The Shame of Maryland Joint Custody Laws|
Pam J. A. Issa
I am not unlike thousands of other parents throughout the state that ask this question almost daily. I entered into a Joint Custody Agreement several years ago and my experience has taught me that it is not worth the paper it is written on. My ex-husband has violated every paragraph of the Joint Custody Agreement.
Your first response will probably be... Take him to court and file a Petition of Contempt. Well I have done that numerous times over the past four years. I have also filed Petitions to Modify Custody when the violations were in the extreme. Not one time has he been found in contempt. The courts did however re-write my Custody Agreement a total of six times.
Let me give you a little history on the types of violations that have occurred, so if you are not a parent who has experience with Custody Issues it may give you a better understanding.
Violations have included a simply missed phone visitation. You may think that is not such a big deal, especially if you are not a parent. These phone visitations mean everything to the parent who cannot see their children on a daily basis. This is the only connection you have with them. If these phone visitations are missed, the bond that is between a parent and child begins to break down. Absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder, it breaks it a little bit every day.
The next violation could be missed visitation. The parent responsible for dropping the children off may claim car trouble, or maybe one of the children are sick, or the parent is sick. So you go to pick your children up, but you find that no one is at home or maybe your ex just refuses to let the children go with you. Then you figure, well I'll call the police and I'll get their assistance in enforcing the Court Order. Guess what? They cannot assist you. Do you want to know why? Child Custody issues are a civil matter and the police cannot get involved. The nice officers will advise your ex that he is in violation of the order, but there really isn't anymore they can do. They will advise you to go to court.
One of the violations I encountered was such a simple thing. My ex failed to list me on the Emergency Contact Card at my children's school. The space where it requests information on Mother was simply left blank. This coupled with the fact that he failed to provide the school with a copy of the Joint Custody Agreement basically gives the school the impression that there is no Mother, perhaps she is deceased, or just abandoned her children, who knows.
Missed Holidays and Birthdays are something my ex is great at. I am supposed to have the children the Saturday preceeding their birthdays. Since their birthdays are in winter months, they live with him during that time frame. I have planned so many parties, where on the day of the party I need to tell their friends, sorry it's cancelled. Even if their Birthday falls on my scheduled weekend, he still manages to miss that weekend. Now, we just play it by ear and if they make it down, we do a special day. What we do to have a big party, is do theme parties during the period they are with me.
Holidays are pretty much handled the same way. Always an excuse and nothing I can do except file papers in court. As an answer to this complaint, one judge awarded an extra week after Christmas for visitation. That is nice, but it doesn't make up for not having your children on the day you are supposed to.
These violations were bad enough, but the worst one was when my ex-husband disappeared out of state. There had been numerous problems with the visitation. Initially I would pick the kids up from school every other Friday, but most of the time my ex-husband would go to the school and take them out early. He has come up with excuses of dental appointments, doctor's appointments, etc. He testified regarding an alleged dental appointment once and I obtained proof from the dentist that no such appointment took place - PERJURY you say, well I have documentation of four items my ex-husband has perjured himself with, no judge has ever addressed them. Well after one weekend visitation in February 1995, I dropped the children off on Sunday evening. I tried to reach them by phone on Tuesday with no success, nothing unusual there. Well for Valentines Day, I had balloons and flowers sent to the kids at school. Guess what? The florist called me to inform me they were unable to deliver the flowers because the children I had sent them to were no longer in the school.
My attorney was in court on Valentines Day so I did an emergency walk through with a Petition of Contempt/Modification of Custody by myself. I had to notify my ex-husband's last attorney of record that a Show Cause Order had been signed. A Show Cause Order is simply a notification of a hearing scheduled 30 days away that demands an appearance in court to show why you should not be held in contempt. On February 15, 1995 my ex-husband's attorney put in a Motion to Strike his Appearance. Luckily it was denied and he was ordered to find his client and a conference was scheduled in the Judge's Chambers. You know what happened? A re-written custody order and a hearing scheduled for September.
The school principal, vice principal and secretary knew that there was a Joint Custody Agreement, they also knew that there were problems with the visitation. According to the Superintendent for Baltimore City Public Schools they had no obligation to notify me that the children were transferred to a different school. They couldn't even tell me what school, they had simply received a phone call that the kids were being transferred somewhere in Pennsylvania. Until they received the official request for records, they had no idea exactly where.
Numerous violations continued between March and September. In September the Judge made no ruling he scheduled a new hearing for December to render his decision regarding the custody issues. Between September and December more violations occurred and I was even assaulted by my ex-husband's new wife in the presence of my children. I did not even defend myself, because I do not wish to send a message of violence to my children. Luckily there were witnesses to this outside of my family who did testify during the hearing. Still in December nothing changed. We got a new Custody Order which was signed February 4, 1996.
In my custody order I have a stipulation that my kids cannot visit with their paternal great grandparents unless supervised. The reason I put this in the agreement was because in 1992, my ex's grandfather plead guilty to improper sexual contact of a minor child. That minor child was the four year old daughter of my ex's previous girlfriend.
My ex-husband at one point moved our children in with his grandparents and when I contacted the State's Attorney's office they said there was nothing I could do unless a crime against my daughter or son occurred. The reason was the way that his grandfather's probation was written... That's right -- he plea bargained and got probation because he had only touched the child through her clothing. I have a copy of the actual police report and his statements.
His probation only ordered him to have no contact with the victim. It did not order him to avoid contact with other children. Prior to me making an issue of this in court, my ex-husband changed residences, but has failed to ever list that he lived there. In December of 1997 he was unable to come to pick up the children following the visitation so he asked his parents to do it and watch the kids for one day, but they were unable to so he asked them to take the kids to his grandparents, but they refused because they knew it was in violation of the order. That is probably when the problems with his parents begain to really erupt.
When my ex-husband took the kids to PA he told the judge during the subsequent hearing that it was for a wonderful job opportunity. What he failed to mention was that making that move to a shared house with his in-laws, meant leaving his house in Maryland and the job opportunity only lasted four months. His home was foreclosed on one year after he left the state. He maintained that home for one year after the move and rented it to his present wife's family who apparently trashed the place.
When the move to PA took place my daughter went from and A - B student to failing second grade. My son who was in pre-K in MD wasn't enrolled in school in PA until the following school year. My ex denied getting child support payments from me and guess what the courts believed him and order me to repay the monies.
I later obtained copies of the cashed money orders that he stated under oath he never received during the 9/95 hearing. At the time the evidence was submitted on four counts of perjury the case was at the Appellant level and they would not enter the new evidence because they could only review the original case.
On February 13, 1996 I received a message on my answering machine from a Pennsylvania Attorney regarding a hearing scheduled on February 15, 1996. I received no copies of pleadings in this case, my attorney of record was never notified and there really wasn't a whole lot of time for my attorney to petition the PA Courts for a writ of habius corpus or for me to obtain PA Counsel. I defended myself in Pennsylvania. This is when I learned about the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act which has been adopted by most states. In essence, this act states that if custody proceedings have been started in one state, they cannot be opened in another state without first requesting the initial state accept the change in Jurisdicition. That was my defense when I went to PA along with the fact of how I was notified of the proceedings. The judge agreed with me and did nothing.
My attorney had to file additional motions in Maryland to make sure that the jurisdicition did not change. Luckily it was granted. Sometimes you are not so lucky. During the December, the Judge did add that there were to be no changes in residence without 120 days notice in writing.
Well the violations continued and I kept filing the necessary court documents and hearings were scheduled. During one hearing my ex claimed that weather was the reason he could not bring the children from Pennsylvania. On the scheduled visitation weekend in question, his wife was here in Baltimore and appeared on the news regarding the weather. I obtained a copy of that tape and entered it as evidence during that hearing. I got yet another re-written custody order which subsequently was lost by the clerks office never to surface again. I had to supply a copy to the courts in a March 1998 hearing.
I had a hearing March 24, 1998 regarding another contempt charge, please understand, I do not file petitions for just one violation, these violations mount and then I file. At this hearing the judge simply issued a memorandum that my ex-husband would have to make up all visitation missed to date. On April 14, 1998 my ex-husbands phone was disconnected and after a week of not contacting the children they called me from a relatives. When I asked my daughter why she wasn't at home on a school night she stated she was just visiting people. It just didn't sound right. I contacted the local police department in my ex-husband's town and they verified my worst fears, the house was vacant. My current husband and I travelled to PA and found it to be true, the house was vacant and according to neighbors they had moved during a weekend that my ex-husband said he was too sick to bring the children down.
On March 28, 1998 I had received correspondence from my ex that he was planning a move. When I questioned him in reference to the date of the move, he told me in July because he knew he had to give me 120 days notice. Well upon investigating his move, I uncovered the fact that he had been evicted. He was served with the final eviction notice on March 18, 1998. He never once mentioned this in court on March 24, 1998. He did not mention it to me in his letter. He had instructed my children to lie about moving so he wouldn't go to jail. This is what he told my children. Once they had lied to me on the phone he then told them not to lie anymore.
Well after April 15, 1998 all phone contact with my children was stopped. All visitation was stopped. I went back to court on an emergency ex-parte motion to modify custody and petition of contempt. I found out at the time I went to the clerks office that there was a Motion to Strike the Appearance of my ex's current attorney with a judge that day. The judge I went before signed another Show Cause Order which I had to serve on my ex-husband. Since his attorney's motion to strike her appearance was with a judge to sign off on, I travelled to PA and hired a constable to attempt service on my ex-husband. The constable found his mother-in-law but she refused the papers and ordered him off her property.
I then hired the Sheriff's department to serve the documents. They attempted three times. My ex's mother-in-law called the Sheriff's department to try to find out exactly what the papers were, but they could not give her that information. She then told them that her son-in-law would be in to pick up the documents, he never did.
After he had evaded service I went back into court and obtained temporary custody and alternative service allowing me to post it at his last address, his current alleged address and serve the documents on his mother-in-law since she had involved herself so much. I travelled back to PA and hired another constable to serve these documents. Once the documents were served my ex-husband had 48 hours to comply. I telephoned his mother-in-laws and sister-in-laws phone numbers to let him know that if he failed to comply with the orders and arrest warrant would be issued and the FBI could become involved because he was out of state.
I received harassing phone calls from his family members and was cursed out when I attempted to call there. After 48 hours I called 911 and filed an abduction report then went to the Court Commissioner and an arrest warrant was issued. The FBI did become involved and an agent met with me and my ex-husband's parents regarding this matter. I still have a relationship with his parents because he fails to keep in contact with them because they do not agree with how he is handling everything. The worst was when they took my daughter out for her Birthday and brought her some clothes while she was with me on a visitation weekend. He drove by their house and threw the clothes on their porch with my daughter in the car. Well back to the case itself. I attempted to call my ex-husband to leave the number of the FBI Agent so he could talk directly to him and hopefully come to his senses regarding the seriousness of the situation. I was cursed at and hung up on. The FBI Agent personnally called and was met with the same greeting.
After that the State Police were called in to attempt to apprehend my ex-husband. After that call was made a police officer from my ex-husband's town called to warn me that I would be arrested for phone harassment if I continued to call to my ex-husband's mother-in-law's residence. Once I explained the situation, he abruptly hung up on me and apparently went to the residence. The State Police arrived and my ex-husband's wife told them that she knew where her husband was but she refused to tell them. A few days later my ex-husband's attorney resurfaced -- we are now in the last days of May. A hearing scheduled for June 8, 1998. My ex-husband showed up without the kids at the hearing, but they were brought later. The FBI Agent was there to testify, my family, my ex-husband's parents were subpoenaed, etc. We received notification of the hearing date and on that document it stated if you needed more than 2 hours you must request a new date. Two hours was sufficient for the hearing. By the time our case was called, the judge told us that we did not have two hours.
The case was rescheduled for October 12, 1998.
The violations continue. When my children were here on Labor Day my daughter made a comment that sent chills down my spine. I told the kids to take their showers before it was time to go back to thier dad's. My daughter said that's okay, we finally got water, so I can take a bath at our house. This prompted me to ask her what she meant by finally and she relayed the following. Since moving in to their trailer in late March early April they have had no running water. Thier toilet has been a bucket. My daughter relayed the same to her paternal grandmother. I travelled to PA on 9/8/98 and did some research on PA Law regarding water and septic. Both are requirements for occupancy. I also contacted Children and Youth Services regarding the alleged living conditions. While my ex-husband did now have water, the toilet did and water system did not lead to a septic system. The toilet and water simply discharged underneath the trailer onto the ground. CYS intake officer told me that it was a lifestyle choice.
I acquired copies of the State and Local Ordinances from the law library. On a second trip to PA I obtained copies of their sewage permit application and verified with the Sewage Enforcement Officer that there was no septic system on the property to his knowledge because he is the person responsible for site inspection and issuance of permits.
When my children came back down on September 18, 1998 I asked my daughter if a septic system had been installed. According to her it was not. I did not allow my children to go back with thier father to Pennsylvania. I instead told him that I would be filing a court action against him and suggested he contact his attorney. At 5:00 a.m. the police came to my door and told me they would come in and take my children. I told them that legally they could not, I had forty-eight hours before violating the custody agreement became a criminal offense that they could get involved in and they would first need the arrest warrant. One thing I have learned is the law in Maryland. My attorney was contacted by my ex's attorney who stated his client did have a toilet and proper facilities and that I could have anyone go to check. He would allow me on his property to do so. Well it was agreed that I would go to PA that evening with the children and if everything was okay I would release the children to his care. At 2:30 that afternoon however, the SEO called from my ex-husband's property and verified that not sewage system was in place and he was in violation of local laws. The residence could not be occupied. He sent a faxed statement to that effect. I went to court on Tuesday and a judge simply ordered the kids be returned to my ex's care and he not live at his residence.
The hearing I have waited for since June will probably be postponed because of two reasons. Baltimore did not schedule the medical service evaluation nor did they appoint the attorney for the kids as was noted in a July 14, 1998 hearing. This means this case will probably carry over to a new year and yet another judge.
I have contacted politicians, parents groups, and the media in reference to the problems that I have experienced with this case. The court file is public record and contains most of the documentation. What is not in the file is in my possession and the possession of my attorney. Most of the transcripts from the various hearings have been done. I am still waiting on two from the court reporters.
My case is not unique. I wish it were. There are thousands of parents in Maryland with similar experiences. If you look on the internet you will find stories just like mine in other states.
The judicial system needs to be restructured so that one judge hears a case until the children are adults (18 years if that's what is necessary.) This will ensure that documents are not lost, items overlooked, case files reviewed properly, not just glancing through a file five minutes before a hearing.
If someone violates even one line of the custody agreement, hold them accountable, don't just turn the other cheek and think that they will do the right thing. Adults are not always the mature, responsible parents they should be and the courts know this.
The court orders a five hour parenting seminar. Five hours is not enough for most parents in the throws of divorce or continued custodial disputes. Order continued family therapy at places like Children of Separation and Divorce, Sheppard Pratt, or Johns Hopkins. The resources are there and many of these centers work with the parents on payment plans. Order family mediation.
The judges need to talk to the children involved. Kids are generally the most honest individuals in these situations. Don't think that a child cannot add anything constructive just because they are under 12. Age does not matter. Appoint an advocate for the child if you will not speak directly to them.
Laws need to be changed regarding the level of authority given to police officers regarding enforceing custody agreements. It is a crime to violate these orders, treat it as such.
The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act does not work if you simply allow time to change the meaning of the ACT. One court needs to retain jurisdication indefinitely as long as one parent continues to reside in that jurisdiction. People flee to other states because they know if they wait a couple of years eventually the courts will change jurisdiction.
Please do not just sympathize with me. Do something to change the laws. Contact your politicians. Tell them that you demand a change.
I cannot change what has happened in my case. Things probably will not change in October. My children have learned through all of this that laws are meant to be broken and there is no one there to help them.
It is my hope that I can change things for the next family. Make a difference for the next child caught in the middle of divorce. Divorce is hard enough on a child. The mishandling of custody cases, compounds that problem on a continual basis.
Please write to your politicians, go down to the courts personnally and review some of these files, they are public record. Talk to some parents that you know who have experienced custody. I am sure they will confirm what I have expressed here. Don't be surprized if you get a response that isn't that clear. An example of one follows.
Date: Thu, 01 Oct 1998 18:21:47 -0700
Thank you for acknowledging my earlier correspondence. While you have acknowledged that there is a problem with the enforcement of custody orders, you did not state what you as a politician are willing to do to solve the problem. What if any assistance can you offer to me and the thousands of other parents faced with the same dilema? Please do not just sympathize and acknowledge that the problems exist, tell me what can we do to fix them.
I look forward to your response.
Robert L. Frank wrote:
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