Former client, Patrick talks with Brian Walters about his fight for custody of his son. Patrick went through the family law litigation process more than once. Tune in to this week’s podcast episode to learn about our client’s experience going from no access to his son to being awarded full custody.
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Your hosts have earned a reputation as fierce and effective advocates inside and outside of the courtroom. Both partners are experienced trial attorneys who have been board certified in family law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.
Brian Walters: Hey everyone, I’m Brian Walters. Welcome to the Better, Worse, or Divorce podcast. I’m here with a very special guest client, hopefully soon to be a former client forever, nothing personal, and somebody who’s really kind of become a friend as well, unfortunately. You probably don’t want to be friends with your divorce or custody lawyer but if you spend as much time as we have together and it’s for a good cause and all that other type of stuff then sometimes that happens.
So Patrick, you want to just tell us a real little bit about yourself? Just so everybody knows, Patrick’s been in our office from October, 2014 is when he first hired us, and that first case took almost two years to resolve itself. Then there was a three year break and then he was unfortunately back and that case is still open, been about two years, but that’s also just about to close up. So that’s a little bit of background of him as a client and he still has a minor child and so we’re going to keep some names out of it, some details out of this because this is public and we wouldn’t want his son to hear that it’s just not appropriate, something when he’s older he can talk to his parents about. But yeah, give us a bit of background on yourself and then we’ll kind of go from there.
Patrick: Well, originally I’m from Louisiana and then I was there, I guess, six years and then we moved to Houston, Texas. My dad worked for Gulf Oil and we ended up living in England for 10 years because he got moved to London and originally we’re only supposed to be in London for two years but I spent 10 years of my life in London and I moved back from London. My dad retired and moved back to Houston and I went to Baylor University for my undergrad and then I went on to University of North Texas to get my MBA. That’s kind of my background for college. When I met you I was working for Nippon Steel Trading, Japanese trading company back in 2014. It was my second year.
Brian Walters: Well, that sounds like about as typical of a Houston background as I can imagine.
Patrick: I don’t know about that.
Brian Walters: The oil industry moving here from out of state, all that stuff sounds real typical as a childhood. Okay. Well, so you have a child, you have a son and he’s how old now?
Patrick: He’s 14 now.
Brian Walters: Okay, so when you first hired me in October of 2014, he would’ve been seven plus years ago.
Brian Walters: And you and the mom were together for a little while but not married to each other?
Patrick: That’s correct.
Brian Walters: And what was going on with you and the mom that brought you to my office, just generally?
Patrick: In 2014, starting in August she had kept the boy from me for three months and then she had filed contempt charges against me, 39 of them, so I needed a family attorney to help me out and I hadn’t seen him. She wouldn’t let me see him from August through November.
Brian Walters: Okay, and to make a very long story short, we ended up going into court getting your visitation restored. The court chose to appoint the domestic relations office of Harris County, Houston, that’s Houston, to do a social study, basically a home study, kind of an investigation of both of you, your households. That came back and then we ended up going to a two day trial in the summer of 2016 where ultimately, this is a public record, you ended up winning custody and in fact her visitation was severely restricted, correct?
Patrick: That’s correct.
Brian Walters: So I think something I get asked a lot is what is it like to be in family law litigation? How would you describe that experience? Let’s talk about the first case to start with.
Patrick: Well, the first case I’d never been in that position before. I was extremely worried, very concerned about it, plus I hadn’t seen my kid in three months. I wasn’t able to pick him up. She was the custodial parent, I was the non-custodial. She had that power over me. So I mean, it’s a very frightening situation when you can’t see your child and then you’re being brought to court and have all these charges against you and the other person is trying to get sole custody and she was trying to put me on supervised visitation. It was crazy, so I needed an attorney. And I remember walking into your office. I had visited with other attorneys and I just had a really good feeling about you, Brian. You have a very good personality. You’re very easy to talk to and that’s why I signed up with you. I needed an attorney and I definitely needed a good attorney. I like the fact that you graduated from the University of Texas, it’s a pretty good law school.
Brian Walters: It is, and inexpensive. At least when I went it was real cheap, which was really important for a kid like me, trying to just make ends meet and get by. So I certainly enjoyed my time there. Well, so do you remember the first time going to court and what that was like to step into a courtroom and to get onto a stand and testify? Can you tell us what that was like? I always see it from the lawyer’s end of things, right? But how is it to be in your shoes?
Patrick: Well, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Definitely makes a person nervous, but I felt very confident with you going into the hearing. It was the first hearing for a long drawn out case and you did what needed to be done. I got my visitation back, which is the most important part, and then we had to start addressing the issues and the motion that she’d filed. But yeah, I remember that. It was the first hearing. I think you had another associate help us. He was also attending, but you definitely have to have a good attorney by your side, someone who knows what they’re doing. I was very nervous about it. I’m just glad you got my visitation restored during the temporary orders.
Brian Walters: Right, so that was kind of step one was to get you back to normal and then step two was to go in and switch things around to put you in charge. So that was a two day trial, I recall, in front of Judge Schmude was the judge at that time. And again, I’m partly curious. I know on my end as a lawyer, I get exhausted when I go to court. I tell my wife, I feel like it’s two hours of… Like if I go to court for 8 hours, I feel like I’ve been somewhere working for 16 hours. It’s like two to one and I want to come home and just kind of take a nap. What is it like for you? I would assume it’s probably a similar experience, but you tell me.
Patrick: It is similar. I mean, you’re so nervous and you don’t know what’s going to happen that… I guess it’s the adrenaline and going to the courtroom and then actually going through the whole process. It’s the first time I was in family court, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’m already super upset about what’s going on. I’ve not seen my son for three months and then you go into the hearing and it’s a two day hearing. I don’t know what’s going to happen and I’ve got these 39 contempt charges against me. So there’s a lot of worry and you don’t know what the outcome’s going to be. What I wanted to bring up was something that was part of going to trial, especially in family law the first time is I remember when I hired you I started sending you all kinds of evidence and documents and stuff, proof of what she was doing and I think that comes out of the nervousness and wanting to be prepared for court. And I think I overprepared or tried to give you guys so much evidence that I wasn’t doing anything wrong or what was going on in with the situation, but I think we didn’t use 90% or 95% of all the evidence that I gave you over the two years. So it’s not only just in court that you’re worrying about everything. It’s also in your personal life and going over all the texts and emails and messages and trying to give your lawyer as much information as possible and you can’t use all that information in court. That’s the other frustrating part about going to these hearings.
Brian Walters: I agree. There’s a picture behind me, a big, big picture on the wall and this is analogy I always use, is if that picture is kind of all the things that have happened in your life as it relates to your child and you put a little postage stamp in the corner there, that postage stamp is what gets in front of the judge. It’s just our rules of evidence and procedure are designed to just get the key things in front of that judge and that’s a little hard sometimes, right? Because we don’t know where… The judge is a human being like me and you has got their own life experiences and prior cases they’ve heard that sort of ring a bell or personal experiences and you’re trying to think about what of those things would be most persuasive to that person because that’s really what we’re trying to do is persuade the judge to see things our way.
And you had a type of hearing that had one outcome was 180 degrees from the other. A lot of hearings or trials we go to we kind of know they’re going to fall within a pretty narrow range and we’re going to be arguing about a couple of days of visitation here and there or a couple of percentage points on a property division or something, but yours was just anywhere from you having no visitation, which is what she wanted, to her being restricted, which is what we wanted and ultimately occurred. It’s just a completely wild outcome either way. And sometimes judges do their own thing and decide they’re going to come up with a third option that nobody thought of or proposed. So yeah, those are stressful hearings for lawyers too but of course it’s a lot more for the parent because that’s where the real one is.
Okay, so the second part of this, because when that ended I would’ve still recognized your name or your voice if you had walked into my office today and said, “Hey, what’s up Brian?” I would’ve said, “Oh, I remember Patrick from five years ago when that case ended.” But sure enough, three years after that, so almost two years ago now, you were back in my office with a very serious situation.
Enough time had passed, interestingly, that we had a new judge in that same courtroom but Travis County has elections every four years and sometimes family law judges have the wrong letter R or D after their name in a year that is not good for R’s or D’s or vice versa and they switch them out. And we had a new judge but kind of the same old problem, mom bringing allegations against you and trying to once again completely halt your access to your son who you had custody and been living with you for three years by that point. So what was that like to get served with papers? I think there were also some criminal proceedings against you, which were eventually dismissed. So what was that whole mess like?
Patrick: That was a nightmare. I mean, it’s like the movie Gone Girl with Ben Affleck, almost. I mean, you won primary custody for me back in July 1st, 2016 and everything was fine and then my son’s playing with his friends on the weekend on a mountain bike and then he goes to his mom’s for Easter, the weekend of Easter. And the next thing I know following that weekend I get the police contacting me. I have a warrant out for my arrest for child endangerment. So she used bruises to try to file criminal charges against me and it was all a scheme. So I mean, that was the first part and you helped me. I mean, I went to the school to try to pick up my child and he wouldn’t come down to the principal’s office. So I’ve got criminal charges and I’m trying to get my son back after the Easter weekend and he’s not going with me. And then my mom went up there, his grandmother, to get him and he won’t go with his grandmother. And I remember you helped me out kind of pro bono just because of our friendship and how long we worked together and I’ll never forget that. But anyway, so he was away from me April, May, June, and I thought she was going to give him back to me in July. She ended up filing the family court in July asking for sole custody based on the fact that I had criminal charges against me. So I’m in two courts.
Brian Walters: Right, so I had to get involved at that point and we had a hearing right around the beginning of school, so early September, and then we ended up going back to court a couple of times as more information came out and ultimately back to trial. And ultimately, your son’s back with you, correct?
Patrick: Correct. I had to do parental reunification and then I was given back expanded visitation and then we had the final hearing. I got back my primary custody like I had in 2016.
Brian Walters: Right, and here we are. So now you have a kid in his mid-teens and we’re about to wrap up some paperwork on the case and we hope we never have to work together again. Hope he can hit age 18 without any more court things. So let me ask you some broad questions because I think you covered a lot of it, but one of the big questions I get asked all the time, especially by dads, is am I going to be treated fairly and equally as a dad in court or is there kind of a bias toward moms? I know the law says there’s not to be any bias or consideration. What is your experience with that?
Patrick: Well, I think going into this back in 2014, I had that same fear that they would always side with the mother. She already had primary custody, I was secondary. But that wasn’t the situation in 2016 because we did that social study and I think that’s a key, I mean, very, very important. I’m glad you suggested that because that allows the DRO to get involved and they can go in and assess what kind of parents each individual is and I think that really saved me. I think the DRO has a very…
I think the judges looked at the opinions of DRO, Domestic Relations Office, on those social studies and they take into consideration what their conclusions are, of their assessments. And it was apparent that I was a very good parent and that my son would’ve been better off living with me. In fact, we had temporary emergency orders once that DRO report came out on a social studies because of concerns noted. And so that really changed my perspective on whether or not fathers don’t have any rights. I think we do. It’s overall about who’s, I guess, more mentally healthy to take care of the child and that plays a big aspect in the judge’s decision.
Brian Walters: I agree with you. I mean, I’ve been doing this 25 years and I think when I started 25 years ago, in the end I had the good fortune to start practicing in Austin with Travis County and I think they’ve always been very much at the forefront of being super fair with fathers. But I remember going to the rural counties, some out around Austin or wherever and it being a little different. I think they wanted the dads to be involved, but I think it was a little hard for some of these old time judges, this would’ve been in the 90s and early 2000s. These are probably folks who had been born in the 40s, grew up in the 50s, I think it was a little hard for them to really believe that dads regularly or normally should have custody if they were the better parent.
And I think that was especially true with younger kids and especially true maybe with girls. I’ve even had judges tell me those things, but that was a long time ago and I’ve found that in the big cities that’s been real fair. Certainly both of the judges you had in Houston were very fair people and were very even-handed. So I think dads can feel pretty comfortable about that. That doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to have the same outcome you did because it’s in some ways, and this is typical, the other parent can be their own worst enemy and really overdo things and say and do things and make accusations that may be short-term beneficial to them but aren’t going to age well because they’re not true. And ultimately judges really, really don’t appreciate that.
Our legal system is basically based on the concept that people are going to be honest and it has to be because we don’t have a way to tell for sure. We don’t have a live lie detector hooked up to them, right? I don’t think that’d work anyway, but we don’t do that. And so if the judges feel like one of the parents is being dishonest about one thing, and it could even be something relatively minor, then why would we believe they’re telling the truth about other things?
And that’s the problem with liars is that it’s difficult to keep your lies straight and that’s the way cross examination in courts work is that you’re really trying to harm the other person’s credibility so the judge disregards the other things they say. And that’s the nice thing about a client like you, you’re just always honest. You wanted to be a good dad and unfortunately you had a child with a person who didn’t have the same priorities you did. Not a mind reader, but you were certainly a really great father. So let’s just wrap up by telling me how things are going with your son now and what you guys have planned and what you guys are going to be doing this weekend, for example.
Patrick: My son’s doing great. He’s almost as tall as me. He’s in ninth grade now. He’s 14, he turned 14 in August. He’s amazing. He’s turning into a really good looking man. He’s almost five foot eleven I think, if not six foot, so he’s going to be passing me up soon, but he’s having the best year he’s ever had. So he posted with his friends on social media his goal this year is to make all A’s and get better at golf, have fun with his friends. He has a good time on the weekends. I’m glad he’s happy. He’s been through a lot of bad experiences with all the court and it’s hard to see the kids involved in stuff like that. But I’m just pleased we got that for him
Brian Walters: It is. And I normally encourage parents, “Try to settle your differences, work something out that works for both of you, try to move on with the disappointment you have with each other and put the kid first.” And I think a lot of parents are capable of doing that, but it takes two and sometimes neither one of them will. Those are absolute nightmares. But you fall in the more common category of one parent who’s willing to be a parent and wants to co-parent and the other parent doesn’t and it’s real unfortunate when that happens. And sometimes you just can’t agree on things and you can’t split the difference when somebody’s going to just come to you and say, “I don’t want you to see your kid again. Why don’t you split the difference with me? You can see him once a month.” Right? You just can’t agree to that. You don’t have any choice but to go to court.
Patrick: I couldn’t work with her. I mean, I couldn’t co-parent because she just uses a child as a weapon and you never want to be in that position.
Brian Walters: Yeah, and I’m really glad your son has managed to come out on the other side okay and thriving and flourishing. I’m sure that’s a testament to his dad. All right, well, I will wrap us up. We’re about at 25 minutes about typical podcast, but thank you for coming on and sharing your experiences with being a litigant, being a dad in our court system, and being on the receiving end of two really unfortunate custody cases, not just one, but two, and being a gentleman, being a friend, and being an all around good person on top of it. So I appreciate it and thank you for coming in.
Patrick: Well, thank you for having me as a guest. It’s a pleasure.
Brian Walters: You bet. All right, bye.
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