Custody Court Massacre

'Tell everybody my story. Name names. Tell the truth, everyone should hear about this.' These words came from my friend Robert after the resolution of his child custody case. Unfortunately, in what follows, I lack the cajones to name any names other than his. However, I will say that his ex-wife hailed from South America and that the court in question was in New York City .

I first met Robert in September of 1978 when we were third graders. He had white hair and cowboy boots and loved playing 'soldiers' as much as I did. We now live hundreds of miles apart but the distance quickly evaporates on the phone or whenever we're together. His is a unique personality, as Robert has always been studious and serious while simultaneously being a thrill seeker who' at least in the past' displays varying amounts of self-destructive behavior.

Almost everybody I know, man or woman, has had some sort of relationship in their past that embarrasses them, and Robert is no different in this respect. Yet what was unusual in his case is that he never officially ended it with the girl who was the source of his embarrassment. About an hour after he met this particular lady, he slept with her and thus began a tragic eight year soap opera from which he has only now escaped. Throughout the near-decade they were together, he complained about her incessantly but lacked the character necessary to completely dispel her from his life. They never did get along and never were happy, but, perhaps due to physical attraction or co-dependency, a fragile bond was kept alive. Eventually, Robert impregnated her and she gave him a baby boy that he never knew how much he had always wanted. He fell in love with the child seconds after the baby's birth and, whenever he talks about his two-year-old, his voice breaks with emotion. The boy is his replica which I can attest to from the photo Robert sent me of the child hiding in the leaves of Central Park.

The mother of Robert's baby never had a formal job before. She was an illegal immigrant who, at one time, worked for a dog walking service and was paid cash under the table, and it yielded an amount just large enough for her to get by. She decided that she would never return to this line of work again, and informed Robert that if he did not marry her, she would take her son and move back to South America. He knew that if she did this, he'd never see his child again. He gave in and they were married at city hall.

For a short time, the three of them lived together in Brooklyn. Predictably, the presence of the baby did little to improve the couple's relationship. They continued to verbally fight, and on one occasion the police were called in by a neighbor. When the police arrived, they 'solved' the situation by turning Robert out of his apartment for the night. This was done even though Robert had rented out the apartment solely in his name and he alone paid all of the bills. His ex-wife could not even provide any identification for the police, but that did not deter them from sending Robert out into the night. He spent the night asleep on a park bench in Central Park. In retrospect, he laughs about it now, saying 'I've done every New York clich' there is to do.'

After a few months, my friend acknowledged that marrying her was one of the biggest mistakes of his life, so he visited a lawyer and decided to end their marriage for good. He moved out but continued to pay her rent for the welfare of his son.

Financially, Robert was in terrible shape. For many years in the late nineties, he made a considerable amount of money trading stocks on the exchange. He earned over $150,000 in 2000, but his earnings radically declined with the fortunes of the market and the institution of the decimalization system (which decreased trader margins) in the two years that followed. In 2001, his income was only $15,000, and last year, he cleared only $23,000. As of today, his savings have evaporated, and he sold his car to lessen his debt. By the time of his custody hearing, Robert was $40,000 in the hole from paying two rents and lawyer fees that grew exponentially.

In the hopes that he would gain custody of his son, Robert quit many of his self-destructive habits. He quit smoking over a year ago and has not had a drop to drink in six months. He felt confident that any judge would view him as being the legitimate custodial parent, as his ex-wife had broken many laws by being in this country illegally for over 15 years, and also had no independent means with which to support their child.

He went into court with an open mind and confident that justice would be served. Instead, it was the government who was served. They ate Robert as quickly as a bear snorts a salmon. The judge said practically nothing. She began by asking his ex-wife what she wanted. His ex-wife produced the fantastic figure of $4,000 in child support and $1,000 in spousal maintenance. 'Granted' the judge ruled. Robert's attorney told her that this was out of the question but the judge refused to allow the submission of Robert's 2001 and 2002 W2s as proof that he could not pay such an amount. The hearing was over and he and his lawyer were arguing with air.

Robert was aghast. He went to the court thinking that his life would be changing for the better, but now he found that his life was over. 'I'm going to jail' he told me on the phone. I argued with him and said that wasn't possible, but after speaking with somebody who does testimony on the behalf of fathers, I discovered that jail time could well be a likelihood for his failure to pay.

Robert summed up the proceedings: 'The judge had heard this all before. American man takes advantage of innocent immigrant girl. He'll have to pay and pay and pay.' Only you can't get 60 grand from a man who's down 40. Robert wrote out a check to his ex-wife for $500 and left the court in disgust. He has decided to permanently ruin his own credit by declaring bankruptcy (what else could he do?) His father and mother both recently retired and can offer no assistance. His dad even told me sarcastically, 'Gee, if I need any money in retirement, I'll go see my grandson. He's loaded. What would a two year old need with $40,000 anyway? Gerbers isn't that expensive.'

We hope that a formal declaration of bankruptcy will deter the authorities from issuing a warrant for his arrest, but we have no evidence to support our assumption. His last words to me were: 'Add this to society's dead beat dad stories. I go to court to assume full responsibility for my son and now I'm an outlaw.' The judge did not only break him but she made certain to destroy his future while she was at it.

I liked to cheer people up when they're unhappy. I'm pretty talented at it. I sat on the phone and reached into the vault to find something noble, profound, or hopeful to tell him. I found absolutely nothing.

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Bernard Chapin's picture
Columns on STR: 33

Bernard Chapin is a writer from Chicago.