Saturday, August 4, 2012

Saturday Musings, 04 August 2012

Good morning,

I concede the battle to the sun. My struggling plants valiantly opposed the onslaught of fire but more have faded into crinkling strands of brown vegetation. Sweet, cool air soothes them in the earliest part of the day, but too quickly yields to fierce hot waves of radiance on the deck, and my watering can holds only so much solace. I sit amongst my wilted, former glories and wonder if this is global warming, or just a trick of Missouri summer.

It's been a lumpy week, another five-pack of ten-hour days, the brutality made more tolerable with the pleasant presence of my son's cheerful disposition. I face two trials next week, the second of which looms larger, like the flood of anger lurking in the tightened muscles of a lover's face. One of the parents of a twelve-year-old girl will leave the courtroom gripped in sorrow; and one will leave believing that they have bested the other. On polar ends of the parenting proposal, each demands to be residential placement, and as surely as the baking of the August sun, one will lose. I fervently hope that my client, whether triumphant or defeated, will be gracious.

This pending trial defines the fallacy of family law. Even the name mocks its purpose. Whether dueling over principal residential placement in a divorce or paternity action, or struggling to regain custody in the dingy courtrooms of the juvenile court, litigants in "family law cases" focus not on the family but on its disintegration. I derided the change of name when our Juvenile Detention Center became the Family Detention Center and our Juvenile Courts morphed into Family Court. I wish they would detain the family, but only the children find themselves sleeping on the narrow, thin mattresses in rooms smelling of disinfectant. And in the hallways of the "Family Court", the focus remains due diligence to the ostensible need for maintaining family integrity while concurrently planning for its funeral.

I recently found myself a bit player in a staging of the middle act of one such drama. My client beside me, slender, dim, pretty; her guardian ad litem on the other side of her narrow frame; I rose to cajole the commissioner into expanding the services for this young mother with her low IQ, her tendency to giggle, and her total unawareness of the headlights panned in her direction on the lonely road. I got what I wanted, but remain unconvinced that any services my client receives can compensate for what nature failed to give her.

Days before that hearing, I had sat in the same chair next to a father desperately trying to conform to the expectations of a system that took his children from their mother without his awareness of the filth in which she had been rearing them. Estranged from the three toddlers, bound to a new wife and their small family, this man had at first rejected the notion of allowing the Children's Division to stare into his living room and poke around his psyche under the feeble guise of readying him for placement. But his young wife fought for a foothold in the jungle of the system, and clung to the entangled forest, one hand around a vine and the other holding his. They slowly climbed from slippery rocks and the potential plunge into a raging ocean, and stand precariously in the treetops, looking for a strong branch on which to rest.

For her efforts, this valiant stepmother has been branded as "uncooperative" and "hostile", and ordered by the Children's Division to take anger management classes. They've decided she has an anger issue because she yelled at the members of the Family Support Team. I smiled when I heard about these events. Too well I understood what drove her to lash out at them, because I have seen the expressions on their faces. At times, I have wanted to do the same, not as the parent of a child in care but as the lawyer of such a parent.

Their expressions often seem to derive from a feeling of superiority -- the human tendency to think not "there, but for the grace of God, go I", but rather, "there, but for my vastly better understanding of the way of the world, go I". I watched the members of that Family Support Team talk to my client and his wife after the hearing, and saw what plays from the outside as the stamp of smugness. They praised her for maintaining her cool in the courtroom. Why shouldn't she? This time, for the first time, they had representation. Before that hearing, she and her husband sat on their own in the courtroom, with no one to advocate for their position but themselves. Of the two, she is the more articulate, but unschooled both in the law and in the delicacies of human interaction. Even after thirty years of practice and fifty-seven years of living, I make bonehead mistakes in dealing with people -- how can we expect her to navigate rocky waters from slightly more than two decades of experience, during the last three or four years of which she has been birthing and caring for babies?

I say, Well done, young lady. Her children have a roof over their heads, their father and mother lawfully wed, both employed, busily making room for three more children whom I have no idea how they will feed. But feed all five they will, and mostly because of her passion combined with his steadfast dedication to improving their lives. We might condemn him for not knowing that his first wife was not caring for the children of whom she had custody, but we cannot condemn him for the vigor with which he and his current wife now struggle to include those children in their world.

Such are the tales with which my workaday world has become crowded. Men and women battling over the structure of their children's lives, whether against each other or against a system that judges their deficiencies, with greater or lesser degrees of accuracy. It's a hell of a way to earn a living.

I entered the attorney lounge in the Clay County courthouse yesterday, an hour before I guided my client through a stipulated change of custody to make him principal residential custodian of children whose mother had chosen as her second husband a Nazi skinhead prison inmate. In the lull before this brief record would be made, I chanced upon a member of this wonderful list-serve, who introduced me to a law student working with him. He described me as someone who should have been a writer, and I protested that I am a writer. All right, he conceded, she's someone who should be a writer full-time. We laughed.

But in these quiet mornings, my feet resting on the smooth surface of our deck, my laptop propped on the metal table next to a struggling impatiens plant, I feel the truth of his words. I became an attorney only because I feared that writing would not pay enough, and thirty years later, the acid in my stomach reminds me of the flimsiness of my justification for choosing one pursuit over the other. If I had foreseen my path in September 1983, when I sat at a wooden high-top in a bar south of the Plaza, and raised my right hand to take the oath of my office, I might have deliberately spilled my single malt across the license that my then-boss would shortly sign, and loudly call for another round.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.