by Dr Gonzo
My ex asked to take our kids to live far away. I was faced with the most difficult choice.
|The year I'm speaking of was closer to two years, but the title just didn't have the same ring. Let's just say it was eighteen months. It began when I learned that my ex, whose name is Em, wanted to move away, taking our kids, identical twin girls who were just twelve years old at the time, to live with her new boyfriend in another state. The fear of being left behind and eventually becoming just a memory to my children, was at times, overwhelming. I cried more than was healthy, questioned my role as a father, and learned so much about myself, the law, and what can happen when complacency overtakes diligence.
The knock on my door early one evening saw two young police officers visit my home, much to the delight of my then, eighty-three-year-old mother, of whom I am a full-time caregiver.
She said, ”You boys are very handsome,” and a slightly embarrassed officer smiled that smile...the one that makes respecting his elders a necessity, but they were not there for compliments from octogenarians.
“Are you Neil @*$#&%*?” It was a necessary question and a requirement for the serving of papers I never thought I would see. Domestic violence orders Em thought she needed, were served...temporary, until a court date two weeks from that day. I was confident the case would be dismissed, after all, the alleged instances she had listed were either grossly exaggerated or simply didn't occur, the dates were over ten years before, and in my naivety, I thought she was going to have a hard time proving any of it.
The orders stated I was to have no contact with the aggrieved. Some clauses connected that main order to places such as her work and home, and only one clause which would allow me to contact her, by handwritten letter. Emailing or text messaging would constitute a breach. This all came about because I had sent her some emails asking questions about them moving away, and pointing out some truths (for me at least) of the outcomes this move she planned was going to bring. Claiming only harassment...no threats, no abuse or swearing, not a single word of sarcasm or innuendo. Just me explaining what the move was likely going to do to my relationship with our kids.
If I could go back to the day I was served, I would do many things differently (the truth is, if I could go back to the very beginning of our relationship, I would do everything differently). I didn't understand what 'no contact' actually meant. It didn't matter we had kids together, kids for whom I was still responsible...trying to organize and maintain some semblance of normality in their day-to-day lives, with parents who, for reasons unknown to them, just couldn't keep their shit together. It just didn't occur to me, even if she instigates the conversation and I reply by any means other than a handwritten letter, would constitute a breach of the orders and, if convicted, could face a prison term, a large fine, or both, and earn myself a criminal record, which would be with me for life.
In the following two weeks after I was served the temporary DVO, an email arrived from Em, asking if I was having the girls on the weekend. Foolishly, I emailed back and said I was. Then another email, informing me they had a school excursion coming up asking if would I pay for one and she the other?
I responded with, ”Ok, I will.”
Then another question and blah blah blah, leading away from questions about the kids to other things I don't even remember, but...I didn't realize was how stupid I was being, falling right into their (her lawyer and hers') trap. 'No contact' refers to me, not to her (a condition I feel should apply to both parties once domestic violence proceedings are initiated), and when I later spoke to my community lawyer for some free advice, he looked at the emails I had printed and told me I wasn't going to win.
I retorted, in my most indignant voice, "But, I didn't do any of the things she's alleged against me.”
He replied, ”Doesn't matter. You've breached the temporary orders by maintaining contact with her. I see this all the time, once they lawyer up, the first instruction is to contact the aggrieved, and get them to reply.”
And with kids involved, this was an easy task. I walked right into the trap and there was no way to escape. I protested about irrelevant things like justice, fairness, and logic.
He smiled and told me I might as well just accept the orders, then continued, “All you can do is make her pay more to her lawyer by delaying accepting for as long as you can.”
I felt ripped off, sucked into a game I wanted no part of. Unfortunately, there are cases where domestic violence laws can be used as a sword instead of a shield. So, I did what he advised, with zero chance of avoiding a DVO, and zero chance of a fair outcome.
A magistrate looks at the issuing of domestic violence orders as simply a matter of... does the aggrieved have all the necessary paperwork...affidavits, witness statements, and of course, a lawyer? In most cases, it's a 'he said, she said' situation, and it makes no difference if the police have never been called to the family home for matters to do with domestic violence in the past, the court will invariably accept the word of a female over a male. The number of women being killed or seriously hurt, who live in fear because of the actions of current and former partners, has seen a knee-jerk reaction, where all men who have allegations made against them, even those who have not committed domestic violence, having to carry this burden.
And even though the law permits self-representation in a court, the magistrate won't like it (or you) if you appear without a lawyer in tow. It makes their day in court more difficult, having to give instructions to the layman on where to stand, and how proceedings will move during the course of the trial. No assistance, however, is given on how to prepare a brief, or present your case, if you do choose this course. And the bottom line is, it is rare for applications not to be successful, especially if those involved have been or are married or in a de facto relationship.
In my opinion, if a respondent in a domestic violence court decides to self-represent due to the exorbitant fees charged by lawyers and their firms, he (almost all respondents are male and the aggrieved female) will lose. Because the justice system (in Australia) won't tolerate those who do not support it, by paying a lawyer to represent or being a criminal (who will receive a legal aid grant...a privilege not afforded to those who face a domestic violence court).
There have been calls to overhaul the criminal justice system in Australia for many years. Sentences do not reflect community expectations and politicians are too busy doing as little as possible during their term in office to legislate for change...and besides, prisons are already overcrowded with mainly drug offenders and those who breach domestic violence orders and so, there is a soft approach to sentencing which sees a revolving door in courtrooms, where a slap on the wrist and a stern warning is about as bad as it gets for those who should be locked away.
At each mention (mention is the term used for a brief court appearance) I appeared, dressed in my Sunday best, going so far as to wear a tie. I would be asked by his honor (your honor is the way to address a magistrate) if I would accept the orders, at which point I would say, no. He would then glare at me over the top of his glasses, dumbfounded as to why I didn't just accept, after all, he knew what the outcome was going to be, her lawyer also knew, and I wouldn't be surprised if, on the weekends, they played golf together or enjoyed family BBQ's at their palatial homes...hell, even I knew, but I waited until the pre-trial hearing before finally accepting, and with that, the magistrate smiled, I think more from relief than anything else.
I was handed a two-year DVO....two years to conduct my affairs to do with my children in fear of being breached. I noticed an immediate and troubling change in the way Em spoke to me via text or email, (which was now allowed for matters to do with the children only). The name-calling, derogatory, and belittling things she would say to me were all designed to bait me into doing or saying something I would regret for the rest of my life. I had no right of reply, other than to ignore these jibes, and from then on, if I so much as sneezed in her general direction, she would threaten to go to the police.
Dealing with this DVO case wasn't the only issue I was having with Em. We had already signed consent orders for the distribution of our property, rubber-stamped by the family court of Australia. For the previous two years, I had been trying to get Em to agree to mediation for the drafting of a parenting plan I felt was needed, but she didn't. She wanted to retain control over the children and seeing them depended on if she felt I had given her enough money to help pay for their health, education, and general costs associated with the raising of young. This 'cash for kids' scheme she ran, was over and above the child support payments, I was already making.
”Not enough,” she would say.
And if I wanted to see my kids (or visa versa), it was she I had to answer to, once, demanding I pay her one thousand dollars she had decided I owed her, over and above the amount I had been paying by law. I decided enough was enough and told her so. I didn't see my kids for nine weeks, when a letter arrived in the mail from one of my girls, pleading with me to please fix this, and she missed me (in hindsight, manipulation and just another ploy by Em). So, I sent a text to Em, asking how much it was going to cost me to see the girls on the weekend.
She replied, "One thousand dollars."
I then asked, “Are you their mother, or their pimp?”
I was told to direct any further correspondence to her lawyer, or I "would be slapped with a DVO."
Two weeks later, I paid her the grand...the transaction going from my account to my lawyer's trust account, onto her lawyer's trust and then to her, and I got to hug my kids for the first time in almost three months.
A parenting plan is a precursor and a necessary part of the process before applying to the family court for orders governing the children's rights for visitation, schooling, medical, or any other consideration put before the court. I was pinning my hopes on these orders to change the children for hire scam, so we (my kids and I) could have our weekends together without being under the constant threat of last-minute changes, but despite the best efforts of the mediators at Relationships Australia, she ignored all invitations to attend mediation. I should have continued with the application for parenting orders without her, but unfortunately, I didn't, although I was later to learn the orders, which we did eventually sign, are not worth the paper they are printed on when dealing with a determined primary parent.
If a parent who has the primary care of the children breaches, by refusing to follow the orders, the court won't apply a fine because they consider it disadvantages the children. At worst, they could be made to do a parenting course...one hour a week to watch a video, and I don't think much of a deterrent. If breaches are to be considered by the court, they need to see proof she is being methodical. So, instead of stopping visitation completely, she might allow every third visit randomly, and there are plenty of reasons why visitation might not take place (sickness, friends birthday parties, didn't want to go to boring daddy's place).
Children are easily manipulated, often not realizing it is happening, and even if they do, eventually, when dealing with someone like Em, they will have no option but to choose a side...either mom or dad? The difficulty for any dad is we are generally not the primary parent, and so, the children are only with us every second weekend and our home is not their regular home and they don't normally have pets or the familiarity they do at mom's house.
When a parent chooses to belittle and criticizes the other parent in the presence of the children, not only is it a breach of the court orders but the children are being pressured into making a decision to join a 'team'.
Add to this the temptation of, “Do you want to visit dad this weekend or go to Kids Fun Land?" They are kids, they can't comprehend and shouldn't be put in a situation such as this, and is another breach of our parenting orders. I believe this was a big part of the breakdown of my relationship with my kids, and why we became estranged from each other.
For me, the real trouble began the day I received the email from Em, informing me of her want to move away with our kids and live with her new boyfriend in another state. Until then, it hadn't been easy when dealing with her, and I'm sure she would say the same about me...fairly normal post-divorce angst and not having as much contact with my kids as I would have liked were some of the negatives as well as dealing with a psychopath once a fortnight...well, a narcissist, at the very least.
From the moment I read her email, the move she planned had me in a dither. It bothered me, not just because I would never see my kids again, but because the only reason she changed her mind on the need for parenting orders was when she realized she couldn't leave without them. It was at this point she changed tactics and was also the point when my life took a turn for the worse. The pressure Em put on the girls to get me to sign the orders allowing them to leave was not healthy for me or the girls and was when the strong relationship I had always had with them began to spiral out of control.
When, two years before, I suggested a parenting plan to Em, it was in the hope I could see the girls more often and with more certainty. Now, I was being asked to sign them away, to live in another state, only seeing them a few times a year on school holidays, and knowing Em, even with court orders in place, these visits were not a sure thing, in fact, I would have been surprised if they came at all.
On a weekend visit to me, one of my daughters came to me crying. She told me, “Mum said if you don't sign the papers, she will leave without us.”
And then saying she would take their two dogs and cat with her. Nice. I wasn't going to let this continue. Our kids were being torn apart by parents who were acting like children and ironically, it was our children who were suffering the most but who were acting more like the adults in the situation. I knew Em wouldn't leave without the girls, not permanently, but she might leave long enough so they would be distressed. She knew I wouldn't let those girls suffer any more than they already had. She had me over a barrel and didn't care about anyone but herself.
In one of the emails exchanged between Em and me, I said, ”Surely he (her new boyfriend, Matt) can move up here?".
She told me about the place, how beautiful it is, far away from the drugs and crime Brisbane had to offer. His kids lived there, and there was no way known he was going to leave them.
“So why do I have to lose my kids, if he would never lose his?” I felt so inept, pleading to an unsympathetic ear.
She answered, “He would leave them in a heartbeat to be with me."
I said, ”No father worth his salt would leave his kids for a relationship.”
Then, the worst day of my entire life came and the parenting orders were signed (they would leave in one year), and, looking for something positive, I thought, at least she could no longer use accessibility to our kids as a lever or method of revenge, but how wrong I was?
All she did was change tactics. The two cases before the courts were her application for a DVO and the parenting consent orders, which happened to coincide with each other. I thought these two matters were completely separate as they were at different courts and under different jurisdictions. I was learning a lot about the court system, but because I was self-representing, I was treated differently and looked down upon by almost every person involved, all except the duty solicitors, who could only advise me before my court appearances, but were not allowed to enter the courtrooms to say a word on my behalf...and they instead, looked at me with pity.
While these matters were before the courts, an email arrived from Em's lawyer offering me a deal. They said if I sign the consent orders allowing our kids to move away with her, they would reduce the time I would have to serve under the domestic violence orders from two years to one. I replied, explaining that no amount of bargaining would see me do anything but what was best for the children, whether that was for me to sign or not. I personally saw this as extortion and tried to bring it up at the next DVO mention.
At no point during the last three mentions had I been allowed to say more than one word at each appearance, to answer the magistrate's question if I accepted the orders. So, I interrupted proceedings and told the Magistrate of the email and my concerns, naively thinking this would have some bearing on what was REALLY happening here.
He looked at me like I was stupid, and his eyes never left my own as he said, ”So, was there an agreement?”
At first, I thought he was addressing me, but in a moment I can only describe as complete astonishment, I realized the question wasn't for me, but for her lawyer when HE replied, ”No your honor, he refused our offer.”
My mind began to spin, and I thought, "Hang on a minute, is this about her feeling threatened, or is it about her wanting to move away?"
But I wasn't given another opportunity to speak (I wasn't given one when I did, I just took it), dismissed as nothing more than a perpetrator of domestic violence, who deserved everything I was going to get. Offering me some shit deal, when I shouldn't have even been standing before 'his honor' in the first place. It wreaked of consort. The magistrate and his lawyer buddy...mates outside the court, and inside? Well, still mates, just a little less obvious.
In the end, she paid whatever she did for me to stay away from her, something I had done without any trouble whatsoever since our separation, except for a few emails. I wondered if she had ever heard of a setting to block unwanted emails, or better still...address the questions I had every right to ask.
The DVO was the easy part, the worst thing for me to deal with was the signing of the consent orders so they could leave. And once that was done, it would be one year till my girls departed for their wonderful new life.
Em was (not) very supportive. ”Enjoy them while they are still here.”
And, ”Move down there to be closer to them.”
And, ”Don't be like that, you will see them plenty when we move.”
It sucks being divorced from her. Not because I still have feelings for her, because I do...resentment, bitterness, intense dislike, and fear, just to name a few. A narcissist without a doubt. Of course, she doesn't think she has done anything wrong, people with those traits never do. She doesn't like to lose, and so, she never does, winning at any cost. It matters not who she hurts to achieve her goals, even her own children. Justification can always be found in the results. What a shame I can't be like that...and thank God I'm not. I would sacrifice almost anything to have my children back in my life, but to be like her is one of the few things I would not even consider.
Part II (Three and a Half Years Later)
Everything has changed, and not for the better.
One morning, about six weeks before they were due to leave for their new lives, I received a text from my Em saying, ”Due to unforeseen circumstances, we will not be leaving for another six months.” And to her, that was the end of the conversation.
The time from when Em first told me she wanted to move until this point was for me, the worst year I could remember. Just knowing the date was approaching, was like a ticking time bomb hanging over our heads. I tried to enjoy them while I still had them, but they know me, maybe better than I know myself, and hiding this complete and utter sadness from them was futile, and in hindsight, it caused them great concern.
I didn't mean to make them worry. I never mean to hurt anyone, not even Em, but as I sit here tonight writing this second part to my story, I can see...I did hurt them, because they, just twelve-year-old beautiful and caring young girls, took on more than they should have, and what eventuated was, for me, the most devastating set of circumstances imaginable.
On the weekends they were supposed to come and stay with me, something more important would come up, such as a friend's sleepover (which I wouldn't allow at my house because it could put me in a compromising position). They understood when I explained this to them, but it didn't help my cause, and their visits became less and less.
A year before, I bought them a mobile phone each and paid the monthly bills, so I had some way to remain in contact, but as the visits reduced, so too did the calls (or texts) from them and I stopped paying for their phones...out of pure frustration and anger. It was then they refused all contact with me.
I became bitter...bitter a system...at a society, that treated me like a perpetrator. Bitter at the lawyers who circle like vultures above dead and dying marriages...the only winners when divorce strikes.
What about the children? Family court lawyers are supposed to put the interests of the children, the true victims of divorce, first and foremost yet, this is not how I saw it in our case.
What about fair? What about decency and morality? Concepts lawyers couldn't care less about. The only thing they have any interest in is lining their pockets at the expense of the divorcing couple. The joke I am sure they all share once their day is done. When a drink is all that can take away the self-loathing and guilt (if they haven't already died inside and lost the ability...to feel) at a local bar, before heading home to their own happy lives.
Scum of the earth...leeches, parasites, and then lawyers, in that order. I imagine a lawyer with his client...a convicted pedophile who admits his guilt and his lawyer trying his very best to earn the dirty money he will be paid to search for a loophole to get this animal back on our streets...become a lawyer and check any sense of morality at the door...Truth, justice, and common sense no longer exist, when someone becomes involved in matters of family law here in Australia.
I became bitter at my own kids...because they could take no more of me. Their dad, the man they loved more than anyone in the world, moping and trying to hide this overwhelming feeling they too were abandoning me. I was bitter at myself for allowing all of this to happen in the first place...bitter at a world that didn't care...just bitter.
Friends began to disappear, and family wouldn't come near me. All I pushed away because I couldn't face the questions about why.
”Where are the girls?”
“Fucks me...they aren't with me obviously!”
I was hurting...really bad. I began to think if life was worth all this pain, but I have responsibilities which prevented me from making that choice. I wrote poetry...to get all of these feelings out, and many were about them. I was tired of reaching out to them and in return, only silence. The worst sound became no sound at all...and it almost killed me...and after a while, I stopped trying, I had to. To continue to care about them...about why I was no longer wanted or needed, was like an anchor dragging behind me, taking up anything I had left once the day was done. The way all of this was affecting everyone who cared about me. The anguish and reality I may never see either of them again. I had no choice but to let them go. The hardest thing I have ever had to do.
The day came, and I let go...and in the emotional hurricane of loss, I wrote a poem called 'Today is not Yesterday'.
But, it didn't feel as I hoped it would...wishing all of the pain and regret would simply disappear, and I would be happy again.
Then, something extraordinary happened...as close to a miracle as I have ever known.
Almost one and a half years since I had heard from either of my children and on the very day I decided to let go, a letter arrived. I looked at the envelope for a long time, I knew it was from one of my daughters, and when I eventually opened it, I couldn't see the words because I was crying.
Emotions overwhelmed me, but I composed myself, dried my eyes, opened the letter, and read, “Hi Dad, I love you and I miss you." And I fell apart.
She said she was sorry for everything and gave me her new phone number...and on the day I decided I could take no more, she appeared. Coincidence? I don't care...only that it did.
I now have hope...that one day she will allow me to see her...to look into those eyes I know so well...the same eyes I see every morning when I wake up and wash my face.
They used to think I was the best dad in the whole wide world...not anymore, but I am the only one they have.
Today is not Yesterday
Yesterday was full of sadness
So many before then to
An inability to let go of the past
And for those, I cared so much
The love in my heart was strong
But fear of loss became stronger
How could I go on without them?
Not knowing why was ever-present
Today, I woke with a new feeling
Having served my time...with hard labor
And with the key to freedom in my hand
Hearing the lock click was amazing
I stood looking around me
A cool breeze blowing on my skin
Trying hard not to reminisce
Because that's when the pain begins
One foot in front of the other
Away from this self-imposed prison cell
With my guilt and remorse left behind
No need to carry that burden anymore
Their memories will always remain
I won't wipe the slate clean
It's the past that's shaped me
Into the man who woke up today