For two years a Houston mother kept two children from seeing their father who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Read about it here (My Fox Houston, 7/18/11).
The mother is Kelly Brantley and she was once a beauty queen; she was crowned Ms. Harris County (Houston). But whatever passionate proclamation of her values she gave to win the crown obviously didn’t include anything about the well-being of children or their right to a healthy relationship with their dad.
That’s because, for the last two years, she’s been keeping her former husband out of the lives of his two children. Now, you might say that’s nothing but garden-variety interference with visitation with a pinch of parental alienation thrown in for good measure.
But this one’s different. As shameful as that behavior is, Brantley’s is far worse. That’s because the girls’ father, Robert Zach, has ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. That condition involves a steady and sometimes rapid deterioration of motor nerve functioning. It kills invariably and the time from diagnosis to death can be short – sometimes less than a year.
So the fact is that Robert Zach’s time in which he can see his children is short and getting shorter by the day.
While mom keeps the girls away, dad’s loved ones say his health is getting worse.
“Six months ago, he was walking and talking, had head movement, could have expressed himself,” Don said. “She’s robbed the girls of that right.”
Even though he’s no longer able to tell them he loves them, Zach desperately wants to see his daughters before it’s too late.
Nice. Six months ago the guy was functioning at a reasonable level. Now he’s not and he never will again. The article doesn’t tell us, but it’s a certainty that two years ago he was essentially normal. But during all that time, Brantley did the usual things to keep Dad out of his children’s lives.
“My husband hasn’t seen his daughters in 2 years,’ Robert”s wife Katy said.
“I”ve gone with them to try to pick them up and every time it’s the same thing, no one’s at home or shut the door on us, same thing every time,” Robert’s brother Don Zach said.
Now that Robert is almost totally incapable of movement Brantley, through her attorney, says that it would be too traumatic for the children to see their father in his current condition. Actually, with a little loving preparation from her, the children would probably understand the situation well enough.
But what’s more to the point is that Robert Zach hasn’t been in such bad condition for all of the two years she’s denied him his court-ordered visitation. Would the children have been traumatized then? No, but she kept them from him anyway.
So where was the family court all that time? After all, two years is a long time even by the standards of the legal system. Why is it that a dying man couldn’t get a court to enforce its order of visitation that no one seems to deny was repeatedly violated by the mother?
I suppose the short answer is “they don’t.” That is, as I’ve said countless times before, the same courts that bring the wrath of God down on the heads of non-custodial parents who fall behind on child support, routinely refuse to sanction custodial parents who deny visitation.
In Australia that’s actually the decided law, as historian John Hirst has shown. There, family courts frankly use two legal standards – one for child support and the other for visitation. The inherent power to punish for contempt is used against non-payers but not against mothers who interfere with visitation.
In the United States, we’re not that candid about the matter. Here there’s nothing to prevent a court from enforcing its visitation orders, and on rare occasions they do. But what Robert Zach’s case shows clearly is that getting a court to do so is hard, time-consuming and expensive.
And his case is not just one of parental rights and it’s not just one of the welfare of children, although it is both those things. It’s also one of urgent need. Robert Zach will not be around for his children much longer. In a few weeks or months, they will not have him to turn to. So the usual dilatory tactics of family courts should have given way to the needs of the moment. But they didn’t.
Of course it’s possible that the court ordered Kelly Brantley time and again to comply with the visitation order. But realistically, what’s the judge going to do when she refuses to comply – change custody to a severely disabled man?
All that casts a bit of a cloud over the fact that the court has now ordered Brantley to bring the children to Zach’s house and to “mend fences.” I hope she does. But of course for two years Brantley’s been under a court order to permit visitation and she hasn’t done so. Why would this one be any different? Why would this order be more effective than any that’s gone before?
If the past is prelude, Robert Zach can file this latest order in the same place as the previous one and the one before it. But of course he can’t do that.