Two years ago I appeared in your court. I was summoned there with only a few hours notice and appeared without a lawyer. Though no charges were pronounced against me, you legally removed my child from my care and protection, eliminated my right to make any decisions about her, and ordered me to stay away from her most of the time.
From what I have been able to gather about such proceedings, this outcome was nothing out of the ordinary. In fact it quickly became apparent to me that this outcome came very close to being decided in advance. What precisely was said during this brief hearing seems to have made very little difference. As it began, a gentleman who did not know me proceeded to assassinate my character as confidently as if he had personally witnessed each item in his litany of my imperfections. While again, there were no specific charges and nothing legally actionable, it was clear that his role was to translate somewhat vague private grievances against me into a formula that would appear to justify taking away my child.
What struck me at the time was how quickly and effortlessly a child was removed from the care and protection of her parent and her life carved up as if it were the bookings of a holiday cottage. Such and such days she would spend with the non-custodial parent, the rest with the custodial parent. You asked very few questions and sought very little information. The hearing was very brief, and suddenly, I was told, it was over. During the hearing I was allowed to speak very little and interrupted every time I tried. There seemed to be no burden of proof on those who sought to separate me from my child.
I realize that, given the number of similar cases that come before you, you issue these rulings as a matter of routine. I would not be surprised if you have no recollection of this particular case. Nevertheless, for me it was an eye-opening experience and probably the most important thirty minutes or so of my life.
You did not strike me as an unusually malicious or callous person. I am told you are considered among the more favorable judges for parents, and that the time you assigned permitting me to be with my children is relatively generous.
All this may be true. Yet it has also become apparent to me that what I witnessed in your courtroom was a tiny part of a vast system of largely impersonal and unaccountable power that was previously unknown to me, as it still is to most citizens. I am fully aware that you did not create this system and that you yourself may have very little control over it. Nevertheless you are a principal and active participant. So vast and so routine has this power become that you are able, with no background information and in a hearing lasting only a few minutes, to permanently separate a child from a parent without any indication that you were aware of the gravity of what you were doing.
While this central act was disturbing enough, what was again striking were the questions that were not asked, the subjects that were not brought up, the consequences that were not anticipated. You knew that I was accused of no wrongdoing and had agreed to no separation or divorce. You were also aware that I had never lived in this country with my family and that I had neither a residence nor a livelihood here. Yet a number of important matters were never discussed. Did I have a place to live? Did I have a way to get to where my daughter was? Could I work here? Did I have access to a car? Did the hours you permitted me to be with her bear any relation to when I might be able to find or keep employment? What costs would be involved for me or other parties?
You may recall that when my mother attempted to sit in on the hearing she was refused and escorted out. Yet the results of this hearing have profoundly and adversely affected her life. She was forced to take in and support a grown son who was now unemployed. She was forced to cancel the sale of her house so that I would have a place to stay. Her car has been commandeered so that I can see my children and get to work. Did these hardships for her enter into your ruling? They certainly were not brought up in the hearing. It did occur to me at the time, but I was cut off each time I attempted to speak.
What is also noteworthy is that I can recount my recollection of these proceedings without fear of contradiction or inaccuracy, not only because you probably do not remember details of the hearing, but also because no record of it now exists and no impartial witnesses were permitted to be present. In other words, there is nothing and no one to contradict or corroborate my recollection. By the same measure, there is no accountability or recorded reasoning for a ruling that has torn apart the home and world of an innocent child.
In short, it struck me that for the first time in my life I was personally witnessing an instance of what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”: evil that has become so routinized and bureaucratized that otherwise decent people are able to tell themselves they are doing good when they are doing evil. It is profoundly ironic that I should have returned from five years in a post-totalitarian society to be confronted here in the United States with a new and unexpected version of the kind of bureaucratic dictatorship that has been perhaps the most notable feature of the politics of this century.
When we hear about children being forcibly taken from their parents by Nazi doctors or Communist apparatchiks we are filled with the deepest revulsion. In accounts of American slavery the division of slave families pierces deeper into our hearts than even the physical cruelties of that institution. What family court judges such as yourself do as a daily routine is not on the same level of evil. But it is not so completely different that we should classify the one as among the most detestable “crimes against humanity” and accept the other as desirable treatment for our own children. You may think this comparison offensive. But a government which criminalizes ordinary law-abiding citizens for something so basic as exercising their parental responsibilities is itself on the way to becoming a criminal regime. Parents such as I who are accused of nothing routinely have their children removed from their care and protection, are ordered to stay away from them and to pay money to those who have taken them, and are incarcerated if they refuse or are unable. These parents receive fewer constitutional protections for their basic civil rights and liberties than persons accused of vicious crimes. Yet there is no public outcry, no expose by muckraking journalists, no petition of outraged intellectuals, no review by international tribunals, no inquiries by human rights organizations, no voice of opposition.
Whatever may be said in favor of this practice, there is no justification for ordering me or any other innocent parent to stay away from our children in terms of their well-being. This is a practice that exists not for the welfare of children but for the power and enrichment of adults. It is a practice I cannot in conscience accept, and I believe no other parent can either.
The purpose of this letter is to inform you that I no longer consider your order binding on me and that it is my intention to disobey it. From this time forth I will consider myself free to be with my children whenever I or they choose. I will not hesitate to remove them from any institutional care center at which they are being stored. I will consider myself at liberty to go to any residence where they are being kept with the expectation that I will be permitted to be with my children. In short, I will behave as if I have the same right to do what I choose with my children when and where I choose as any other parent or as I had they day my eldest daughter was born, secure in the knowledge that I have done nothing to forfeit that right. All this will be done in the open view of the world.
At no time will I, as I have never done previously, behave in a disorderly manner; much less will I use any physical force. Consistent with what has always been my parental practice, I will quarrel with no one in the presence of my children. Should I be confronted, as I have been in the past, with contention, disrespect, or physical coercion, I will do my utmost not to respond in kind. Should I, as a creature endowed with my share of imperfections, be provoked to an indiscretion in the presence of my children, I will invoke the only tried and true remedy available to any parent in such circumstances, which is to say I will apologize. Witnessing this will do my children no harm and may possibly set an example they are not likely to see elsewhere. But I will also make it clear, as I must now make it clear to you, that I can no longer tolerate forced separation from my children.
I realize this is not the usual and, from your standpoint, preferred method of responding to a court order. I know that I am expected to hire a professional advocate to argue my case in a courtroom. Yet after prolonged and careful consideration, I have decided that I cannot pursue this course.
In the first place, to be brutally practical, I do not have the means. As a direct result of your ruling I was forced to resign my position, leave the only residence my family had ever had, and relocate here in order to be with my children. There is also something I find basically objectionable about any parent having to pay money to see his own children when he has been presented with no grounds for why they were taken in the first place. As with a conventional kidnapping, if I begin to pay money for this purpose, where does it end?
More to the point, it is not clear to me what I would argue in a courtroom, since not only have I have been accused of nothing; I have not accused anyone else of anything. In the absence of charges against me, I cannot and will not cooperate with an inquisition into my family life. It is also not my practice to discuss the shortcomings of members of my family with third parties, let alone to construct legal cases against them. Forcing me to do so as a condition of retaining my rights as a parent strikes me as morally equivalent to staging a cockfight. And again, I fail to see where it would end. Frankly, it appears to me that this entire process is designed less to arrive at any determination relevant to the welfare of my children than to provide business for associations of legal entrepreneurs.
Even more fundamentally, I cannot pursue this course because I cannot accept that you or anyone else has any grounds to intervene in my family and tell me when, where, and under what circumstances I may be with my children or to deny me the right to raise and protect them and make decisions for their welfare. In other words, it is not so much a particular ruling that I cannot accept as an unprovoked and unwarranted assumption of jurisdiction over my family. You may reply that this was solicited by parties that include members of my family. Yet this does not alter the fact that it was done without any grounds whatever. It is equally true to say that some 30 years ago the armies of the Warsaw Pact were “invited” to enter the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia, but this does not make it any less of any invasion.
I am also aware of the arguments against the alternative course of action I have chosen. No doubt I will be accused of inflicting an unpleasant experience upon my children by going to see them when I have not been authorized to do so. I have considered this at some length. It is this consideration, in part, that prevented me from responding in kind when my child was originally abducted from her home and before I was summoned to your court. I am sure that I was assisted in this restraint by the conviction that this country’s system of justice is fair and that justice would eventually prevail. (Yet I must regretfully note that this restraint seems to have counted nothing in my favor in your courtroom.) I would like to believe that conviction is still justified, though I am now convinced that this is more likely to be the case by refusing to accept your power to arbitrarily keep me from my children than by hiring a professional advocate to quibble over precisely how much you should do so.
I have also come to the conclusion that I cannot submit indefinitely to what amounts to a kind of blackmail, a blackmail rendered all the more heinous for holding as hostages two children and forcing a parent to stay away from them for fear of how others will respond to his presence. I trust you are familiar with the concept of a “heckler’s veto” and with its legal standing.
It is one thing to refrain from contention in the presence of children, which I have always done and will continue to do. It is another to acquiesce indefinitely in a crime committed against them. In fact it is precisely my concern to avoid further contention that leads me to take a public and open stand against this patent injustice rather than participating in a privately litigated battle that I cannot see will be to anything other than the detriment of my family.
The principal trauma being inflicted on my children is the forced destruction of their family and separation from one or both of their parents, a trauma that has been inflicted by your ruling. Given this, I firmly believe that, far from my harming my children, there are certain lessons in this that they need to be made aware of and that it is my responsibility as a parent to teach them. While I believe I have valid reasons as a citizen to disobey the law in this instance, I want to make clear to you that I also have connected but even more imperative ones as a parent.
It is my responsibility to teach my children that the proper course of action when faced with injustice is to resist and oppose it in a peaceful and dignified way. At some point they must learn that there are higher principles and a higher law they must always obey, even when it means they must break the civil law and accept the consequences for doing so. These are not only lessons that they can learn; they are lessons that they must learn and lessons that, in other contexts, we go to considerable lengths to teach them. In Sunday school my eldest daughter has already been exposed to the quiet courage of the Hebrew women, to the defiant stand of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to the public crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. In school she will soon be reading about the teachings and examples of Socrates, Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. As both a teacher of these ideas myself and a parent, I am acutely aware that there is no point in teaching our children one set of principles as being right in the abstract when we teach them the opposite by our own acts or failure to act precisely at the time when those principles are most needed to confront an injustice. It is perhaps unfortunate, but nevertheless unavoidable, that the circumstances of her life are now such that she must now witness the application of these principles sooner rather than later.
On the other hand, if I do not act I fear that the lessons my children are already learning are far more harmful than witnessing a parent peaceably and openly disobey an unjust court order. Virtually every principle of sound child-rearing is contravened by this immoral practice of forcibly separating children from their parents. For the sake of clarity and emphasis I will list the harmful messages I see them absorbing:
- They are learning that we put our own desires before the needs of others, including those we profess to love such as our own children.
- They are learning that children like themselves are not to be treated as people with needs and rights of their own, but used as tools and weapons in the quest for power and profit by adults.
- They are learning that ordinary family differences and disagreements are to be resolved not with love, understanding, and compromise, but with the courts and police.
- They are learning that the vows of marriage – and by extension all other pledges, promises, commitments, and agreements – mean nothing and can be abrogated when they are no longer to our advantage.
- They are learning that principles and values are something we adhere to only so long as they are convenient, and that we can invent the rules according to our momentary pleasure.
- They are learning that contrition and forgiveness mean nothing and that injuries to others are not to be atoned for and forgiven but nursed as grievances to be revenged when the opportunity presents itself.
- They are learning that when someone disagrees with us or has other ideas or beliefs than ours, we need not listen to him, even within our own family, because now we can use the courts to silence him and have the police keep him away.
- They are learning the methods of the bully, which in other contexts we attempt to discourage and protect them from.
- They are learning that anyone in their family can be eliminated when they fall out of favor – including, perhaps, our children themselves.
- They are learning that the instruments of the state and the justice system are not public tribunals for redressing public wrongs and establishing public justice but rather a system of hired force which we can marshal for private hurts, domestic differences, and personal grievances.
- They are learning that both the family and the state are dictatorships, ruled by an arbitrary power which can be marshaled against private enemies for private injuries.
- They are learning that they need not accept or obey the authority of a parent – and by extension any other authority as well, including their teachers, ministers, parent, and eventually the laws and tribunals of the public state.
- They will learn that the police are not instruments for maintaining public order and protecting the weak, but hired mercenaries that we can marshal against members of our own family when we don’t agree with what they do or say.
- They will learn that the justice system of this country is not based on due process of law but instead rounds up and incarcerates citizens who are accused of no crime and uses the lives of innocent people – including children – for the aggrandizement of its own power.
- They will learn that a citizen of this country need not be charged with any offense that is actionable in a court of law in order to be summoned to one and stripped of his most fundamental constitutional rights.
- They will learn that the Constitution of the United States is a lie, and the Bill of Rights is a meaningless piece of paper that can be ignored by those whose responsibility it is to protect it from abuse by others.
I believe it is these lessons that account for the alienation and the adversarial relationship that so many children – especially the children of divorce – are now developing toward the justice system, the society in which they live, and their own families. I know that so long as these messages are being imparted to my children by those who seek to separate me from them and by the instruments of the public state such as your court (and by me as well so long as I acquiesce in your ruling) any attempt by me to impart contrary messages will be at cross-purposes with forces too massive for me to compete with and prevail against.
I am aware of a more serious objection to this course of action I am taking. This is the possibility that you will punish my disobedience by further reducing access to my children. This has indeed weighed heavily on my mind. The obvious rejoinder – that such an act of judicial bullying would belie any pretense that this process is concerned with “the best interest of the child” – is little comfort to me. As with other objections, this fear prevents most parents from responding as I have.
I certainly do value my time with my children, and am very reluctant to do anything that may jeopardize it. Until now I have tried to work within these constraints to have as much positive influence on my children as possible.
Yet I find I cannot remain content with this choice indefinitely, and in the long run I cannot hold it up to my children as an example worthy for them to follow. For one thing, I observe from the experience of many forcibly separated fathers that their allotted “visitation” is only one factor contributing to the gradual erosion of bonds with their children, and that it is not possible to be an adequate parent to children from whom one is kept separated by the police. Unlike some, I am not convinced that preserving or increasing my legally permitted time with my children, while still preserving the power to dictate the terms under which I may be a parent to them, is likely to make this system any less of an injustice or any less of a detriment to my relationship with my children.
To rest content with this would be to admit that this allotment of time you have decreed for me is really little more than what amounts to a bribe. Those who have more experience with the family judiciary than I inform me that bribery is widespread. I myself have not otherwise observed it first hand, and it is not my purpose here to make accusations. But in this instance I can see – and so can the world – that a kind of bribery has been openly offered and accepted. Vaclav Havel, the Czech former dissident and now president, has said that a truly corrupt system is one where the bribery is so systemic that it extends even to the public. They are bribed with material or other inducements to accept and acquiesce in a system they know to be corrupt and immoral. I believe something similar is at work here. Like many other parents, I have been effectively bribed with enough time with my children to buy my acquiescence in a system that is patently unjust, immoral, and illegal and one that reduces me to the status of something less than a true parent.
While I value time with my children and know it to be important to their well-being, I also know that the benefits it bestows cannot continue indefinitely and under any circumstances. At some point, as my children come to understand the choice their parent has made – that he has made his peace with a system that has robbed them of their most basic rights and needs in order to be permitted to “get along” with his life – the net effect will become more harmful to them than healthy. All the “visitation” and “custody” and “child support” in the world will not provide them with the parent they need if he bends his back and holds his tongue when he had the opportunity to stand upright and speak out.
There is, in other words, something here much more fundamental than disputes over “visitation”, “custody”, “child support”, and the other jargon of your trade. It concerns the unnatural power to take a child away from a parent they love and who loves them, to dictate to a parent who has done nothing wrong when and where he may see his children and what he can say and do with them, to invade and occupy a family and run it by judicial fiat. This is the arrogance of power. No parent can accept this and remain a parent. This is why I am acting.
This piece was originally written by Stephen Baskerville several years ago. It addresses the frustration that many parents face in a court system that is broken. It begs the question of how family courts, Guardians ad litem and the divorce industry can live with themselves at the end of the day.
If you have been involved in a divorce/ custody gone bad and for good reason please contact us for support at NationalGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook.