Friday, June 05, 2009

May it Please the Court

I've spent a lot of time in court this past week. Erev Shavuot was the custody trial for my daughter, and this week I had jury duty. There are certainly things more terrifying for a parent than going to trial for custody, visitation, and (for me less important) child support. But I'd humbly suggest that trial be ranked right up there.

The idea of strangers (judge) and near-strangers (babydaddy) having any say in the matter of the child I raised alone from birth is, to say the least, anxiety inducing. I had hoped to avoid this scenario by hiring the best and most ethical attorney in the area eight months ago. But after we had to resort to suing for custody, it was out of my hands to some extent. This is what we had to do to enable us to move to Israel and marry our guy.

It's not that I don't want Babydaddy in my daughter's life. It's obviously important for her to know that her biological father loves her and wants to be with her. It's important for her to know him. I am just concerned that 1. it be as positive (and un-traumatic) an experience as possible and 2. it not allow anyone to micromanage my life as I had good reason to fear, given the kinds of details Babydaddy wanted control over.

After nearly two months of mediation with mediators and attorneys, which cost me at least my entire month's salary each month, Babydaddy and his attorney sat on our agreement for a month. We got a response from them a day before the trial. Their response (a counter offer), I was surprised to see, contained bits that were actually unconstitutional (violations of free speech), as well as radically unworkable visitation schedules. While I was obligated to return to the States with my daughter for periods of time that were at least twice as many days a year as he had seen her in the 2 1/2 years of her life so far combined, he did not obligate himself to visit us at all.

I had to think long and hard--what was my motivation here? First, I wanted to avoid the split-custody things that children of divorced parents must, unfortunately, endure. I did not want my daughter to have a winter home and a summer home. She's had only one home so far, and I didn't see why this had to change. Especially given the amount of child support Babydaddy decided he wanted to pay once we went to Israel. It was financially unfeasible for me. Especially given he's never spent more than 8 hours at a time with her, and that was always on shabbat, while he stayed with others, as a guest.

But was I acting from anger? From hurt that all this time I've done all the work alone, and now he likes coming in and spending shabbat and vacation with my girl, when neither of us can work anyway? Did I think he was skipping the meal and just coming by for dessert? Yes, I did. And it's something that we had to work through.

So the night before the trial, after I put my girl to bed, I phoned Babydaddy and we worked till 1:30 am, focusing on the points of greatest contention. We got through the first page--visitation. That, for me, was the biggie anyway. Now I would accompany my daughter to the States for 21 days a year, including travel time. And Babydaddy wanted this in two trips. He could come see us in Israel for as long as he wanted, but in the town in which we lived.

Then I woke earlier, typed up our new agreement , brought it to my attorney who looked it over. Then I called Babydaddy as he was en route and we worked out one more issue. We typed that up. Whatever we didn't agree on, I wrote as it had been in our original offer.

My attorney and I met him and his attorney in the courtroom, and they agreed to everything but custody. Since Babydaddy had not paid child support until that week, I was losing the arrears leverage that I'd wanted to use to avoid going to trial for custody. But I signed an agreement on visitation and child support, just to keep visitation as easy on my daughter and me as I could.

We went to trial for custody. Our district is one of the few who privilege father's rights; our judge is known for an extreme reluctance to grant anything but joint custody. But here's where the attorney comes in. My attorney has a reputation for being guided by ideals and ethics, rather than cash (He's older and got a reputation. He can afford it). He simply won't take you on if he doesn't think you're acting with the best intentions, and he doesn't take you to court unless he thinks you can win.

In the end, we didn't need to go to trial. The judge told us how she was going to rule before we began to speak. I got full physical custody and joint legal custody with final decision making power, which is, in practice, the exact same thing as full legal custody. I just have to take his arguments into consideration when making an important decision. Something I'd want to do anyway.

After a week in court, I can say this--it's a crazy system. I don't understand how it works, and often it doesn't, I guess. It does seem to bring out the worst in people. But it also has the potential to bring out the best. And frankly, I don't see an alternative. (Although, as a potential juror, I can see how a professional, trained jury would be better than a regular ol' me type).

That being said, I never want to go through it again.


elanit said...

Does this deserve a mazal tov? To me it sounds like terrific news for you and your daughter. :)

SuperRaizy said...

Oh, my heart was aching as I read this. It brought back every terrifying, excruciating moment of my two-year battle for custody of my children.
I am so glad that you were able to work things out to your advantage.
May every moment going forward be peaceful and happy for you and your daughter.

lsw said...

I am so proud of how beautifully you managed that intense decision with wisdom, and compassion, and a clarity of mind and heart I don't think I could ever muster in the same circumstances. I hope this painful episode clears a path for happiness and a long and blessed life with the man you love.

Anonymous said...

Pardon if I sound dumb but does this mean what I think this means? I certainly hope so as you (and little girl) deserve to have loads of happiness.

Maya said...

Thanks so much, everyone. If you're thinking this means I can move to Israel and get married, then yes, anon, it means what you think it does. SuperRaizy, I'm so very sorry yours was a two-year ordeal. I can imagine that such a prolonged fight can be quite scarring, and I hope you all are okay. LSW, you are the very picture of grace and compassion.

Dunking Rachel said...

I work a lot with folks in your situation (social worker/ therapist)

I always tell them court is hell, but if you need it it.

Generally I have never meet anyone, even those who say they "won" who felt court was ok.

I hope the pain and truam can heal for you and your daughter, and all others who may need healing.