Parents Magazine, April, 2000
The nightmare began with a knock on the door. On that hot August afternoon in 1993, my wife was out shopping, and the kids, Dan, 9, and Laura, 6, were at swimming lessons with my parents, who had flown in from New Jersey. The visitor identified herself as a caseworker for Child Protective Services and told me that I had been accused of physically abusing my son. I laughed. She didn't. When I asked who would make such a ridiculous charge, she said the information was confidential. "I'd like you to leave," I said, barely containing my anger and incredulity. Having dropped her bombshell, she complied.
When my wife got home, she refused to discuss the matter and referred me to her lawyer. It was clear that my accuser was the woman I had been married to for ten years. I had known our relationship was in trouble, but I'd never imagined she would do anything like this. It felt as if someone had hit me in the hack of the head with a sledgehammer.
Two days later the sheriff's office served me with divorce papers. The following week, the caseworker came back to interview both of the kids. When she came downstairs afterward, looking a little annoyed, she declared there was nothing to the allegations. I was momentarily relieved -- but the war had just begun.
My ex-wife, of course, has her own view of the events leading up to this conflict. For my part, I'm still baffled by her transformation into my bitter enemy. When we met at the Denver Post, where we both reporters, I was attracted to her beauty as well as her blend of idealism and scepticism. We married while I was getting my MBA at Yale. After our kids were born we moved to the Los Angeles area, where I spent two years as director of development for Tom Hanks, evaluating scripts and cultivating relationships with agents, writers and producers. We were living the good life, southern California-style. Yet my wife grew increasingly unhappy with our marriage. Now it seemed, her discontent had hardened into hatred. Soon after the caseworker met with the kids, we went to court, and the judge dismissed the abuse charges. Then, in November, my wife alleged that I had abused her. We went back to court, and the judge dismissed that charge as well.
At that point, we all still lived under the same roof. My wife and I were sleeping in separate rooms and barely speaking to each other. But I stayed, in part, to give the kids a modicum of stability. "If you and Mom break up," my daughter said one day, "it'll heartbreak us." I wanted to postpone that heartbreak as long as possible. Besides. the court was in the process of deciding custody and if I left my wife would more likely be named the custodial parent.
In March 1994, the court-ordered evaluator recommended fifty-fifty physical custody, which I agreed would be best for Dan and Laura. My wife, however, was outraged. She contested the evaluation, but a court mediator concurred with it, and in June the judge affirmed it with a temporary custody ruling. Not long afterward, my wife moved back to her childhood home in Nebraska -- leaving the children behind.
Laura was confused and scared. "Why didn't Mom take us with her?" she asked. Dan was shocked, but he was also somewhat relieved. For months, he'd been acting as peacemaker, and now he looked forward to just being a kid again. I had been working freelance: developing film projects and screenwriting, and having spent thousands of dollars on lawyers and psychologists, I could no longer afford to pay the mortgage. I put our house up for sale, and the kids and I moved to an apartment. No pets were allowed, so a friend in Colorado offered to look after our dog. Hearing that we would be in Denver, my wife asked if she could meet us there and spend some time with the children, whom she hadn't seen in six weeks.
In Denver, my wife spent just three hours with the kids before bringing Dan back. She went off with Laura for a few more days -- and then refused to return her. When my wife relented, Laura resisted getting into the car with me. Five miles down the road, she was crying so hard that I agreed to let her stay with her mom a little longer. I will regret that decision as long as I live.
A little while turned into overnight. The next day my wife asked us to meet her outside a Denver police station. Standing in the parking lot, the two of us haggled over 7-year-old Laura, who was clutching her mother's leg. I offered them two more weeks together, but my wife would accept no time limits. She insisted that Laura's behavior proved that my daughter was terrified of me. To me, it proved only that Laura, having been abandoned once by her mother, was afraid of losing her again. After ten hours, it was clear that we had reached an impasse. Dan and I drove back to California. I was sobbing much of the way.
I went back to court, and the judge scheduled another mediation. Laura and my wife flew to California for the session. After less than two hours with my family, this new mediator -- who had a reputation for favoring mothers -- recommended that both children go to Nebraska. Despite the previous joint-custody ruling, she believed that Laura had reason to be afraid of me. The mediator also complained that Dan -- who'd told her he wanted to be at soccer practice instead of inside a stuffy courthouse -- was rude. I couldn't believe it. You tear a child away from his home because he's rude?
Thankfully my lawyer was able to convince the judge that Dan had no connection to Nebraska and wanted to stay with me. But that evening in September, I hugged my little girl and watched her leave -- perhaps forever.
The next few months were a blur I felt defeated, betrayed, empty. The divorce became final, and my ex-wife began using her maiden name as Laura's surname. She still showed little interest in Dan. On the rare occasions when I was permitted to speak to my daughter on the phone, our conversations were painfully awkward.
Dan and I flew to Nebraska in November to visit Laura, but my ex-wife wouldn't let me be alone with her. The Nebraska court believed my ex's belated claim that I had assaulted her in the Denver police parking lot months earlier, so the day after we arrived, I was stopped by a squad car and served with a protective order. I was allowed only a few brief visits with Laura, always accompanied by a chaperon. On my 43rd birthday, when we met at a restaurant, my ex-wife's brother was our uninvited guest.
I'm thrown in jail
The California court ordered that Laura, now 8, could visit me for five weeks in June 1995. What happened then made everything that had come before seem trivial. Thirty-six hours after Laura arrived, she phoned the police from a neighbor's apartment and told them that I had molested her. I was arrested, handcuffed, photographed, fingerprinted, and thrown in jail. I couldn't call my lawyer because it was a Sunday, and I didn't have his home phone number. Both my kids were taken to a shelter for abused and neglected children.
Sitting in a cell, accused of the worst crime imaginable, I could see little reason for a judge to take my word against my daughter's -- and little hope for my future. But at 3:00 A.M. on my second night in jail, the bail money my parents had wired came through; and my lawyer, Guy Parvex (who had discovered my whereabouts), got out of bed to drive me home. The following afternoon, citing a lack of evidence, the district attorney decided not to press charges.
Dan was released from the shelter, but because there was an ongoing investigation, Laura had to stay there for a month. My ex-wife flew in, and therapists and lawyers interviewed all four of us. It became very clear that the allegations over the years had been false. In none of the evaluations and reports had anyone -- whether teacher, friend, or mental-health professional -- ever hinted that I was anything but a devoted father. As for the molestation charge, it emerged that my ex-wife had told Laura that if she wanted to come home, all she had to say was that her dad had touched her in a bad place. Bad meant anywhere covered by a one-piece swimsuit -- an item my wife had asked me to buy Laura at the start of her visit.
A juvenile court judge ruled that Laura could be released from the shelter and go home with her mother, a trial was scheduled for the following month, at which final custody would be determined. When the day arrived, my ex-wife didn't show up. I took the stand and told the story of' our family's destruction. Seven hours later, I listened in amazement and gratitude as the judge awarded me sole custody of both children.
Feeling vindicated at last, I drove with Dan to Nebraska to pick up Laura. My ex-wife was supposed to bring her to the office of my Nebraska lawyer, David Hecker, but after we arrived, we got a fax saying they weren't coming. Her lawyer claimed that the custody ruling in California didn't apply, because Nebraska had jurisdiction. Dan and I drove home again. An hour after we got there, Hecker called to say that Nebraska didn't have jurisdiction, and Laura was to be sent back to me.
It was arranged that we'd meet in the parking lot of my California lawyer. Surrounded by a group of her friends, my ex-wife screamed at my lawyer and me for an hour before letting Laura leave -- and vowed she would get her back.
Soon afterward, a social worker interviewed all of us together to determine a visitation schedule for my ex-wife. When the meeting was over, Laura didn't want to come with me, and her mother clung to her. Finally, at the social worker's insistence, my ex-wife left the building -- but she told Laura she'd be waiting right outside. When I took Laura downstairs, she ran to her mother, screaming, "He's going to kill me!" Stunned, I let my daughter go again.
My ex-wife had hired a California lawyer, who argued that her rights had been violated because she hadn't been present at the custody trial. The judge accepted her excuse for being absent and scheduled a new trial; until then, he decreed, Laura could stay with her mother. I was granted a one-hour visit. We met at the local park where I had often pushed Laura on the swings when she was little. Two women accompanied her, refusing to identify themselves. "We're here for your daughter's safety," they told me. I assured Laura repeatedly that I loved her and that no matter what anyone else said, she knew the truth.
The second trial was held six weeks later, in October. The children's lawyer, Andrew Wolf (to whom I will always be grateful), argued that their mother had abandoned them by moving to Nebraska, and a psychologist testified that my ex-wife had severely alienated my daughter from me. The judge agreed. "There's no evidence that Dad has done anything to foster or bring about this unnatural hatred," he said, noting that Laura and I had had a "great" relationship before our trip to Denver. If this situation was allowed to continue, he added, "she's doomed."
Again, I was awarded sole custody. On November 2, 1995, my 44th birthday, Dan and I returned yet again to Nebraska. A friend of my ex-wife's brought Laura to my lawyer's office, and after a wrenching scene -- Laura yelled, cried, even kicked me -- she came with us.
Our Relationship Is Reborn
When I enrolled Laura in school, she was deeply withdrawn. But within three weeks, she was laughing with friends, and soon the daughter I'd known before was truly back. For more than a year, she had barely spoken to me, but now she was her old funny and sarcastic self. When we were together -- playing baseball, grappling with math homework -- I would sometimes find myself overwhelmed by what we'd been through, and I marveled at how we had survived.
Our story doesn't end here, however. It may never end.
In February 1997, after the children and I had moved to my hometown of Princeton, New Jersey, my ex-wife filed a change-of-custody motion. We all had to go to court in California, but the judge ruled that Laura and Dan should remain with me.
That summer, both kids visited their mother in Nebraska for eight weeks. They went again in 1998. Shortly after they arrived, my ex-wife claimed that Dan, then 14, was being unruly, and had the police take him to a children's shelter in Lincoln at 2:00 A.M. She told the staff what a bad kid he was because of his dad's influence, and then she drove to Colorado with Laura for a vacation.
I had been on a business trip, and when I returned to my office, there was a message from Dan. When I spoke to staff members at the shelter (it was Dan's second day there), they were openly hostile, and I had to fax them a copy of the custodial order before they would agree to put him on the next plane home.
For Dan, who had been incredibly patient with his mother's behavior, this was the last straw. He now wants nothing to do with her, which in all likelihood suits her just fine. At the end of the summer, when it was time for Laura to come home, my es-wife wouldn't send her. I had to go to court in Nebraska to get her back. Laura rolled her eyes at me in the lawyer's office as if to say, Here we go again. Although she had enjoyed her visit with her mother, she was clearly happy to come home with her dad.
There is now a judge's order in place allowing my ex-wife to visit the kids in New Jersey -- with a court-appointed supervisor on hand.
Meeting my children today, you would never know what they have endured. They're miraculously normal. Laura is 13 and getting almost all A's in school. She has lots of friends, rides horses, plays sports, is creating her own comic strip, and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. We hold hands on walks through the mall and talk about everything -- from the boys she likes to the teachers she doesn't. She has learned how to stand up for herself and can finally say to her mother, "Don't take us back to court." Dan, 16, is a remarkably level-headed kid (despite the fact that he wants to be a rock drummer) and has a highly developed sense of fairness.
As for me, I'm recovering emotionally -- but the financial damage may never be undone. I owe lawyers, social workers, friends, and family more than $150,000. I can barely afford the necessities for myself and the kids; I don't know how I'm going to send them to college. Still, I feel this long and costly fight has been worth it. I have a son who stood by me in the worst of times and a daughter who has reclaimed her own life.
Even though every allegation against me was dismissed, I'm sure there are people out there who think that maybe, just maybe, I really did abuse my kids. When a police car drives up the street, I still cringe. Each time there's a knock on the door, I worry that it might be a sheriff serving me with papers. At the doctor's office, if Dan or Laura happens to have a bruise, I try to look innocent -- and then I remember, I am innocent.