My daughter, Anya, was born in December of 2003.
My partner, Suzanne, and I were living together as husband and wife, and we raised Anya as a family in our home in the Catskills of upstate New York.
My relationship with Suzanne began to deteriorate when our daughter was around 3; although I did everything I could to maintain familial harmony, eventually vitriol, instability and arguing became the major theme of our relationship, and after 8 years of living together, we planned to separate, although we agreed it would be as amicable as possible for sake of our daughter.
Around that time I found emails and online chats between Suzanne and a male friend in which he counseled her in detail on how to achieve sole custody of Anya, by gradually manufacturing an official record of maltreatment, abuse or domestic violence, when none had actually occurred, and then filing for full custody. I said nothing of it to her, thought it a joke or a fluke, and did not believe she would actually act upon such outrageous suggestions.
I had no idea that not only would she do this, but she would be aggressively aided and abetted by the Family Court judicial system and related social service agencies surrounding it (County Mental Health, Child Protective Services, local school system administration, welfare services and assigned legal representation services) – each of which was all too eager to accept wild and unsubstantiated accusations against me, taken at face value and never investigated or verified to be true before acting upon them.
Nor could I have imagined that these allegations alone, without evidence or factual hearings, could be used to separate me from my child for years, and then later to parlay that separation into intentional alienation, so as to destroy the strong and loving relationship my daughter and I enjoyed for the first 7 years of her life.
As later events proved, however, Suzanne indeed followed this advice.
One evening, in April of 2010, Anya misbehaved and I gave her a light slap on her bottom. Suzanne called CPS, who investigated the call without even talking to me. Soon after, they found me guilty of maltreatment. The official record was started.
This event notwithstanding, and Suzanne claiming it was the school who had called CPS, our subsequent separation was quite amicable . . . Or so I thought.
We all moved to another location, where Suzanne and I had adjacent apartments, and Anya had ready and informal access to both her parents.
On Valentine’s Day 2011, without warning or discussion, Suzanne filed a petition for sole custody, based upon the CPS report she had engineered, and a litany of wildly exaggerated allegations, 85 percent of which were outright lies and the rest embroidered spin on perceived familial slights she had held over the 8 years we were together.
Solely upon these unproven written allegations, she was granted temporary but sole custody by the court.
Using her new court ordered authority, Suzanne immediately cut off all contact between Anya and myself. A few days later, I filed my own petition for custody, and she responded, the same day, by filing a family offense petition against me, obtaining a restraining order again based solely on her unverified claims of harassment and reckless endangerment.
Anya and I, missing each other terribly, and still within the same building, struggled to retain some connection. One evening, as I played my harmonica in the common kitchen, my daughter played back her ukulele in the adjoining apartment. Through the closed door, we communicated our love the only way we could without being detected, musically.
After a Family Court hearing, Anya was assigned an attorney by the court and I was given visitation of one hour a week at 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings – visits that were monitored, preemptively treating me as a child abuser.
At this time, I filed several motions in an attempt to keep my connection to my daughter intact. One was to change the temporary sole custody – awarded on the mother’s word alone – to shared custody until the final determination.
Family Court denied this commonsense request, stating that for the court’s administrative convenience, temporary custody would be awarded to one parent. This expedient due process enabled Suzanne to continue her campaign to break the bonds between myself and my daughter.
Another motion I put in was to restrain Suzanne from taking Anya from the house we shared, a situation that permitted Anya and me at least some physical proximity. That motion was denied as well with the assistance of my child’s assigned counsel, who claimed that the order would violate Suzanne’s parental rights. Anya’s lawyer, who was supposed to advocate for my daughter’s wishes, had in fact opposed them and instead advocated for Suzanne.
The court again assisted in Suzanne’s imposed estrangement between my daughter and me. Taking full advantage of the court’s permission, a few days later, Suzanne moved out, taking Anya to an unknown location and obtaining an order of address confidentiality, against the tearful wishes of my child to remain near me.
Around this time, further utilizing the provisional custody granted her, unbeknownst to me Suzanne brought Anya to the local mental health agency and promptly got her a prescription for an antipsychotic medication to quell her angst and objections. The drug (Geodon) was not approved by the FDA for children or adolescents, was indicated for adult schizophrenics, and is one that causes permanent Parkinsonism in 20% of patients.
Court documents later showed that Suzanne could not control our daughter’s temper tantrums. Her own parenting inability set Anya on a path of drug dependency and damaging side effects, taking these actions while excluding me from serious medical decisions about our daughter.
At this point, one of my motions took, and I was “granted” 8 hours of unsupervised visitation with my child on Sundays. During these visits, we took boat-rides, visited zoos and museums, saw movies and went swimming together. To memorialize our wonderful all-too-brief moments together, I was an avid videographer, creating home movies of Anya singing to me, us laughing together, playing with the dog, and our restaurant outings.
Neither I nor my daughter was very happy with only seeing each other 8 hours a week. We had previously been with each other almost all the time, and this artificially constrained time was suffocating and rushed.
We never had any relaxed downtime or enjoyed the nighttime rituals that we’d had together – watching TV, bedtime stories, the cat on the bed, tucking her in, kissing her goodnight before she fell asleep. Although we were very happy to see each other, and did the best we could with the time we had, as the visit progressed toward end-time there was an inchoate anxiety, like the clock ticking toward an execution, and the knowledge that we would be torn apart again until another whole week had elapsed. The visits were thus very happy and joyful, but at the same time stressful and bittersweet. It was emotionally confusing for both of us.
I resolved to try again to get equal parenting time, and filed another petition for increased visitation. When the obligatory month and a half waiting time for a hearing had elapsed, I entered the courthouse with hope in my heart that I would have at least weekend visits with my daughter. Despite all the allegations in court thrown at me by Suzanne, there was no truth to them. There was no legal or factual reason why I should not have equal access to our daughter.
However, I was subjected to a rude surprise.
I presented my argument and facts, the judge took it in, and after I had finished, the judge turned to the opposing side, and with a tone of sheer apology to them, said, “I’m sorry but I don’t see why his petition for more time shouldn’t be granted. What can I do?”
At that point, both the opposing counsel and my daughter’s own attorney argued away at the impropriety of making home movies of my own daughter and the fact that I’d been answering Anya’s very natural questions about what was happening to her and why she couldn’t see me as we had before – protected speech that was within our civil rights to have.
Then I was handed a motion paper seeking to end my visitation altogether. When I objected that the motion was improperly submitted and never served, the judge ignored me, shouting, “You shall not videotape your child, and you shall NOT discuss this case with your daughter in any way. I will consider terminating your parental rights for this. Respond to this motion in seven days, hearing adjourned.”
I did reply to the motion within 7 days as ordered, but was then left waiting months for a court ruling on our hope for weekend visitation that never came. This treatment was one of many that illustrates how, whenever there was a fork in the road for the court to reunite me with my daughter, we were channeled down a path of more alienation, more estrangement, and more disconnection.
Eventually I learned that Suzanne was giving Anya a pill every day, telling our daughter not to tell me. It came out when Anya told me during a visit that she felt terrible. She said she couldn’t sleep, was having nightmares, was nauseous, and felt like she sometimes blanked out. She broke my heart when she turned to me and said, “Daddy, please help me. I don’t know what to do.” I was very concerned, and began to try to find out what pill she was being forced to take.
One afternoon, while Anya was visiting me, she was dancing to disco music. She abruptly stopped, complaining that her heart was beating too fast and was scared. It seemed urgent, so I made a quick decision to discover immediately what my daughter was taking, so as to assess her symptoms. Once she was feeling a little better, we looked up medications on the internet to identify what she was taking. All she remembered was that Mommy had told her the pill would make her “calm and cooperative.” Although we were unable to identify the pill, for the rest of the day, I made sure she was not in any distress.
Soon after this event, a neighbor found Anya locked out of her apartment, alone, wandering the parking lot and crying. Suzanne was nowhere to be found. I reported the incident to CPS. They told me a day later that they had investigated it, and found nothing legally significant. However, they informed me that I was now the subject of an investigation on charges of neglect. This was direct retaliation for the call I had made.
The charges they cobbled together and called neglect consisted of: I let my daughter drink sugar-free soda; I took my daughter to McDonald’s and let her have McNuggets; I weighed Anya on a bathroom scale; I asked her about the pills she was being given; and that I bought her a Halloween toy with a red liquid in it, which they claimed was an energy drink.
A few days later, I was hauled into court on two hours notice to face charges of child neglect. At that point, what little visitation I had with Anya was truncated. A restraining order, which carried the threat of imprisonment, was issued.
We were now reduced to supervised visits with each other in an austere, concrete room, treated again as if I were a convicted child abuser. My child saw her father body searched by a police officer at the start of each visit, and watched throughout by a CPS officer taking notes on a clipboard on each word we spoke to one another. Anya was also regularly told that they were there to protect her from her father. Helplessly, I watched as my daughter was taught that Daddy was so dangerous, she could only safely see him under the wary gaze of armed guards.
In sum, it was stunning by which the rapidity the system took my daughter away from me, how it was so poised to do so, and with such efficiency. Once the government got involved, not only was I quickly stripped of my child, but Suzanne’s position was officially secured as if the trial had already taken place and I was convicted.
During the time I was seeing Anya under CPS supervision, they began taking us to McDonald’s for our visits, oblivious to the fact that I was originally charged and chastised for bringing her there. When one Wednesday, they changed the visit date without informing me, and I didn’t appear, Anya got very upset. After that, they no longer permitted us to leave the CPS building for visits.
Not seeing an end in sight to this Kafkaesque landscape of control and micromanagement, I hunkered down for the long haul and I was soon confronted with the fruit of all the scrutiny made during my visits with Anya.
I was informed that I could no longer talk to my daughter about our past together, and all the wonderful times and experiences we had shared while she was growing up, and that I was further prohibited from speaking with her about our future together, what we would do when we were reunited, and the good times we would have again when we could regain our relationship.
I was told I could only speak of “the here and now”, essentially, only what was in front of us during the visits. I could not speak of her life, her school, her friends, what she did or what places and experiences she had outside of our visits. I was also strictly prohibited from speaking with her about our court case, or strangely enough, conversation about the U.S. Constitution, as they considered that topic too close to talking about the court.
I was told that if I did speak of these things, the visits would end, that I would not see my daughter at all, and that they would charge me again in court with neglect.
Additionally, as further extortion for permission to see my daughter, I was directed into both family and individual therapy. I was forced to undergo both psychiatric and psychological evaluations, and to take a three-month parenting class. I was required to permit CPS workers, unannounced, into my home for ad hoc inspections.
As a carrot, I was assured in court by CPS that once I’d fulfilled all these requirements, they would step out of the case entirely. After I had satisfied all their demands, I chose to continue counsel with the private therapist, who affirmed by letter that my sessions with him were purely elective.
In the next hearing in which I strove to hold CPS to our agreement, my voluntary decision to remain in therapy became CPS’s excuse for a complete breach of their commitment to leaving the case, claiming I had not completed therapy. With the approval of the judge, and in violation of the agreement on public record, CPS’s oppressive involvement continued, including supervised – indeed, policed — visits with my daughter.
Having done everything the court and CPS had asked of me, only to see every agreement broken, being progressively removed further from my daughter, being told I could not even reminisce with her about our lives together, I concluded the only way to even attempt to get justice was to file a civil rights action in federal court. In December, 2012, I filed a federal lawsuit against CPS, naming my daughter as a co-plaintiff, and charging the agency with violations of my and Anya’s civil rights.
A few weeks afterwards, in retaliation, CPS charged me again in court with child neglect, while being supervised, ending my visits with Anya. They suddenly claimed the conversations I had with my 9 year-old daughter about the federal case against them, and our lives together caused her severe emotional distress.
I argued against this charge in yet another Family Court hearing, invoking my constitutional guarantees to free speech and association with my daughter. The judge found that the allegations were sufficient to allow a full-blown neglect proceeding. He disdainfully dismissed all my invoked constitutional privileges, and accepted CPS’s unsupported allegation of emotional neglect.
This new neglect action resulted in an additional two more months of reduced visitation than was originally scheduled. However two weeks before the neglect trial was to convene, in July of 2013, CPS dropped all charges against me. Apparently, they recognized they had no case, but achieved keeping me away from my daughter for as long as they could.
My custody case, initiated back on Valentine’s Day of 2011, promptly re-ensued upon new petitions filed in April and July 2013.
At that point I actually came through it all legally unscathed, having met, appealed and reversed all charges CPS had levied against me; in the interim Suzanne had been psychologically assessed as having borderline (BPD) tendencies.
But, paradoxically, now that I was not charged or ever found in maltreatment, neglect or abuse, and all restraining orders were lifted with CPS out of our lives, my visits with Anya actually went down to zero.
This occurred because until now, CPS had administered visits between us, ensuring their bare policy minimum of visitation. Now that authority defaulted back to Suzanne, and she made sure that no visitation at all would occur. Whatever harsh administrative role CPS had played in diminishing our visits, at least there had been visits.
Although I brought this inequity to the court’s attention, and asked for relief, the judge refused to provide any visitation order, stating that he had no evidence to support an order of visitation, and he would in the meantime continue to credit Suzanne’s unproven allegations against me.
Compounding this affirmative inaction, the court scheduled the custody trial’s 6 days of hearings so as to be peppered over a period of 7 months, in direct violation of New York Family law statutes that mandate any custody trial must be completed within 90 days.
As of this writing, the court’s conduct of the trial has ensured the mother’s continued de facto sole custody and estrangement of my daughter from me.
I have been told by my attorney, that these judges had very little incentive to provide visitation where even unfounded allegations were in place.
Denying visitation causes them no risk of legal criticism or sanction, but no judge wants their name to show up in the papers in the rare instance where the allegations may be true. So they all take the pathologically safe path, and ignore any of the pain, and human rights, that such decisions cause the alienated parent and his child.
Addendum: Find the follow-up on this case with the identities of the officials involved here.