June 13, 1999
Kid custody war: A dad's tormentBy MICHELE MANDEL
In his wallet is her picture.
He pulls it out several times a day, gazes at her little face, her pretty eyes, until he can look no more without that wave of melancholy rushing to drown him. And he must put her photo away.
Her name is like a poem -- Devvena Victoria Burrows-Stevens -- born July 19, 1997 to him, Rick Stevens, and Deborah Burrows. But almost from the moment she was born, that innocent child has been the subject of that cruelest of competitions -- the tug and pull between estranged parents that only a Solomon could ever mediate.
The courts, though, have tried. The first interim order allowed Stevens, 36, supervised access twice a week. A month later, it was changed to unsupervised, set daytime visits. By her first birthday, the court confirmed that Burrows would have custody of Devvena, but ordered that Stevens be allowed more visits and be consulted in any major decision affecting his child's life -- from her health to her education.
With this promise of more time with his daughter, including overnight visits, he moved into a two-bedroom unit in a non-profit housing complex for single moms and dads in St. Catharines. He had her crib ready, her diapers, her toys, all shiny and new.
And there they remain, virtually untouched.
Despite the court order, he saw his baby less than before. Every attempted visit was thwarted, he says, and in two months, he successfully visited his daughter only on one or two occasions. So he went back to court last August to ask them to enforce his visitation rights.
The hearing was set for Sept. 15. Burrows called to say she was ill. The hearing was postponed to another date. Until here, all of this is a scenario that many know only too well. The bitter war stories of child custody battles, the games and the delays, are as commonplace as they are sad. It is only here that it digresses, here where Stevens discovered that she'd taken custody and access matters into her own hands.
"I went to her house the next day," he recalls, his voice falling with each moment of memory. "The windows were all boarded up. Her (step)father said she and the baby had gone to B.C."
He called the police, Child Find, the courts. A judge ordered the child returned to Ontario, but there was no sign of her. It wasn't until February that Stevens finally learned from Burrows' brother that his baby wasn't in Canada at all. She had been taken to England where Burrows was born.
And now an ocean divides them. So he dreads next Sunday, Father's Day, when he still cannot be her father at all. "It's pretty rough. I haven't seen her for Christmas. Her birthday. And now Father's Day."
But he is a father who simply refuses to give up. In April, he went before Madam Justice J.W. Scott of the Ontario Court of Justice and told his story. She terminated Burrows' custody order and granted Stevens full custody of Devvena, finding that Burrows had "unilaterally and without consultation with Mr. Stevens uprooted the child from the home environment familiar to her and moved to England ... the suggestion by her stepfather that the respondent and the child were heading to British Columbia almost, at this juncture, appear to have been diversionary tactics to at least throw off or delay the applicant to his application, or perhaps even to discourage him from attempting to see his daughter again."
How wrongly she misjudged him. He was determined to go to England to get his daughter. But with a slipped disc forcing him off work, there was no money to pay his way.
As soon as his church and the single moms in his complex heard about his plight, they mounted an amazing effort to help him. With their fundraisers and the savings bond cashed in by his mother, he was able to fly to London last month to fight for his little girl.
The local police found them in Newcastle and seized Burrows' passport. Burrows told a judge that she fled because she feared Stevens. Perhaps we will hear Burrows' side of the story on July 23 when a judge has ordered a trial to determine if she and Devvena must return to Canada. He also advised her to let Stevens visit the baby he hasn't seen in almost a year.
But once again, Burrows created so many roadblocks that in the end, Stevens returned home without ever seeing her. He hopes to see his daughter when he returns next month for court.
Outside his window, children's laughter floats on the warm breeze and you can almost hear his heart ache. "You know, we still have our Christmas tree up with all of Devvena's presents under there. My mother thinks I should take it down, but I can't." He pulls out her photo again. "I always look at it and say, 'One day we'll all be together.' "
He only hopes one day is almost here.
Copyright© 1999, Canoe Limited Partnership.