Absent a Mother

A judge says Karen Shrader can't see or talk to her children because she's a bad influence. Shrader says any “bad influence” comes from the application of her ex-husband's deep pockets to the East Texas legal system.

Karen Shrader has not seen her children since April 1997, when she stopped by Lindsay Park in Tyler on a cool day to watch Nicholas and Allison play in a soccer tournament.

Shrader, a tall, broad-shouldered woman with long, straight brown hair, hadn't been at the park more than an hour when a neatly dressed gentleman walked up and served her with a protective order. Signed by Judge Ruth Blake, of the 321st District Court in Smith County, the order prohibited Shrader from venturing within 100 yards of her children, who have lived in Tyler with Shrader's ex-husband, Steven Spain, since August 1995.

Shrader was no stranger to Blake's courtroom. In September 1996 the judge found her guilty of violating the final custody decree and, at Spain's request, suspended Shrader's visitation with Nicholas and Allison and limited her contact with the children to a half-hour phone conversation every other day.

Karen Shrader last saw son Nicholas and his sister three years ago.
Karen Shrader last saw son Nicholas and his sister three years ago.

The protective order demanded that Shrader again appear in court, this time to answer allegations by Spain that she had "staked out" his house and "disrupted and molested the peace" of the children at their weekend soccer games. Citing "a clear and present danger of family violence," Spain wanted Shrader jailed for "emotional abuse" of the children. On October 17, 1997, after four days of hearings, Blake sentenced Shrader to 90 days in the Smith County Jail and barred her from seeing or speaking with Nicholas and Allison until further notice from the court.

"I don't know what it will take to melt your heart about where the kids are and what it's going to take to accept the necessary steps to get you-all back together," Blake told Shrader from the bench. "That has been my goal. But under the present circumstances, you're further away than you were a year ago, and that in itself is tragic."

Karen Shrader would never find it easy to "melt" her heart and accept the sentence Blake had just imposed. Were that the case, she would have accepted what happened in February 1995 in Kaufman County, when a judge ignored the conclusions of his own experts and ordered Shrader to surrender primary custody of her children to their father.

Since then Shrader has been angry, stubborn and, at times, impossibly high-minded. The hostility she feels for her ex-husband has been difficult to contain at times and, coupled with a willingness to say exactly what's on her mind, has frustrated even her attorneys. Indeed, Shrader might have been better off checking her attitude at the courthouse door, where her lack of regard for the legal system wouldn't seem so obvious.

Refusing to accept the decisions of a court of law is a losing proposition, and in a child custody case, the losses tend to pile up. Shrader, who lives in Kemp, about an hour west of Tyler on Cedar Creek Lake, southeast of Dallas, has been found in contempt of court so many times that she has served not one but two stints in the Smith County Jail. She is currently free, pending an appeal, after receiving a third, ten-day sentence in January. Burdened with high child-support payments and enormous unpaid legal bills, most of which are owed to her ex-husband's lawyer, Shrader filed for bankruptcy in December 1998.

The comforts of self-righteousness may, in fact, be the only thing keeping Karen Shrader in the court system and sane. Many people in her position, out of control with fear and anxiety, have chosen to disappear with their children into some underground railroad for dispossessed parents; or, driven completely beyond the brink, to commit a violent crime of passion.

While Shrader clearly considers herself a victim, she's not very good at the role. She's unusually didactic when discussing the case, focusing on legal details. She doesn't talk about the emotional toll exacted by the loss of her children without prompting. Even then, she resists the invitation to become overly sentimental.

But Shrader refuses to succumb to pathos, because no matter what the three judges who have presided over her seven-year custody dispute with Steve Spain might think, she believes she has been unjustly denied the love and companionship of her children for the last three years.

"I absolutely wouldn't do anything different," she says. "I think it's unfortunate that there are people in powerful positions who don't do what's right. I'm not a fanatically religious person. But God isn't going to reward these people."

The 25 file folders that comprise the official record of IN THE INTEREST OF ALLISON BROOKS SHRADER-SPAIN and NICHOLAS ANDERSON SHRADER-SPAIN are stored in a ground-floor office in the Smith County Courthouse in Tyler: thousands of sheets of paper, scores of pleadings, dozens of rulings that document the consequences of one woman's failure to accept the loss of her children.

Or do they?

As Judge Carol Clark, who replaced Blake on the 321st District Court bench in January 1999, remarked a year ago, "This case is one of the most complicated, convoluted I've ever tried to sort out."

Maybe one day Nicholas and Allison Shrader-Spain, now 11 and 15 years old respectively, will want to find out for themselves why they were taken away from their mother in 1995 and why, two years later, she had all but disappeared from their lives. Because they have not seen or spoken with their mother for so long, the children might expect the facts that have accrued in their "interest" to speak clearly to the menace Karen Shrader represents to their well-being.

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