> No More Secrets And Lies: PART 3: MARY LIVES WITH DAD

Monday, October 29, 2012


                                 Lincoln School from the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace

    They went down Hill Street to the vacant lot. It was knee deep with goldenrod and asters. It would have been fun to stop and play there, if they hadn't been going to school. But they cut through by a little path and came out on Pleasant Street.
    They crossed the street and turned the corner and came to a little store.
    "That's Mrs. Chubbock's store," Julia explained. "That's where you go to buy gum drops and chocolate men if anyone's given you a penny."
    “I wish that someone had given me a penny. Don't you, Tacy?" Betsy asked.
    Tacy didn't answer.
    Just beyond Mrs. Chubbock's store, they came to the school yard. They came first to the boys' yard, a big sandy yard with one tree. On the other side of the schoolhouse was the girls' yard which looked much the same. But the girls' yard had more trees. The schoolhouse was built of red brick trimmed with yellow stone. A steep flight of steps led up to the door.
— From Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace, page 32

(Ten Years Earlier) John Meets Family Court – 2002

Lincoln School, a former public school in Mankato during Maud Hart Lovelace's day, is now a busy building where classes are taught, plays are held, and community education programs are scheduled. It's where the girls' mother and I went for our Early Child Family Education (ECFE) classes when Josie was a toddler, and where the children would play while the parents discussed parenting issues. Karen and I were high-powered parents, if there is such a thing. We put parenting our children above anything else we did… easily.

Mary, John, Josie, Karen and Grace - 1995
We read parenting books and would discuss how to use the skills we had learned in the books with our children. We are both very good parents. She is a good mother. I am a good father. But I remember at ECFE they offered a special type of parenting class called "Daddy and Me," which I have to admit, bothered me a little. I had to wonder what kind of dad needed a special class just so he could spend time with this kids. Should this guy be parenting at all?

Karen and I were both adamant about raising our girls without gender stereotypes. We knew there were few parenting roles specific to either a mother or a father, and we wanted our girls to know that they could do anything boys could do. And so we got a farm set for Josie when she was a toddler and toy trucks and toy tools for the others. We got them plenty of dolls and jewelry, too, of course.

We've always parented this way. I changed as many diapers as their mother did (both cloth and regular ones), and I used to tell people I would do everything with the girls a mother would do, with the exception of breastfeeding. I'd be pushing them in a stroller up the street to a playground and on the way see dads inside their homes watching sports programs or whatnot. And always it seemed I was the only father at the playgrounds — especially a father with three little girls. It was always me and my little girls, and I played with them all the time. I made things for them all the time too. I made little playgrounds — both indoor and outdoor ones. I made a stage for them in the living room and even hung a tire swing from the ceiling of our living room for them to swing on. And at the playgrounds we would play bank or grocery store on the little pretend counter underneath the jungle gym. And no matter how tired I got of this, the girls never wanted to stop. Raising my girls was absolutely the best experience I've ever had, and the way their mom and I were involved in their lives is why they are the wonderful kids they are today — each one of them.

* * *

In 2002, my wife and I separated and two years later we divorced. Since then I've never had a moment when I didn't have to worry about her taking our girls away from me. Many of us fathers are shocked to find out just how easily we can lose our kids after a divorce. I was always a very involved parent, but I had to fight hard just to stay a very involved parent — just to be able to parent my own children. I spent thousands of dollars and got accused of things I would never ever think of doing — things so far out of my reality, things so completely absurd, that I wasn't sure if I was still in the same world…anymore. And I could never figure out why my ex kept accusing me of one thing after another in her never-ending attempt to separate me from my children — especially after our divorce when our children needed us more than ever. I couldn't figure out why she kept doing this until I learned that accusations like hers are the standard laundry list of things many fathers can be accused of — things the worst men do to their ex-wives — but not things any of the fathers I knew ever did or would ever think of doing.
I filed for divorce after we split up, and almost immediately a sheriff appeared at my door with a restraining order in his hand. I answered the door: 

"Can I help you officer?" 
"Is your name John Brosnan?" 

"Your wife has filed a restraining order against you." 

"What? There must be some mistake. I've never hurt her or anyone. She knows this. Why would she be filing a restraining order against me?"
"Are you going through a divorce?"   


"Well, that probably explains it. I see this all the time. You just have to stay away from her until you go to court. And your kids. You have to stay away from them too. Says here you can't have any contact with your kids either." 

"What? This is crazy. What do you mean I can't have any contact with my kids? I haven't hurt my kids for God's sake. What do they have to do with this?" 

"Doesn't matter. Look, this happens to men like you all the time. Get yourself a lawyer or you might end up losing your kids altogether. And make sure you follow the rules the judge listed here which says you're not supposed to have any contact with your wife or your kids until court, which, I guess is in about 15 days."

Fifteen days with no contact with my kids? I was freaking out. What was going on? Karen wouldn't do this. Was someone making her do this? Was she on drugs? Everyone knows I'm not this kind of person. I used to investigate this kind of person when I was a child protection worker. I'm the opposite of this kind of person. 

Policemen are Your Friends
Almost every police officer that has had to relay a message to me over the last ten years got to know Karen from the onslaught of phone calls she would make to them trying to come up with new ways to get me into trouble. And even though there's never been an instance of me doing anything to her, or to anyone for that matter, the police would have to keep taking her calls and keep telling me to watch out — watch out for her mostly. That's right. They would warn me to watch out for her because they knew she was trying to take my kids from me again. Cops know the scoop. They're not stupid. I'd thank them for the warning.

Why didn't I learn this in those parenting classes I took when the girls were toddlers? Divorce affects your parenting. That's for sure. And having to spend money to go to court to defend yourself against lies affects your parenting. Having to spend even more money to protect your kids from being taken away really affects your parenting. I wanted my money back. But parents don't talk about these things, especially new parents. Why? Because it's dangerous, adversarial, secretive.

The sheriff at my door knew why I was receiving this. He knew I didn't have any record of violence, whatsoever, and he sort-of tried to comfort me (he actually did) telling me this happens to nearly every man in a custody battle and that I should probably get used to it. And get a good lawyer. Yes. Because it doesn't matter whether you've done anything wrong or not, you're still going to get blamed for the worst things you can imagine, and for being a bad parent — you're a man, in a custody battle

But I'm a great parent, I screamed to myself. This is so wrong. And for the first time I was actually afraid my kids were going to be taken away from me…and yet, I was also determined to never let this happen. No matter what.

My first family lawyer knew me well. I taught one of his daughters in a school I designed and founded: the Minnesota New Country School in Henderson, Minnesota. And his other daughter babysat our kids. We also attended the same church. I took this absurd restraining order thing to him, certain he would straighten it all out in a few minutes. He would know this was all just a big mistake.

Here I was, a guy who had spent a big part of his life fighting against domestic violence and bringing awareness of this problem to communities as a social worker and as a member of a child abuse prevention team in the town where I was a social worker (Vermillion, SD). I had spent hours working with children who were victims of abuse, listening to them bravely tell their stories about unspeakable things that had happened to them. And after I would meet with the child, usually in the morning, and usually at a school, I'd go with a police officer later in the day to confront the alleged perpetrators at their homes. And now here I was being accused of being one of those people. I know what abusive husbands are like. My mother lived with an abusive husband after my father died. She was a victim of domestic violence and was beaten to death. And now I was being pegged as someone like him? Surely my lawyer will see this mistake and it will all be straightened out.  

"Right Mr. lawyer?"

"Not so fast. What you need to do now is file a restraining order on your wife. That's your best bet."

"What? What are you asking me to do? She isn't that kind of person either. She would never hurt me or her kids. What kind of people do you think we are? What kind of world do you lawyers live in?"

"The real world," he replied, "but, suit yourself." 

He knew I hadn't done anything wrong and that her restraining order was bogus, but that didn't mean I wasn't going to get into trouble anyway. And according to him, the best way for me to show my innocence was to fight fire with fire — file a bogus restraining order on her. But I thought this was wrong. It is wrong. And I was always taught that two wrongs didn't make a right. Of course, that was before I met family court.

I refused to file a restraining order on Karen, but I probably should have because the judge went along with her restraining order on me — at least part of it — and maybe my lawyer's little plan would have prevented that. I was too confident, though, and went into the courtroom thinking all I'd have to do is tell the truth and the judge would immediately see the wonderful person I am. But it doesn't work like that. They don't have time to figure out if you're a good guy or a bad guy — that don't mean jack in family court. And it doesn't matter what you say because they see this all the time and probably don't believe either parent. As far as the judge knows, you're both guilty. All my wife had to do was say she didn't want me around, and the judge felt he had to err on the side of safety. I think this is wise if someone is actually being hurt or is genuinely afraid they might get hurt, but it's hard to determine that in a 15-minute courtroom.

I was ordered to stay out of Karen's house and not talk to her about anything except parenting for one year. She immediately purchased a phone recorder and taped all our phone conversations and would try to get me to talk about things other than parenting.

"What do you think of this weather, John?"

 Of course, I was always ready.

"I think it's good… for the kids."

She never stopped trying, though.

I've had police officers tell me they've had to forfeit their jobs because their wives have filed restraining orders against them. When there's an order for protection against you, you can't carry a firearm. Since I've never owned a gun this didn't affect me, but police officers can't do their jobs without guns, and some would lose their jobs because of this. The bigger problem, however, is that the very people these laws are made for — mainly women who are actually being threatened and hurt by men and have a reason to be afraid — these women don't get the protection they need because society often treats allegations of domestic violence the way they are often used: as standard warfare in couple disputes. My mother is a good example of this. For years she had been abused by her husband (a man she met after my father died), and for years she had been telling us kids about this. But we disregarded her complaints as just the usual stuff that occurs when couples fight. My mom was beaten to death and her husband has never looked for her murderer. I still don't know who killed my mother, but her husband would be my first suspect.
The judge kept the order, but stripped it of all the things Karen had requested. She had a list a mile long of things she wanted — our car, our possessions, our money, our kids. He didn't give her any of these things, thank God, but I guess it never hurts to ask.

* * *

A couple of months into our separation my wife and I were already on a parenting schedule we had agreed to on our own — the girls went back and forth between our homes every three days. We agreed to this with no problem, and she was happy to do this and so was I. There was no talk of child support, or me paying the girls' insurance, or me paying the legal fees, or anything like that. We wanted things to stay as normal as possible for our girls with both of us parenting equally, like we had always done. And neither of us ever considered taking the girls from each other — it had never occurred to either of us, at least not to me. But I think someone told her she could get so much more if she wanted it — that it was there for the taking. Plus, you get to tell the biggest whoppers you can think of and you'll never get into trouble.

My wife knew I wasn't that kind of person — the kind of person she was making me out to be. In fact, I'm a very nice person who is kind to others and to my wife and to my children. But the fact that I had to work hard just to convince the court that I'm not an abusive person, was one of the most frustrating and bizarre ironies I'd ever encountered. I've been told by many people that I'm one of the most honest people they know and one of the best parents they know. And I knew I was great with kids. I know how to make them feel comfortable. I'm sensitive to what they're feeling and this can be painful at times. When I was a social worker my supervisor told me she had never seen anyone who interacted as well with children as I did. Where were all these people now?

And now I was to have no contact with my children for 15 days — half a month! It was an outrageous action taken against a good parent and good children who had nothing to do with any of this at a time when they were experiencing more stress than they ever had in their lives. So much for our agreement that our divorce would have little impact on our kids.

After we separated we were both lucky enough to get houses close to each other. Maybe four blocks apart. The big hospital parking lot was all that separated us and it made it convenient to maintain the equal parenting we both wanted. Yes, for the first month or two my wife actually wanted a simple, equal divorce like I did, because we both wanted to do everything we could to minimize the impact our divorce would have on our kids. That is, until one day when all of that changed and she suddenly wanted to make our divorce as difficult as possible.

What happened to her, I wondered? Why is she like this? Is she on drugs? This isn't like her. This isn't what we had agreed to. Doesn't she know what this will do to our girls (Grace 6, Mary 8, and Josie 10)? I think she did. I think she cared about these things for those first two months, but hasn't since. And now ten years later it looks like this has become her mission. And it is a mission. 

Mary to the Rescue 

Both the girls and I were shocked when we found out we had to stay apart from each other for 15 days. The girls didn't understand what was going on and didn't know how they were going to cope with being apart from their dad for so long ... Most of them, that is.

But Mary did. She was only eight years old at the time, but Mary being Mary, she made up her mind she wasn't going to have any part of a crazy rule that said she couldn't be with her dad — rule or no rule, judge's order or no judge's order. She wasn't going to have any part of this being-apart-from-dad stuff. It was stupid.

The restraining order specified that I was to have no contact with my girls. This meant I couldn't talk to them on the phone or see them in person. But Mary called me anyhow, and she got into trouble with her mom for doing this. I told her I was glad she called me (I mean, I was so glad she called. My God, thank you Mary for being the independent thinker you are.), but I told her I didn't think she should be doing this even though I knew how much she missed me and how confused she was by this crazy rule that said we couldn't see each other. I knew she needed to talk to her dad.

But talking wasn't enough. She wanted to see me too. And she came up with a plan so she could see me and she pleaded with me to go along with it. She wanted me to meet her every night near her mom's house so she could give me a hug before she went to bed.

And I did this. And I didn't care. Court order or no court order. Mary needed her dad. And I needed her.

So after everyone went to bed at her mom's house, Mary would call me. This was my signal to start heading over. I'd start my car and drive a few blocks and then park around the other side of the block from her mom's house. I'd shut off my lights and wait for Mary.

And sure enough, every night, there she was. She would sneak out, walk through the alley, and meet me.

We'd hug each other and cry and I'd tell her, 

"Now scoot back home before your mom knows you're gone."

"Right, Dad. See you tomorrow. Same time. Love you."

"Tomorrow, Mary. Same time. Love you."

She'd scoot back to her mom's house and back up into her bedroom before anyone knew she was gone.

Mary worked this all out and that little girl got me through those 15 days. Up until then we had never been apart from each other more than a day or two.

She was risking a lot doing this and I was risking even more. We weren't supposed to have any contact with each other, but this was just too much for either of us to take, and we both knew it was bogus anyhow. And we knew her mom knew it was bogus. And we knew her mom liked the fact that we knew it was bogus. And that might have been the hardest part about all of this. But there comes a time when you put your kids before bogus stuff like this, and this was one of those times.

From an early age, Mary and I had always been very close. I had a lot of experience working with children and I guess it showed. I know it showed. Karen was close to Mary as well, but in a different way. There weren't many adults Mary could talk to without having to worry that they might make fun of her. She knew she was different and had behaviors that could be problematic at times. But she also knew I was who I was – a dad who she could talk to who would listen to her and not judge her. And I'm glad she had me as a parent. She probably would have been in a group home at an early age if Karen and I were not her parents.

Mary got me through those 15 days, even though we started out law breaking at an early age, even if it was for a goodnight hug. She'd joke about this if she were here today. I'd say something like, 

"You know, Mary, when they make laws against hugging your children, then I guess you can call me a lawbreaker."

She'd think this was funny.

Full Custody-Plus

Karen flipped a switch that day and has never stopped trying everything she can think of, within and outside of the law, to take the girls away from me. And coming to that realization was painful for me. I don't know how to describe just how painful it was, but I knew I had no choice but to do everything within the law to keep her from taking my beautiful little girls away. I expected our divorce to be over within a few months, and I expected she would agree to joint custody, like I wanted, and like the girls wanted. And I expected she would give up what she wanted — full custody, or full custody-plus.

Most parents who take children away from the other parent normally only want physical custody. The non-custodial parent, while usually not able to be with their kids as often, is still legally their parent and still has a say in their lives. They have access to educational and medical records and so on. Almost all parents who try to take custody do it this way. But not Karen. She wanted full physical custody and full legal custody of each of our children. It's extremely rare for parents to ever lose legal custody of their kids. This means your legal rights as a parent are stripped away. Even as a social worker, investigating and working with the worst parents in the community, I seldom saw parents lose legal custody. I only saw this once in a most severe case. But the girls' mother wanted full physical and full legal custody of all of our kids, and she stalled for two years only to have to come into my lawyer's office the day before court to agree to what we had originally wanted in the first place — that our children be with both parents equally, or joint custody. These are the secrets that need to be told.

Karen wanted it all, and I think someone had to have told her she could get it all, because she had never acted like this before. And even though my lawyer assured me I would never lose legal custody of my girls, we were surprised her lawyer would allow her to continue with her outrageous request. It showed us more about her motives than anything — that not only were they attempts to inflict pain onto the whole family, but also how extreme her intentions actually were. I'm not saying she was crazy, but what she was doing was. And talking to her, or trying to reason with her, only made things worse. And even though the girls were extremely upset about this, it didn't seem to matter. What made her even angrier was that I wouldn't respond in kind. I kept my cool, didn't say much, and waited. I think she thought that if she kept at it long enough she would drive me to a point where I would also do something crazy. But I didn't. And that made her even angrier, to the point where she started to make my case for me, and eventually her own lawyer had to tell her to knock it off.

Or a judge.

Weak Performance 

A month after her first restraining order, she tried a second one. If I remember correctly, this one had something to do with me not communicating with her like she thought I should, or something like that. She had a lawyer who stood up in the courtroom and looked somewhat a fool ranting on in a David Copperfield-esqe manner something to the effect that of all the fathers in the world there is no doubt that Mr. Brosnan here is the worst of them all. 

I read David Copperfield for the first time this past summer (2011). This is how David's stepfather described him to his aunt who wanted to take him in and care for him. I remember that line well because it was funny. But there was nothing funny about how David was treated, and it was a very accurate portrayal of how children were mistreated, abused, neglected, and put to work at a very young age in London during the 1800s. Many would say child abuse was first brought to the public's attention through the writings of Charles Dickens.

Karen wouldn't have any luck at this second restraining order attempt of hers which she cooked up to try to get the goods she didn't get with her first restraining order. But we still had to go to court, and I still had to pay my expensive lawyer, and she still had a free one. The judge listened to her lawyer rant on about how terrible a parent I was, even though her lawyer had never talked to me, never observed me parenting my children, and never bothered to verify any of the things he was ranting on about. Luckily, the judge saw through this and scolded Karen and her lawyer for wasting his time. He told Karen the next she tries this phony-restraining-order-crap, he was going to do something. I don't remember what though.

This was good to hear, and my lawyer and I were eager to get out of the courtroom that day. But before we could get to the door, her lawyer stopped us and asked if he could have a word with me in private. He wanted to get some licks in after being scolded by the judge, and so he asked my lawyer if he could yell at me some more, preferably in a private room. He actually said "talk to me," but yell is what he did. My lawyer said this was okay.

The three of us then squeezed into a room that felt no bigger than four-foot square. I sat in a chair and Karen's lawyer stood facing me. My lawyer stood next to him. Her lawyer then bent down so he could get even closer to me in case I couldn't hear him — his face about four inches from mine, and he began yelling…

Her lawyer:

"You have to stop treating your kids so badly!

"I don't treat my kids badly."
My lawyer:

"Shut up, John! Don't say anything."
Her lawyer:

"You made them write a letter to the judge, you worthless little…"

"No I didn't."
My lawyer:

"Shut up, John."
Her lawyer:

"And now you're in big trouble and blah, blah, blah and blah."

"What are you talking about?"
My lawyer:

"Shut up, John."

It was really like this and it was short and it was weird and we went around more than a couple of times.

He must have felt better after this because we were finally able to leave the court house. On the way out I was telling my lawyer what I had learned about family court so far. I told him that, even more than being a game where truth doesn't seem to matter, family court is a lot like theater. He agreed. And it is when you think about it, especially when you're inside a courtroom, and especially when you have lawyers who feel they have to put on a show like her lawyer did. Her lawyer wasn't doing this for me or for my girls. He was doing it because he had lost and he wanted to impress my lawyer and convince him that the judge had made the wrong decision and he would show just how much concern he had for my kids by yelling at me.

Theater it was, but my lawyer and I still weren't convinced. We both agreed it was a weak performance at best.


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