Practicing Faith and Authenticity in Family Court

rabbi elliott tepperman, Bnai Keshet(1)

My dreams did not come true today. It was close. I learned about the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality as I was in the car on my way home from the courthouse. I cried tears of relief, fear, and happiness. As a proud advocate for LGBTQ rights for the whole of my adult life, I have been waiting for this day when all of my friends and countrymen can join in the sacred union of marriage. I was there on the frontline when it came in New Jersey and I am thrilled with the decision today.

My family court dreams did not come true today. But, I am one step closer and am proud of the work that I have done to ensure my son’s safety and a bright future. For the last three years, I have faced up with a criminal defense attorney in the family courtroom. Though it seems odd, my then-husband and I had her on the books already to get him out from under sexual assault charges that a 19-year-old employee at our restaurant brought. She was on the payroll for him so it was easy.

There was a level of humiliation and disgust that I felt with this woman that made it virtually impossible for me to face her in the courtroom. My husband’s “infidelity” was caught on security tapes so I saw it. I watched it only once so I wouldn’t have questions. The woman representing my ex-husband saw the video dozens of times over the course of the investigation. Though it should have been humiliating for him, I felt deep shame that my husband had cheated on me and truly believed his words, that it was my fault that he went somewhere else. That this woman who had seen this video then called me up to tell me ways I could save my marriage and then went before a judge 4 times (once it was an associate) and defended this man as a great and loving father still blows me away.

I was relieved and nervous when I found out after filing my latest motion that my ex had changed attorneys. I looked up the new attorney online to try to get an idea of what to expect. I found a very “guys guy” of a Jersey Man online and knew exactly why he had been chosen. I wasn’t looking forward to it but was prepared. Cut to this morning and I am waiting in the hall outside courtroom 19 with my friends Judy and Judy who had come along to support me. If you ever have to go to family court I highly recommend having an army of Judies at your disposal. I saw no one who matched the pictures I’d found online. Then my ex arrived and sat down next to this weasely looking man in his earlier thirties, maybe late twenties, who exuded no energy to me at all. A few minutes later two of my former sisters-in-law arrived, one of whom is an attorney, with another man in a suit who I assumed to be an attorney as well. I started to freak out. Their intimidation tactic was absolutely working.

I had always felt threatened by this family. Now there was a whole herd of them standing feet away and I could hear them talking and laughing. I had to get out of there. I packed up my things and moved down the hall to the courtroom door and stood to wait. My Judies came with me. I had recently shared a quote from Brené Brown that “calm people are obnoxious breathers.” In her talk on fear and vulnerability, she says “calm people breathe and I don’t mean like you and I breathe, they are obnoxious breathers.” One of my Judies said to me as I stood there shaking “now might be a good time to do that obnoxious breathing.”

The bailiff finally appeared at ten after nine and I was the second person to check in on a long docket of cases. We were third to be seen. I turned around to see opposing counsel standing a few feet away while his client was still down the hall. I mustered up all of my confidence, put on a fake smile, stuck out a strong arm and said “Robert? Elle. Nice to meet you.” I gave him a firm handshake, a handshake that is often commented on as being strong and powerful. He stuttered. He avoided eye contact. He gave me a weak, clammy hand that barely grasped mine and said “yah, uh, hi” then turned and walked away. Suddenly my breath returned and I wasn’t quite so anxious anymore. My opposition was more nervous than I was!

Our case was called and I took my place, alone at the table on the right, with my team of Judies behind me. I have found this a distinct disadvantage over the years. As the Plaintiff, I sit on the right. I am blind in my left eye. This means if I want to see opposing counsel or Liam’s father I have to completely turn. This means that I generally don’t get to see him squirm. Counsel stated his name for the record. Plaintiff and Defendant were sworn in. Our presiding judge, a spunky female with frizzy hair and loud glasses, asked for opening statements. I have never prepared anything. I have always let the papers talk because I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if I plead emotionally if I should cite rules and case law that I don’t really know if I say “Your Honor, this man is a batterer and a moron.” I couldn’t stay silent today and with a Parkinsonian shake in my hand, I held my opening statement and read it aloud. I looked up at the judge after each line expecting that she would stop me, that I was out of order. But she appeared to really be listening. This is what she heard:

Your Honor,

I have stood before you six times, alone and afraid. I don’t stand here alone because I choose to forego an attorney but because it is not a financial option. I have stood before you six times and let the papers talk, asking that my son be protected by this Court.

I have never tried to cut the Defendant out of our son’s life because I know the pain of growing up without a father and chose to try to do better by my boy. I have never agreed to extend the Defendant’s unsupervised time with our son. I know the man I was married to, and I left that man to protect our little boy. It was my hope that once we had orders that the Defendant’s behaviors would change, that our lives would be more consistent. But the only thing that has remained consistent is the Defendant’s inability to take responsibility and to hold himself accountable.

This tells me that the Defendant’s behaviors with and around our son have likely not changed either which means that our little boy is constantly in danger. From getting out of the vehicle to punch another driver’s window while his pregnant wife was in the car, to screaming at an unknown three year old in an amusement park and abandoning his wife and then 19 month old son in that amusement park, to leaving the country without notice to his son’s mother and giving her no way of contacting him in case of emergency, to habitually leaving in anger when he doesn’t get his way. All of these instances have been acknowledged or unopposed by the Defendant in previous proceedings. These are not the actions of a thoughtful, responsible parent. These are the actions of a quick tempered, self-indulgent individual with no capability to exhibit empathy.

[The Defendant] is now trying to skirt financial obligations by ripping his son out of a safe home, where he is loved, engaged, and guided. [The Defendant’s] repeated requests to expand his parenting time are a way for him to lower his monthly obligations and to hurt me the only way he still can, through our son. I will willingly surrender all financial obligations the Defendant currently has if Your Honor will please just do what is right for this little boy and let him have the stable home life he so deserves.

If Your Honor is not willing to alter the amount of hours the Defendant has with our son, please consider an adjustment that makes sense for a four and a half year old boy. The Defendant currently has 107 hours every two weeks. I ask that in the interest of Liam’s well-being, now that he is of school age, that this time be every other weekend from Friday at 8:00 am until Tuesday at 8:00 am. This will give Liam equal weekend opportunity with both of his families and alleviate all at home transitions when he is in school.

However, I strongly believe it is important to the well-being of Liam, my personal well-being, and the interest of this case to discover and establish any limitations that might exist when negotiating and following through on Orders regarding the Defendant. I believe [the Defendant] can be a better father if he is held to some realistic measures of change and knows that he will be made accountable.

Thank you, Your Honor.

When I read aloud my suggested parenting schedule the judge wrote a note on her pad. I shook and I waited for a reaction. Honestly, part of me was hoping for a reaction from “the Defendant”. He managed to contain his inner seething. Then it was their turn.

Opposing counsel talked about how his client, despite my defamatory accusations, is a good and loving father. His family is goods and loves Liam. His client takes his son on trips and vacations. The judge then interrupted “maybe instead of going on vacations your client should be making his support payments.” “Your Honor…” He went on to tell how his client always makes support payments and that his current arrears amount is zero. The judge interrupted “I have a report printed this morning that says your client owes over $2,000.” He went on to talk about how his client has made all of his payments and he evens has a copy of a check for $2,087. The judge interrupts “but at the time this motion was filed your client owed over $6,000.” “Yes but…” He changed the subject as I continued reciting Brené’s authenticity mantra: Don’t’ shrink. Don’t puff up. Stand your sacred ground.”

He proceeded to tell the judge how I should reimburse his client for a vacation that was canceled due to my motion. His exact words were “she forced him to cancel a vacation and should have to pay for the tickets…” The judge interrupted again. “She didn’t force him to cancel. I made the decision that he could not take the child out of school. He should not be making vacation plans during the school year and cannot take the child out of school.” OOOH! Shot down again!

OK, well let’s try something else. She interferes! Yes, the plaintiff is constantly interfering! “The Defendant even had to get an order so the Plaintiff would stop replacing the lunches he prepared for their son on the days he takes Liam to school.” This is true. Not one of my prouder moments but I still don’t think it was entirely out of line. Drop off is on his time. But lunch is on my time. I would replace the lunch of pepperoni, unrefrigerated cheese, graham goldfish and a cookie with what I feel is a healthier, more suitable lunch. The judge said I couldn’t do that and I haven’t since. But grasping at straws opposing counsel either on his own or guided by his client went on to say “Ms. Grae did this as late as last week, violating the Order.” Well, that’s just not true. Why do I know this? Because Liam wasn’t with his father last week. He was at home with us during that time for his dance recital and a visit with my mother and sister. Part of me wanted to jump up in the style of Carol Cane in “The Princess Bride” and yell “LIAR!!! LI-AAAAAARRRRR!” I refrained.

This continued for some time. I had a chance to respond and I pointed out opposing counsel’s failure to provide specifics on his allegations and that I was willing to provide alibies (not sure if that is the right word in family court) for any of those days to prove that I did not, in fact, do a super stealthy lunch swap. Then the ball went back to opposing counsel who proceeded to reference a disc of recordings I submitted with my response. They asked to strike this as evidence earlier in the week and it was then that the judge acknowledged that she did not listen to it. Ok, well, that sucks but moving on. NO! Not moving on! Opposing counsel proceeded to go on about how I was harassing our four-year-old son to get him to talk about his father. The judge stopped him. “If you don’t want me to listen to it, fine, but then you don’t get to tell me about it or reference it.” Shut down. Ok, she is a poor communicator! “Why, on June 11, the Plaintiff sent an email to the Defendant saying…” The judge interrupted again. “That is not a part of the papers and I am not going to consider it.”

At the end of the hearing, the judge said that she would have an Order out by the end of the day. End of day? Seriously? We have to wait! After leaving the courtroom my Judies congratulated me and said that I was much more poised and thoughtful than opposing counsel. As I was calling an elevator one of the Judies asked, “So when will you get the order?” Good question. I went back and asked the bailiff. He went back into the courtroom, reappeared and said it would be mailed. Mailed?!? Seriously!? A couple of hours later I called judge’s chambers and asked her secretary if I could come by and pick up a copy of the order. She said she didn’t know when it would be ready and it would be mailed. Nope, no pick-up. It is 2015! We have a black president, nearly universal healthcare, and marriage is a constitutional right of every single human being in this country, but the court can’t email or fax me a copy of a family court order!?! Come on.

So now we wait. We wait until Monday or Tuesday to receive an Order in the mail that will tell me whether or not my intuition and trust in faith was right. I believe that the financial piece will, once again, have backfired on Liam’s father who has again asked to have his obligation reduced. The judge already decided that if the man can spend $1,000 a month on the use of his 2014 Audi A6 he should be able to provide at least that much in child support. He asked for counsel fees and reimbursement for his trip, extended parenting time, Liam to be in pre-school full-time and summer school as well. I don’t think he is going to get any of that. I don’t think that the judge is actually going to grant me full, temporary legal custodianship of our son or cut all of his overnight visits with his father. But after today I am optimistic that she will refer him for psychiatric evaluation/treatment and maybe reassess our current parenting schedule.

Only time will tell. At 4:00 I had to turn Liam over to the clutches of his father. It was miserable. After, I went to an interfaith marriage equality celebration downtown. Sadly, my own ministers and husband are in Portland at UUA General Assembly so there were only a few of us UUs present. At the celebration, Rabbi Elliot Tepperman said “good will always come. Sometimes it just takes a long time.” We are three years in and I must have faith that good will come for my little boy. I will wait, find joy in my empty house, and be grateful for the wonderful people who I have cheering for me and my family. Why? Because love wins. Always.

Read more about the process of this hearing in “To Have Faith and Courage While Being Afraid”

1 thought on “Practicing Faith and Authenticity in Family Court”

  1. Laurice…you are a strong, strong woman. Good will come from the Universe, nothing can stop it.
    Blessings to you, Aiden and Marcus.


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