Judge: You Are the Scum of the Earth
The family court where my divorce action took place eighteen years ago is smack dab in the middle of horse country, a bastion of gentility known for its rolling estates and fancifully-named, great family houses passed down through the generations. Conservative to the core, even today, it is a less than ideal place to test challenges to traditional values. Judges and influential members of the court system are drawn from the ranks of these residents, whose personal blood lines are rivaled only by the pedigrees of their four-legged thoroughbreds.
I think my attorney described it best when she said it was “not exactly the hub of enlightenment.”
Still, I was optimistic about the outcome of the legal custody process, buoyed by articles I’d read. Courts seemed to favor keeping children with their mothers, if at all possible. I knew I was a good mother. Naively, I felt confident that the court would agree.
I was wrong.
* * * * * * *
I expected my first day in court to be unpleasant. But I was horrified to realize that the hearings took place in an open forum. Divorcing husbands and wives testified in front of a roomful of strangers; those of us awaiting our turn were packed into rows of benches in the gallery.
The testimony laid bare intimate personal information about salary, bank accounts and credit cards, as well as lurid details of alleged abuse and infidelity.
Our turn came. My attorney directed me to the table on the right. She warned me not to speak; she would do all the talking. “Don’t look so scared,” she whispered, smiling confidently. “I’ll handle everything.”
My husband’s attorney stated that they would not contest the divorce. However, she expressed serious concerns about the welfare of the children. So much so, that in addition to awarding custody to my husband, she strongly recommended that all interaction between the children and me be supervised.
The gallery stirred behind me; this piqued their interest. I felt dozens of eyes boring into my back. Saw the court clerk and the bailiff lean forward in anticipation.
Apparently the judge hadn’t read our paperwork. She put on her glasses and shuffled through the pages in the file. The request related to custody was unusual. She asked their reason why.
The opposing attorney‘s voice bristled with outrage. “The mother is involved in a homosexual affair. It is our position, your honor, that the children must be removed from contact for their safety and protection. For the same reason, we advise against unsupervised visits and overnights.”
Somebody behind me gasped. A wave of murmuring overtook the gallery. The judge looked at me over her glasses. Her eyes roamed from the collar of my business suit, down to my heels.
My attorney jumped up. “Your honor!” she exclaimed indignantly.
The judge looked grave. “As this is a preliminary hearing, we will not at this time delve further into these allegations. But . . . “
She looked hard at me again, and then pronounced, “It is hereby ordered that primary physical custody of the three minor children is awarded to Father. I will allow the eldest to stay with Mother to complete her senior year of high school. Mother to have alternate weekends and Wednesday evenings. At this time, unsupervised. Father’s counsel to prepare the order for my signature.”
As quickly as that, it was over. My attorney gathered up her papers and we left the courtroom, my cheeks flaming.
Neither of us spoke until we reached the parking lot. She explained that our best position would be denial. That coming out would probably mean I would never have custody of the kids.
“But, I’m a good mother!” I protested. “And he’s been an absentee father for most of their lives. He doesn’t even know them; I don’t even think he remembers their birthdays or the names of their friends.”
“Listen, you have to trust me on this,” she said gently. “If we were in Philadelphia, our chances would be better. But here – well, it’s not exactly the hub of enlightenment. If you really want those kids back, this is the only way.”
Of course, the denial strategy didn’t work. The truth came out sooner rather than later. As my attorney had predicted, it did not bode well for me.
* * * * * * *
I learned that the judicial system was not designed for speed. You could bring only one issue up at a time. Each side could appeal a given decision. The court docket did not provide for mercifully fast conclusions, either. There was a dearth of judges that led to a backlog of several months. All but emergency matters, and sometimes even those, had to wait for time on the court calendar.
Often, our hearings were “continued” or rescheduled. It got to the point where, if the hearing were continued, I was more relieved at the delay than frustrated by it.
Because, no matter what the outcome, the ruling would be served up with a long lecture about moral turpitude, aimed at me.
The worst part of it all was that I had to suffer in silence. I was not permitted to say a word. I just stood there, my head bowed under the weight of the judge’s words about decency and virtue.
And I started to believe those words.
* * * * * * *
Our divorce took seven years. In the fifth year, my daughter asked to come live with us. I was elated, but my attorney told me not to get my hopes up.
“Even though she’s 16, it might not happen. Even though the precedent is that the court allows kids her age to decide where they want to live,” she said. “But in your case? Well, we just don’t know.”
* * * * * * *
The morning of the hearing I woke up feeling different. The usual queasiness that accompanied every court appearance had been replaced. Today I felt strong, resolute. I couldn’t wait to get to court.
I didn’t care how the judge ruled or what she thought of me. I had decided that my daughter was coming home with me that day, no matter what.
Inside the courtroom, our case was the first heard.
Both sides presented arguments. When the judge indicated she was ready to rule, my attorney directed me to stand. The judge made us wait for several minutes while she rifled through our files. The paperwork attached to our case was now so voluminous it occupied its own box, filled with redwells and at least three six inch-thick manila folders.
Finally, the judge turned to us. When she spoke, she made no effort to disguise her disgust. “Despite my strong misgivings, I will grant Plaintiff’s request,” she said, “but only due to legal precedent. I have no doubt that within months we’ll be back here again because of this child, to reverse this decision.”
Then she launched into a tirade, berating me for almost five full minutes. She told me that because of my actions and my abhorrent life style, I had severed any hope of regaining a normal relationship with my children. That I didn’t deserve one, in any case. That I was a mother courtesy of biology but wasn’t worthy of the honorable title of mother. That she would rather return a child to any other mother, even if she were an addict or an alcoholic, than to me. And a lot more.
When she was finished, my attorney sat down, but I remained standing. My attorney tugged at my sleeve.
And then something extraordinary happened.
I didn’t know I was going to do it. I wasn’t prepared for the way the words bubbled up from deep inside and cascaded out of me in an unstoppable torrent.
I remember speaking for a long time, undeterred even when the judge banged her gavel and told me I was out of order. My voice was calm and strong as I described what motherhood meant to me.
I watched the judge’s face change, from outrage to anger. Because she couldn’t stop me, she started to listen. And then, most remarkable of all, I saw something else in her eyes – doubt. A realization that she might have misjudged me. That in the past, she might have been wrong.
When I sat down, the room was hushed. The judge stared at me for several long seconds; then she quietly called for the next case.
My attorney whispered, “Wow. That was one of the best oral arguments I’ve ever heard in a courtroom.”
That day was a turning point for me. As I listened to myself addressing the judge, my faith in myself returned. My own words convinced me that I was not a bad person, that I had been a good mother, and nothing anyone could say would ever again convince me otherwise.
Finally I realized that I had to speak out in order to change hearts and minds. And I have never been silent since.