22, 2009, the judge appointed a social worker, Edie Yentis, to resume therapy with the child and his parents.

But things once again became muddled.

On Aug. 19, 2009, Todd filed for bankruptcy, which temporarily delayed proceedings. Several months later, King withdrew from the case, and Todd hired attorney John M. Groce Jr., who filed a new round of motions. Groce didn't return calls seeking comment.

At the end of July, Yentis informed the parties that reunification would not work and that the child didn't want a relationship with his mother.

At this month's hearing, the judge could sign a final order outlining what rights, if any, Anna has now.

Anna said she will continue to pray that, one day, her son will try to find her.

"My child needs to know my name and how to locate me so, when he is 18, he can do so," she said. "I love him, and I would like him in my life. But I'm willing to wait until he is ready to do that."

Melody McDonald, 817-390-7386