Thursday, March 10, 2016

I Do It For Clarence

For those of you who might not know me personally, I am a state representative for an organization that advocates for equal parenting and assumed 50/50 custody of children in divorce and custody cases.  I spend a great amount of time helping admin a very active Facebook page, as well as counseling with various parents who are being forced out of their children's lives by bitter exes, false allegations and biased courts.  Even though I know from my own personal experience just how difficult this can be, I don't know if it truly hit me just how seriously it can devastate someone until recently.

I had just finished calling on one of my customers and decided to stop at a restaurant to grab some lunch and use their WI-FI.  As I got out of my car, a middle-aged homeless man approached my car, said his name was Clarence and asked if I could spare some change.  I told him I only had my debit card and no cash.  He asked if I was going inside and if so, if I would at least buy him a cup of coffee.

Admittedly, I would normally do my best to steer clear of anyone who approaches me asking for money (especially in this neighborhood).  Not because I'm a terrible heartless person, but because I have grown to distrust people representing themselves as "homeless" due to the incredible number of people who have recognized the illusion of homelessness as a career opportunity.  This time however, something was different.

I paused and asked the gentleman what his story was.  We ended up talking for 10 minutes or so, about how his ex-wife left him several years ago and wouldn't let him see his three kids.  She took
him to court for child support but he couldn't afford an attorney (she got one for free because she accused him of being abusive).  Regardless of his adamant claim of innocence and his ex-wife's lack of evidence, the judge hit him with child support of almost 50% of his income, as well as supervised visitation with his children, two days per month.  Since he couldn't afford an attorney, he was unable to appeal the ruling.

At this point, he was a cook at one of the higher end restaurants in the area.  He was making decent money, but after child support, he couldn't afford his other bills (bills that had been quite affordable for a two income household).  He lost his house, his car and his children. Then he lost his job because he didn't have transportation to get to the restaurant.

This man literally lost everything he had and was reduced to sleeping under a bridge, due to nothing more than a bitter ex-wife who refused to let him be a parent to his own children; his own flesh and blood.

Those of you who know me, know that it takes a lot to render me speechless, but this man's story really hit me.  Not knowing what else to say or do, I extended my hand to shake his, but then it somehow turned into an awkward hug, right in the middle of a restaurant parking lot on the "bad" side of town.  I told him to come inside with me and I got him some coffee and enough food for a couple meals.  Then, saying he knew I had work to do and didn't want to be a bother, he thanked me for the food and went on his way.

After he walked out the door, I found a table and just sat there for a few minutes as my food got cold.  Suddenly I realized this man was living evidence of why my organization was needed, and why I devote my time to something that sometimes seems so hopeless.

When I respond to messages from devastated fathers on Facebook, or answer their phone calls, it is sometimes easy to forget the hopelessness I dealt with when I was first thrown into my custody battle.  Even though it hasn't been that long, it sometimes seems like decades since I was served with that first restraining order and the first request to modify my custody orders; the first written request to remove all contact with my daughter.

As I watched this gentleman walk out the door, I realized just how close so many fathers are to
becoming like Clarence.  Just how close we are to making one wrong move and being completely erased from our children's lives.  Like it or not, with the current state of family courts and the laws regarding child custody, every one of you fathers reading this right now, regardless of how perfect you might think your relationship is, could be the next Clarence.

So when I have those days when I ask myself why I devote so much time, effort and emotion to my equal parenting organization, I think back to that day.  I think about that conversation in the restaurant parking lot, and the once proud, successful gentleman, now sleeping under a bridge, with no hope of ever improving his quality of life.  I wonder how much different his situation would be now if he had been treated fairly in court, rather than being treated like a second-class citizen and being punished for false allegations from his bitter ex.

That is when I realized why I do this.

I do it for Clarence

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Summary:  Although I doubt I will ever meet this gentleman again, for the sake of privacy and anonymity, I changed his name.  Every other detail of this story is 100% accurate, according to the story I was told.  Clarence's ex-wife is now re-married to a man who works in some kind of finance-related job and makes plenty of money.  They have a large house in a nice neighborhood and now have a child of their own.  Clarence's three children have been completely alienated against him.  The oldest daughter is out of highschool, living on her own.  He has had some occasional contact with her, but she has no interest in being involved with him beyond an occasional phone call.  The two younger children still live at home with their mom and she does not allow them to have any contact with him.  But one can only assume they have been manipulated into hating Clarence and embracing their mother's most-recent husband as their new "Dad".

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