Why does the system seem to set struggling people up for failure? Within a ten day period of time, I witnessed two people being unfairly treated by the criminal justice system. Each story is unique. All the characters are real and very human. They struggle every day and make mistakes; that is why we can relate to them so well.
JR is 42. He has three children, and is in the process of getting a divorce. He had his own business, but it was mismanaged by his wife. He never wanted to believe she was draining the cash reserves. Every time she was confronted, she lied. JR desperately wanted to believe her, and did, until it became increasingly impossible. Just before they separated, she had gotten very sloppy and her mismanagement of the business's resources was exposed.
There was a lot of stress in JR's house. Primarily due to fiscal woes, there was constant fighting and bickering. One night after a heated argument, his wife called the police and accused JR of assaulting her. The police arrived and arrested him. They were not interested in his story. She later retracted her allegation, but the damage was already done.
Child Protective Services became involved because two of the three children were under five. There was serious concern that the children were in danger of being abused. JR admitted to being verbally aggressive and at times very loud, after his wife provoked him. JR's wife convinced the CPS worker that her husband was a danger to their children.
Due to her inflammatory report, a family court judge ruled that JR could not be alone with his children. As the investigation progressed, JR's wife admitted that she lied about her husband's physical abuse and overly aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, the damage was already done. CPS was very concerned that both parents were ill equipped to effectively parent their children.
They were both mandated to participate in parenting classes, anger management and individual counseling. JR successfully completed everything that was asked of him. His wife briefly went to counseling and stopped. When JR complained to CPS that his wife was not compliant, he said, "it fell on deaf ears." They were both found indicated, which means the investigators felt there was some legitimacy in the allegations made against these two parents. They were informed that the file would be kept open on them until their youngest child was 26 years of age.
A few months later, after another hostile confrontation, JR's wife abruptly left the house and took the children with her. Once again, she accused her husband of assault and alleged that she was frightened to stay with him.
Since that altercation, she has harassed him on a regular basis by phone, constantly threatening him with their children and regularly making it difficult for him to have visitation with them. She regularly threatens to have him arrested. JR feels paralyzed. His material resources are limited. Every time he goes into Family Court, he feels he gets the run around. He feels no one is genuinely concerned about his children and his welfare.
The system has traumatized JR. He feels he has no voice and no rights around the care of his children. He has tried on numerous occasions, to raise people's awareness of the painful plight of his children but he feels his concerns fall on deaf ears.
In the few months they have been separated, JR's wife has reluctantly allowed her children to visit with their dad. Each time he attempts an overnight, she makes up an excuse for why it's not appropriate. She constantly complains in front of her children about their dad. He, on the other hand, says little or nothing. He does not want to put his children in the middle of this unfortunate circumstance. He has repeatedly made an effort to find a middle ground, if for nothing more than to keep communication open. Unfortunately, every time something controversial emerges, and she does not like the position, she threatens to have JR arrested.
According to JR, he rarely receives a return phone call, when he calls CPS for some direction. Since she has left the house with the children, on a regular basis she has attempted to harass JR, by using their neighbors and other people as weapons. He lives in fear because the system has given her limited power. He feels like he has no power to protect himself. He gets up and meets each day with the fear that today might be the day that life as he knows it will be destroyed!
KR is a middle-aged mother of five children. After twenty five years of an abusive marriage, she finally left. Once she left, her abusive husband assured her he would destroy her. Thus, the nightmare began.
For a better part of their marriage, KR took care of raising their children and keeping an immaculate house. Her husband was not a good provider. He worked erratically. Four children are over 18 and two children are under 12. When she first left, she took the children with her. She believed that she could manage. It was clear that she couldn't and it became a disaster. So, she let the children return home. Miraculously, her husband found a steady job and kept it.
Meanwhile, KR did not have a good job. Because of her lack of credentials, it became increasingly difficult to get a good job. She was forced to live in her car and eat at local soup kitchens. Her husband made it very difficult for her to visit with her children. Her life was becoming unmanageable. To make things worse, her husband took her to Family Court seeking child support for four out of the six children, who still lived at home. She had no lawyer and was raked over the coals.
In no uncertain terms, it was conveyed that the court didn't care about her personal circumstances, only that her children be adequately provided for. The judge ordered a ridiculous child support payment on a monthly basis.
KR has no marketable skills. As a middle-aged woman, it has been increasingly difficult for her to obtain any reasonable paying full-time job. Decent jobs are at a premium. She was barely making ends meet, and unable to pay the child support, which was growing and being compounded because of ridiculous interest.
After months of living in the street, she was referred to a safe house. She has lived there for five months. During this time, with the help of counseling and the staff, KR has reclaimed her life. She is once again connected to the children and sees them regularly. Her health is once again under control, as well as her anxiety. She has developed a life plan and is working every day to implement it.
Recently, she went back to Family Court to attempt to have her child support payments reduced because of her chronic battle with mental illness and unemployment. She tried to make a case for the reduction request regarding her child support. Her counselor from the safe house was there. She had acquired a dozen or more letters of support, indicating how hard she was working in strengthening her life and her relationship with her children.
The judge was not interested in where she was living. She was not interested in the letters that were submitted or hearing from KR's counselor. All the Judge was interested in was how KR was going to meet her child support obligations. Her monthly obligation was more than 55% of her salary. Her salary was minimum wage. If she was not living in a safe house for free, after the child support was removed, she would be homeless, because she could not afford to pay the rent. When she tried to express that to the judge, the judge said she was not interested. That attitude and narrow-minded perspective will clearly set KR up for failure.
In addition to a minimum wage job with no benefits, she has a range of serious health problems that have not been treated because she cannot afford to go to a doctor.
It seems to me, KR is between a rock and a hard place. She has no education or training to obtain a higher paying job. If she leaves the safe house, she won't be able to pay child support, because she will have to pay rent. What is most troubling is the systems' lack of openness. The system is unwilling to look more closely at these genuine concerns that could ultimately destroy this woman who is trying to reclaim her life and her children after 25 years in an abusive marriage.
What will it take to make the system more compassionate and human?
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