Fathers' and Children's Equality (FACE), New Jersey
by Jeff Golden
It grieves me deeply to report this:
About two weeks ago, I received a call from Chris Wise of Hammonton NJ. He had been referred to us by an attorney-friend of ours who gave him my cell phone number. He told me he and his girlfriend had an almost two month old son. Both parents are in their early 30s, they lived together in his house throughout the pregnancy, he is disabled and not working, and his mother and brother also live in his house. The girlfriend and her mother were telling him they were going to take away the baby, never let him see the baby again, and take away from him everything he has.
There's nothing unusual about threats like that. We handle them all the time. Personally, I don't like to give too much information on a first call. What I tell about fathers' rights is probably exactly the opposite of what they have always believed and what they will be told by police, lawyers, court personnel, DYFS, etc. I prefer people to come to a meeting where a whole room-full of people will reassure them that what we say is true.
I asked Chris if anyone had been to court yet for anything. They had not. I explained to Chris that at their first time in court, one of the parents will leave with less parental rights than s/he came in with, but until they go to court both parents had equal rights. I asked where the baby was right then. Chris said the mother was about to return to work from maternity leave, and she had made arrangements to move in with some strange older woman she will be working with. I suggested that won't last long because this stranger won't like a crying infant interfering with her household routine. I asked why the mother didn't go to her parents' home. She couldn't. Her parents are divorced. Her mother and step-father live in a little one bedroom apartment, they both smoke, and they have dogs. She had no contact with her real father until quite recently, and he also did not have proper accommodations for a new-born.
I reminded Chris of the adage "possession is nine tenths of the law," and told him that whoever had possession of the baby on that day they first go to court will have a very good chance of keeping him. "But," said Chris, "I don't want to take the baby away from his mother." Of course not ... you WANT her to have liberal visitation. But remember, she already told you that if she gets custody she doesn't want you to ever see the child again. Are you capable of taking care of the baby and doing everything that child needs? "Yes." Who do you want to have custody?
I asked Chris if he thought it would be possible for him to get possession of the baby without breaching the peace. He very confidently answered "Sure!" I asked how he could be so sure of that, and where and how would he do it? He said the mother was bringing the baby back to his house that evening, and they were all going to sleep in his house that night! Under these circumstances I couldn't make Chris wait for our next meeting; he needed help NOW!
I told Chris there were two things he needed to know: First we discussed the domestic violence law. I emailed him a copy of the statute, listing all the acts that are considered to be domestic violence in New Jersey. I pointed out that whoever gets a domestic violence restraining order against the other can also automatically get custody, and that "domestic violence" does not necessarily have to have anything to do with violence. I told him if he is holding the baby and won't release him to her, and she commits an act of domestic violence to get him away from you, especially with your mother and brother as witnesses or if she leaves marks on you, you can get a restraining order against her and get custody of the child.
Second, what happens if there is no domestic violence, but she calls the police and says "He won't give me my baby?" When the police arrive, the first thing they will do is ask to see the custody order. When they find there is no order, both of you will have equal rights. Still, to smooth things out, the police might say to you something like "Why don't you just be a nice guy and give her the baby? You can go down to family court and straighten it all out." JUST SAY NO! Remember, possession is nine tenths of the law, and when you go into family court that first time YOU want to have possession.
Chris called me the next morning. It was a very cold day -- low 20s. The mother was getting ready to take the baby out. She wasn't going to her co-worker's house. She was going to some other friend's house where she and the baby would sleep on air-mattresses on the floor until she could get into her friend's house. She wouldn't identify the friend or where she would be. I reminded Chris to get possession of the baby without breaching the peace, and what to say if and when the police arrived.
Chris DID get possession without breaching the peace. Mom was lying on the bed with the baby. Chris said "Let me just kiss him goodbye," took the baby from her and would not let go of him. Mom called the police. Chris called the police too. "The mother wants to take the baby out somewhere in the cold where they're going to sleep on an air mattress." Two police officers arrived, one male and one female. The male officer spoke with the mother in the bedroom and the female officer spoke with Chris. They asked about a custody order and found there was none. The officers told both parents they could not force the father to give the baby to the mother! The mother said she would leave, but she wanted to come back for her personal property. The female officer recommended to Chris that he not allow the mother back into his house. Instead he should pack up all of her stuff and leave it on the porch for her.
Chris called me later to let me know what happened. GREAT, I said, now YOU have possession of the baby! "No," he said, "something else happened too. Before she left, while the police were here, she asked to have a private conversation with me. We went into the bedroom together. She said she wanted to take the baby to her father's house, and I said OK. She and the baby are gone." Well, I said, we'll either have to get possession again, or it will just be a little more difficult for you on that first day in family court.
We had a FACE meeting on Monday evening. I sent Chris a meeting schedule, asked him to come to this meeting, and gave him directions. I called him again Monday to remind him, and left a phone message. He didn't show up.
That's it, I thought. I scared another one away. I've said it before, but now I'm really NEVER again going to give a lot of advice on the phone. Regardless of urgency, they've got to come to a meeting first.
Chris's mother left a message on my phone this morning. "Mr. Golden, I don't quite know how to say this, but I didn't want to leave you hanging. Christopher took his own life." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I had to replay it a few times, then I called her.
On Monday, Chris left the house to go to a doctor appointment and then go to family court. He called his mother later and told her he was in Atlantic City, about 15 minutes away from both. That was the last she heard from him. On Wednesday she got a call from the Port Authority police. Chris' truck was found at the Ben Franklin bridge. They had video of him entering a parking area at the base of the bridge. They don't know how long he was there. He left his wallet, cell phone and keys in his truck, along with a note, and then he apparently went up on the bridge. They also had video of someone going over the side of the bridge.
Why did this happen? Chris' custody situation wasn't too bad ... yet. He had let defeat get snatched from the jaws of victory in his first skirmish, but, I told him, that would just make things a little more difficult. I never met him face-to-face, but Chris was a very soft-spoken guy. At times during our conversations, I thought he was hyperventilating. His child's mother was herself an adult child of Parental Alienation Syndrome who was not allowed a parent-child relationship with her own father, and was now being coached by her PAS-inflicting mother. Maybe he just didn't want to face the conflict that he knew was coming. Now fatherlessness will go one generation further in that family.
There is one thing I regret never having had an opportunity to discuss with Chris. He wasn't far enough into the process yet to understand it. As one FACE member was known to say: "If things ever get so bad that you consider taking your own life, don't let it be a total waste. Take a judge or a lawyer with you."
Fathers' and Children's Equality (FACE)