Man asks Father's Aid of San Diego for help in custody fight

How the legal profession opposes joint custody

She and I had driven out to the lawyer's office in El Cajon to see if we couldn’t resolve our differences peacefully.
  • She and I had driven out to the lawyer's office in El Cajon to see if we couldn’t resolve our differences peacefully.
  • Image by Catherine Kanner

My wife and I had been living apart peacefully for three years before she decided to “make it legal.” And thus the long war began. We’d been married fourteen years, practically our entire adult lives, and although we were resigned to the marriage’s failure, talk of divorce had been a frightening idea. Specific issues, such as who would have custody of the two boys — seven-year-old Sean and five-year-old Richard — were too unsettling for me even to think about. Of course those aren’t my sons’ real names. Discussing in public the breakup of one’s family is difficult enough without having to ruin whatever privacy your own children have managed to keep for themselves. Back then they’d been living with their mother in Clairemont, and I would see them every two or three days, taking them places like Bob’s Big Boy or the Mission Beach plunge, sometimes along with their mother, while maintaining my own life in a one-bedroom house in Ocean Beach. Perhaps I didn’t ever think about the details of divorce because I knew — and feared — what my wife would do. But when I got word that she had decided to take action, I telephoned her one October night in 1977 to ask what she was planning to do. “My attorney told me not to discuss that end of it with you,” was her hesitant answer. Three days later I got the news officially from the attorney’s secretary. “Yes,” she informed me, “the form you’re to sign indicates she is asking for custody of both children.”

“I know how you feel about that,” my wife later explained. “But I believe this is what’s best for the children. You obviously didn’t care about them or you wouldn’t have moved out on us,” she said bitterly. I pleaded that she consider joint custody, but she was adamant. The next day, half blinded by anger and dread, I did the only thing I felt I could do. I went looking for an attorney.

Over the next five months prior to the divorce trial (known as the “interlocutory hearing” by the legal industry), my life became a long, muffled scream. Every attorney I spoke with confirmed the worst: as the father, and especially as a father who had moved out, I had absolutely no parental rights after divorce. My wife could legally take the children with her back East to live with her parents, as she had mentioned doing. My only recourse, the attorneys said, was to sue for child custody myself, which, they all agreed, was a waste of time. As for an injunction preventing my wife and children from leaving town, I was told no judge would order it if my wife did not agree.

It was true that during the last three years of my marriage I had been less than the model husband, having had affairs with other women, even as my wife was aware of them. While I feared her anger and felt guilty about the pain I caused her, I honestly believed my life was my own, and I wasn’t happy turning down another woman who wanted a part of me my wife never knew and never really wanted. We attempted various arrangements, but nothing seemed to work. First I asked her to have affairs of her own, but she wasn’t interested. We went to group therapy for a year, but that only solidified my resolve to have more affairs. My guilt about the whole thing finally led me to move away to begin my own life. Naturally she felt betrayed of all she had invested in building a family, and today, with my anger having been transformed into purpose and action, and with most of the fear having vanished, I can understand why she wanted to get even. She would say that vengeance had nothing to do with it, that she was only trying to protect the children. Beginning in the fall of 1977 and during the turbulent winter that followed, so was I.

By March of 1978, our divorce hearing had been set, and I had been working with an attorney who thought he could help. My plan was to get an injunction from the judge, added onto the divorce, which would prevent my wife from taking our sons out of the county. We appeared before Judge Francis Gallagher. My attorney knew how hard I’d prepared for this appearance, and to my chagrin I quickly discovered it was good that I had, too. If I’d left matters solely to my attorney, nothing would have been done. Family-law attorneys, I’ve learned, generally are unprepared to fight hard for all their clients; they each have far too many cases (about sixty at any given moment, my attorney estimated for himself) to get deeply involved in any one. They can spare just enough time to line up the legal dominoes, tap the first one, and hope everything falls according to plan. In my debut court appearance, I learned a great deal about how that plan works.

My wife’s attorney was the first to speak. I’d already formed an unfavorable opinion of this man, with his soft body and even softer voice. Six months earlier and weeks before that portentious phone call to my wife, she and I had driven out to his office in El Cajon to see if we couldn’t resolve our differences peacefully. It was a cordial meeting, and the issue of child custody didn’t come up, at least not to the point of serious discussion. We both cared enough about Sean and Richard that I believed any attorney would only naturally want to help us arrange for joint custody. As we walked into his office I felt proud of the fact that, unlike many angry couples we had heard of but had never known, we at least had the good sense not to run out and each get our own lawyer. The El Cajon attorney listened to our complaints, then said he’d try to work out something for us. Two weeks later he telephoned me to announce that he could not represent two opposing clients and that he was now representing Mrs. Corvus exclusively. Furthermore, he advised, I should find myself an attorney.

Six months later, in court for our divorce, my wife’s attorney was telling the judge that his client, the mother, should have full custody of the children, with “reasonable visitation’’ granted the father. Additionally, he declared that she should have the right to move back East with them to join her parents if she desired. My attorney seemed distracted, and I was getting panicky. I had prepared a list of hundreds of dated diary entries describing the activities I’d shared with my sons during our three and a half years of living apart. I intended the judge to hear every item if necessary, but my attorney seemed to have forgotten about the list. Finally I got his attention and reluctantly he asked the judge to let me testify, previewing him first about the list, the purpose of which was to show my full participation as a parent. Judge Gallagher looked pained. He obviously didn’t want to sit through an hour or more of this. “This is St. Patrick’s Day, so I’m going to give something to both parties,” he said flippantly. First he ordered that I pay $300 per month child support, despite the fact that I had been unemployed for three months and had interviewed twenty-five oceanographic and other technical firms without luck. The judge was not impressed by the fact that while I had been employed, I’d given my wife and children $1000 per month support money for the three years I’d been working and she hadn’t. That she was now employed and I wasn’t made no difference to the judge. “I suppose you’ll be working soon,” he told me. Then, to fulfill his proclaimed fairness doctrine, he granted the injunction against her moving away. I think my attorney was more surprised than I. For an instant I thought I had won.

“Just a minute,” my wife’s attorney said as he stood up. My wife had been whispering to him furiously. “There’s a matter about Mr. Corvus having female company at his house overnight on weekends during his children’s visitation. We don’t think it’s good for them, your honor.’’ I’d been seeing a woman for about a year and was considering living with her. My sons occasionally griped to their mother about the attention I gave my friend, knowing the manipulative effect such complaints might have and being jealous of my affections. What was she bringing this up for? I wondered. Amazingly, Judge Gallagher then ordered that I not be permitted to have “overnight female guests’’ in my house while my children were present. My attorney asked no questions and thanked him.

An hour later, walking through the downtown lunch crowds on the street, I began to fret about the consequences of Judge Gallagher’s edict. I had to give up seeing either my friend or my children. “Relax,” my attorney said as we crossed the street. ‘”Wait six months or so, then go back to court. Another judge might rule differently. Just don’t see her on weekends. Quit complaining. You got what you wanted, didn’t you? Your wife can’t take them back East. ” As to my child support, I still had several thousand dollars in my savings, so I could keep paying that for a while. My attorney thought it inconceivable that I should return to the courtroom that instant and personally ask the judge if he knew what he was doing, though that’s exactly what I wanted to do.

Thirty minutes later I peered through the window in the courtroom door. It was locked and the room was nearly empty. At the clerk’s desk a man sat eating a sandwich and looking over a stack of papers. I pounded on the door until he got up and let me in. “Yeah, I understand how you feel,” the clerk said, “but you have to understand that it’s standard practice in this county, especially with Judge Gallagher, to keep men from having women over when their kids are with them. It’s okay for the mother [to have male guests] because she’s considered to be the real parent. You can appeal the case, but that’ll take a couple of years. Meanwhile I’d advise you to regard the injunction seriously. If your kids complain, your wife could hit you with a contempt citation. You could go to jail.”

In that summer of 1978, several things began happening at once. Luckily I was able to make a deal with my ex-wife. I agreed to drop the restriction on her moving with the kids out of state if she would allow me to have them over when I was seeing my friend. It was a safe trade, I calculated, because I knew I could probably take her back to court to stop such a move should she try it. Besides, she wasn’t the type to vanish suddenly. Yet the deal didn’t diminish my anger with the humiliating notion, institutionalized by the courts, that I was an inferior parent. Many of my friends I found to be unsympathetic. “You shouldn’t be so angry,” a particularly close friend enjoined. “Concentrate on the quality of time you spend with your children. The amount of time isn’t that important.” Everywhere else I turned I found only frustration. One friend suggested I read Warren Farrell’s The Liberated Man, in which the author advised men like me to become more like women. The book even offered the reader an objective test of his androgyny. Points were awarded to men who cried in public and who spent time with their kids. By then I was crying almost every day, sometimes while waiting in line in stores. I was also seeing a psychologist, who told me “emotional retraining” takes time and urged that I not be so hard on myself.

Meanwhile my sons were spending most weekends with me, but their frequent presence as outsiders was difficult. They were growing up and they needed more than the small living room they shared while visiting. What’s more, they didn’t get along with each other. Sean seemed happiest as the oldest male in his mother’s house, and he resented Richard’s intrusion. Richard, in turn, began coming to see me by himself, which made the space problem manageable. By the summer of 1978 I was working full time at a government-sponsored CETA job, writing outdoor survival programs for San Diego schoolchildren. My salary was less than one-half what I’d earned for eight years as an oceanographer, but it was the best I could do. Richard came to live with me for a full month, and the money wasn’t enough to pay our food, rent, and his child-care expenses. I was taking money out of my savings to meet the bills, and concluded that it was unfair that I should also have to give money to Richard’s mother for his care. “Why should I be paying you while Richard is living with me this summer?’ ’ I asked my former wife one day during an impromptu meeting in an empty parking lot. “After all, I supported you during our three years of separation. Why can’t you help me out now?” She was furious that I would question the monthly allotment, and as I drove off she screamed, “I’ll never give you a dime!” Afterward I kept paying her $150 a month until my money ran out.

The next school year (1978-1979) Richard insisted on coming down to stay with me regularly. After school he would ride the bus from his school in Clairemont to my Kearny Mesa office, and sometimes help us with the office chores or do his homework. In February, 1979, I moved out of my little house and into a two-bedroom upstairs apartment not far away in Ocean Beach. Richard now had his own room. Sean was content in seeing me only on weekends and staying in his brother’s room. The rent doubled, but so did time with my sons, so I felt prosperous in the move. My anger and fear seemed to have vanished, but I see now that they were only put aside.

That summer I received a letter from my attorney. He had heard from my former wife’s lawyer, who was complaining that I hadn’t been paying my child support. By now I was spending far more on the children than she was, taking into account my rent versus her house payments, along with Richard’s clothes and added cost of driving him to school. Moreover, my savings were nearly gone. In hopes of avoiding more legal salvos, I located a psychologist who offered to work with me and my former wife to iron out our disagreements. In August of 1979 I wrote her suggesting this alternative, and though she refused to meet, at least I stopped receiving the threatening letters. Richard now had his room stocked with snakes and toads and stuffed toys. I tried putting the legalities out of my mind in order to concentrate on being a father.

After school started for Richard and he moved back with his mother, I was offered a temporary teaching job aboard a U.S. Navy ship, a job that would pay my bills and give me some savings as well. The ship, an aircraft carrier, steamed toward Iran immediately after the takeover of the embassy. Many of my students wanted to “bomb the Iranians back into the stone age,” as they were fond of putting it. Yet the ship kept its distance. Our country’s restraint and judgment made me feel more connected with the established system of justice. I realized that it was time I came to terms with the courts on the issue of custody and child support.

For much of 1979 I’d thought about having Richard come live with me full time but I feared what reaction his mother would have if I even mentioned the thought. In December, when I returned from overseas, the woman I’d been seeing for several years moved into our house with her ten-year-old daughter, who was Richard’s age. I returned to working at home as a free-lance writer and father.

Richard was now living with me full time but I was driving him to school and picking him up every day, a total of forty miles. His mother’s unwillingness to talk about some more permanent arrangement made the situation tense, and I found my resentment increasing. Christmas Eve Sean and Richard were over and the five of us celebrated. It was a happy time, though it turned out to be the last day of innocence. I’d agreed that both boys would return to their mother’s house later that night. The custom of my kids spending every Christmas with their mother was getting old, but to keep the ship sailing smoothly, I’d not objected. This night the ship finally capsized.

I called my former wife and asked if she couldn’t drive down to Ocean Beach and pick up our sons. We were having friends drop by and couldn’t she help out? She refused, and I blew up. Several weeks later, when the anger had peaked to an intolerable boil, I sat down and plotted the legal strategy that would occupy our lives for the next nine months.

In early 1980 I heard about a group of divorced fathers who met monthly to help each other in this situation. (The group has recently changed its name to Fathers’ Aid of San Diego.) At the meeting I learned that a new state law had been passed, one which helped fathers get joint custody of their children. I met an attorney whose name is not Jack but who had the reputation for using the new law successfully for fathers. At our first appointment I told Jack what I wanted.

After divorce, anyone can file for a new hearing on the issues of child custody or monetary support. These court hearings occupy most divorce judges’ and lawyers’ time. In our new hearing I wanted three items: First, I wanted joint custody of both children — the opportunity to live with Sean and Richard about half time. Second, I wanted the sale of our house. I was still half owner, and with my share I’d be better able to afford the cost of a rented apartment where my sons could live. Finally, should the judge not want to force sale of the house, I wanted at least to be paid child support by my former wife. My extra expenses for the kids, particularly Richard, were too much for my income of $600 per month. I needed help. Jack was skeptical. He thought “we” could get joint custody, and perhaps even sale of the house, but as to getting me child support, he was firm. “Look,” Jack said, “I’m not even going to ask the judge give you child support.” He feared our case wouldn’t be taken seriously, since “fathers simply don’t get child support. ’ ’ Jack also thought I might get into trouble for the “arrearages,” the unpaid amount of back child support, which by now was passing the $3500 mark. Jack urged that I spend a few hundred dollars making one or two monthly payments until the court date, just for show. I reluctantly agreed to make the $300-a-month payments because, after all, he was the expert. What was most important was that our motion for joint custody be granted. By March, 1980, nearly everything was ready. One last vulnerable position needed fortification.

I feared my former wife, once she learned of the impending suit, would so threaten my younger son that he would change his mind about wanting to live with me. Jack said we should consult a psychologist to make a recommendation to the judge as to my son’s present desires. The psychologist was well know locally. After a day’s thorough testing, I talked with him for about thirty minutes. My two sons also talked with him. His fee was $400. “Don’t worry,” Jack said. “He’s in our camp and he’ll say whatever we want him to say.” I was wary about such a confident arrangement and sure enough, the psychologist’s report warned that joint custody might not be best because of my anger. Later I confronted him in his office and said I didn’t understand. “If I weren't angry about not being able to help raise my own children, I’d be crazy,” I argued. The psychologist said I might be correct, but that anger was unhealthy for my sons. “Please, don’t let what I say discourage you,” the doctor said. “You should keep on fighting for your children. I tell you what. I’ll recommend that you have joint custody, provided you seek psychological counseling.” I carried the test results to my old psychologist to get his opinion. He was a man I’d trusted, but my attorney hadn’t wanted to use him. My old therapist acknowledged the validity of the test scores, and in his letter, he too recommended joint custody only on the condition I continue therapy. In neither letter were questions raised as to the psychological fitness of the children’s mother. Both reports assumed my anger made me conditionally unfit.

“Don’t worry,” my attorney said casually. “We can tear these up since it was our idea to make the report. ’ ’ So we never used them. I was praying that Richard wouldn’t change his mind about wanting to live with me once his mother was informed of our plans for court action. When Jack telephoned my former wife and notified her what we were intending to do, she called me to ask what was going on. I offered to try working it out between ourselves, but she again refused and drove off to get new legal help. Apparently her El Cajon lawyer wasn’t good enough, so she found an attorney who had made a name for himself.

The new attorney had a downturned mouth and large, angular ears, the kind of face Walt Disney might use for the arch-villain in a children’s comedy film. Hollywood probably would have named him Hugo. Every time I saw Hugo in the months to follow, I could imagine thousands of kids screaming in delight as he would poke his bushy eyebrows around some comer. The first time I saw him he had just turned the corner on the third floor of the county courthouse. Oddly enough, I was nearly paralyzed with fear. A friend had driven Richard and me to the courthouse, otherwise I don’t think I could have made it. Hugo came charging up to Jack and me like a hungry bulldog who had always been fed on time. He rattled off a list of items he had decided the judge should hear, not the least of which was my failure to pay child support. Now Hugo was threatening me with jail. Jack’s calm voice seemed to do little good, but what was worse than his apparent ineffectiveness was that I couldn’t overcome my insecurity. If what I was doing was really the right thing, why was I so afraid? I began doubting my true motives. Perhaps what my enemies were saying was true after all, that I was placing my selfish interests above any genuine concern for my children. Fortunately, before the judge could hear our case, a new California law made it mandatory that we be seen together by a trained court counselor. Her job was to see if she could encourage us to come to some agreement on our own. Now this was more like it! The attorneys had to wait outside while we finally got to try settling this ourselves.

The meeting with the court counselor saved the day. She was able to draft a joint-custody agreement and obtain my former wife’s signature as well as my own. At first my former wife resisted. “But he used to smoke marijuana in front of the children when he lived with us,” she complained. “I imagine that he still does.” The counselor rolled her eyes. “Who doesn’t smoke marijuana nowadays?” she retorted. Minutes later we emerged from the small room, agreement in hand. Without so much as a courtroom fight I had won the main prize! Our children would live with us according to a mutually agreeable schedule. Sean later told the counselor he wanted to stay primarily with his mother; Richard said he enjoyed living with us both. The other issues would have to be heard later that summer. Jack and Hugo would remain actively employed.

Between March and August of 1980 my life was unraveling. The relationship with my friend was beginning to sour. But even more draining was the legal war Hugo was waging and Jack barely defending. First Hugo summarily took the last of my savings, about $1000. Jack wasn’t concerned. “He used a false legal justification and we can prove it in court.” Did that mean I’d get my money back? “We may get it back after the court hearing, but we may not.” Jack added that it was quite possible the judge would hold me in contempt. “If you have any money left you might consider paying her a few dollars a month,” Jack advised. I said no. I couldn’t see giving way to such injustice. Already I paid more for raising my sons, and moreover, their mother earned fifty percent more than I did. Still, the worst part of the summer was the guilt I felt that I was doing something wrong, and my fear of the ultimate punishment: jail. In the mornings and afternoons when I’d take Richard to summer school in Balboa Park, I’d usually be the only father present. Maybe that really is how it should be, I often thought. If the law would jail me for wanting to be a full-time father, there must be a good reason. The mothers would hug their kids as they’d hop out of the cars, while Richard would avoid such contact for fear of being seen hugging a man. Why, I wondered day and night, if I’m doing the right thing, why can’t I feel good about it? Isn’t caring its own reward?

That summer I began getting more active in the fathers’ group. Some days I’d sit in court giving moral support to fellow fathers. Learning some of the courtroom shortcuts made things easier for me — places north of Date Street where you can park all day for free, the back entrance to the county courthouse at Front and C streets where you can catch an elevator straight to the third floor and the two courtrooms where such cases are heard, and how the cases are never called before 9:15 instead of the 8:45 time stamped on the notification papers. I saw dozens of cases involving men in situations similar to mine. Many were unemployed, some earned less than their former wives, and a few had joint custody of their children. All were ordered to pay child support. In many cases the men weren’t allowed to see their children as often as they desired. Yet as unfairly as the fathers were inevitably treated by the judges, always older men, none of the fathers ever stood up defiantly and said, “No, I won’t pay what I can’t afford. I’d rather be with my child.’’ They would stoop in the courtroom with that same look of guilt and fear that I felt. Their attorneys would describe their client’s case as if they were talking about a criminal. “Your honor, Mr. Jones hasn’t been able to make payments, but I’m sure that he’ll be successful in finding work soon. . . .’’

The spectacle made me furious. I tried writing articles on the subject, but anxiety always stopped me short. Besides, who wanted to hear about these courtroom travesties?

Finally, in August, after Hugo had exhausted his attack on my savings and sanity, our case was heard. Judge Alpha Montgomery, a sad-faced black man, ruled that (1) the house not be sold until Richard reached eighteen; that (2) my child support for each child be continued, albeit reduced to half the amount, for a new total of $150 per month; and that (3) the contempt charge be thrown out since I had been unable to pay. The judge took note of the fact that I was making a living as a temporary typist, earning a mere fraction of my wife’s salary. While Jack hadn’t dared ask that I be given child support, he met the judge’s decision with adequate outrage. “Your honor, I’ll remind you that Mrs. Corvus has liquid assets of $13,000. Mr. Corvus has none. And they have joint custody of the children.”

The judge scowled. “I consider his income of $600 per month net adequate to pay the ordered amount,” he said.

“But that’s $600 gross monthly income,” my attorney said.

“Gross, then,” the judge said, looking away. His decision was final. Two weeks later I received my attorney’s bill for $4000.

To be fair to Jack, his initial paperwork may have encouraged my ex-wife to agree before the court counselor to joint custody, an agreement that had worked successfully for the past fourteen months. Beyond that, nothing Jack did was for my betterment; I would have done as well representing myself.

By September of 1980, Richard had transferred to the school in my neighborhood and was living with me full time. My friend and her daughter had moved away (the relationship had deteriorated seriously and we were both relieved to end it), and I began channeling my frustration into helping other fathers, many of whom were far worse off than I — they simply weren’t allowed to see their children. Most important in helping my anger was the blossoming of the relationship with my son. Richard and I began seeing a counselor at the Child Guidance Clinic. Our counselor was a genius for helping two people resolve conflicts. To help me deal with the rage I occasionally dumped on Richard, she taught me a technique called the “thirty-second scold.” She apparently taught my son other techniques for dealing with me. These, of course, I never learned of directly, but only in the suddenly improved manner Richard would react to my impatience — with understanding and humor rather than with whining hurt. Sometime in the winter he spontaneously began giving me hugs.

No affair of the heart ever developed so quickly as the bond between me and my son — and to some extent with both sons. I stopped feeling like an outsider. I watched Richard making progress in his emotional development, as I was also. For the first time ever Richard was making good grades and good friends in school. I was beginning to earn more money writing technical documents. My savings were gone, but at least I had lost my fear of poverty. Still, the child support debts were increasing. I hadn’t paid anything since the joint-custody agreement, thereby defying the court order. I tried to ignore it but I was bothered by the thought that, according to the law, I now owed my former wife more than $5000. If I could only figure out some means of showing the judges the truth, surely they would change their minds, I reasoned. I would later discover for myself the fallacy of believing that family-law courts are always fair.

While my family life with Richard was improving, I began to study the economics of the anti-father society. I talked with the director of the county ’s Department of Revenue and Recovery, the collection agency for many parents paying child support. Of some 33,000 such accounts, only about two dozen involved payments from mothers to single fathers, according to the agency head. Ten percent of all single parents in America are fathers, yet a recent federal report on child support and alimony mentions only single mothers as being possible recipients of child support. Why was the system so loaded against men? I wondered.

I began to understand when I saw how vehemently the legal profession opposed the idea of joint custody. If both parents are presumed equally competent, as one newly proposed bill would have it, what reason would parents have to go to court? More than likely, mothers not given the enormous benefits now awarded them by most judges would happily avoid the dehumanizing courtroom atmosphere, and use the newly available divorce mediation centers instead. Attorneys would lose millions in legal fees now spent fostering long courtroom wars. Once I began to understand the economics, I viewed the anti-father judgments less personally. Naturally the courts had to favor the gender with less money, or else the system wouldn’t work. And if such a system hurt me and other men, well, don’t all businesses systemize in order to maximize their efficiency? I began to see that my personal choices for fighting lay in not accepting the system. I could even go to jail if I had to, and I would not feel guilty afterward.

Once I recognized that I could face jail, the remaining anger and fear lifted like morning fog. At a local meeting of the National Organization of Women I got goosebumps watching a film of Susan B. Anthony telling off a judge. She’d just been convicted without jury trial of the crime of voting, illegal for women in the mid- 1800s. I copied down some of her denunciations and prepared for my own judgment day.

This time I decided I would not hire an attorney. “I’m representing myself,’’ I told the clerks in the courthouse as I filed my papers to have the issue of child support reheard. By now I’d seen enough cases to know that in most divorce courts the law is rarely used. Standard rules of evidence go out the door, replaced by gossip and innuendo. I felt as competent as any attorney to argue my own rights, and besides, I couldn’t afford one. Back on the third floor of the courthouse, I met my wife’s latest attorney, a tall, thin woman I’ll call Ms. Franklin. From a distance she looked kind, but up close there was no mistaking her true character. “Mr. Corvus,’’ she said to me, “by filing for a hearing on child support, in effect you’ve opened up several new issues.’’ I had anticipated this. Sure enough, my former wife and her new attorney were now asking the judge to reconsider the existing joint-custody order. I asked the judge to consider only my request that child support be reduced, since one child, Richard, lived with me. The judge refused to hear either matter until we could talk with a court counselor.

A few weeks later we were back in the counselor’s office. I felt uneasy about our new counselor but wasn’t sure why. I passed off my fears as unjustified when the counselor drew up another agreement that, in effect, maintained the joint-custody agreement. Again my former wife signed, which was surprising in light of her recent legal tactics. I was relieved but apprehensive as we left the counseling room and headed in to see the judge. The attorney, Ms. Franklin, took one look at the newly signed document and nearly grew hysterical. “What is this! You’re keeping joint custody?’’ she questioned her client. In five seconds my former wife’s mind was changed. “We’re going to argue against this new agreement,’’ Ms. Franklin announced. I was even more astounded at the court counselor’s reaction. “You’re right, I goofed,’’ the counselor said with no objection to their plans. “That agreement really has no teeth. I’m sorry, Mr. Corvus,’’ she said. Minutes later we were facing the judge, but now the original subject of child support I’d come for was forgotten. I was once again fighting for joint custody of my sons.

Before Judge Sheridan Reed I argued that this move was an obvious ploy to hide the real issue, that the nine-month-old order of Judge Montgomery to pay child support on a child who was living with me full time was unfair. My presentation was far stronger than most attorneys’, and most important, it was accurate and sincere.

Ms. Franklin’s was not. She countered by declaring that custody should revert to my former wife because Richard wanted to live with his mother the next school year. This was true; Richard and I had discussed it already. I was saddened and pleased at the same time. I was happy that Richard loved his mother, but I feared the loneliness for myself. Joint custody was never a substitute for a happy marriage. Ms. Franklin often made careless misstatements of fact, and then corrected herself. Finally, after once swearing in front of Judge Reed, fuming and locked in her greed, she had to let it out — the big threat. “Your honor, Mr. Corvus hasn’t paid child support in over a year.’’ The judge noted the absence of any formal charges to that effect and waved the threat aside. I explained patiently that the joint-custody agreement had been working for the past year while Richard had lived with me and there was no reason why it couldn’t keep working in the future. Judge Reed considered the matter a few moments and then decreed that the new agreement, the one our counselor had wanted to tear up, be honored.

At the same time Judge Reed ordered that my request for a decrease in child support be denied. Considering that Richard was planning to move back to his mother’s house in September, the $150 per month for both children would be maintained. If, however, Richard were to move back with me full time, I’d then pay only seventy-five dollars per month for Sean. My former wife, despite her higher income, had no obligation to pay me anything. This was the moment I had been waiting for, but I sensed it had already passed. For months I had been examining my fear of being sent to jail, and finally, after talking with one man who had done it in defiance of the courts, I resigned myself to the possibility. This day I was prepared to go. Had Judge Reed challenged my refusal to pay as long as I was earning less than my former wife, and yet paying more for the children, I would have resurrected the language of Susan B. Anthony and added a few choice words of my own. They all must have sensed something was different about me by the way I spoke. For the first time in my life I felt genuine self-respect.

The actual catharsis had occurred shortly before my paper defeat, as we were waiting inside the courtroom for our case to be heard. Suddenly my former wife’s attorney was at my side, whispering that she had an important topic to discuss in the hallway. Earlier I’d already told her of my unwillingness to talk; only those matters of benefit to me or my children were worthwhile, I’d explained firmly. She’d sullenly stomped off. Now she was back, this time with something new and urgent. I followed her outside to the hallway. “Mr. Corvus,” she began with the nervous smile of one who is about to make a bad bluff, “unless you’re willing to discuss the matter of unpaid child support, I have no choice but to file contempt charges against you.’’ It was a moment made to suit a dream. Suddenly all the fear and anger were gone.

“Ms. Franklin, please don’t let anything I say or refuse to say keep you from doing whatever you feel you have to do.’’

She gave me an incredulous look, then spun toward the door. “You’re sick,” she muttered as she entered the courtroom.

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