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.

Then again, bright as they are, Nicholas and Allison may look at the record and see this long, nasty affair as Karen Shrader sees it: As Steve Spain's relentless effort to so completely destroy their mother that she might never be entitled to spend another minute with her children.

Since Shrader filed for divorce, in October 1993, Spain has used the legal system to ruin his ex-wife's credibility and attack her character at every turn. Described by the original divorce court judge in the case as having a "classic passive-aggressive personality," Spain has repeatedly dragged Shrader into court on allegations that her visits and phone calls were harming the children's physical and emotional health. More often than not, his accusations were largely uncorroborated.

Not that Spain needed any witnesses. To an almost disturbing degree, the courts, particularly the 321st District Court in Smith County, have accommodated Spain's calculated effort to take away Shrader's parental rights.

Steve Spain wants his ex-wife kept away from his kids.
Steve Spain wants his ex-wife kept away from his kids.
Shrader wasn't told when Allison had knee surgery.
Shrader wasn't told when Allison had knee surgery.

A Tyler family physician who remarried into a local clan of above-average standing, Spain has been allowed to testify as his own expert witness on two key issues: Shrader's earning capacity as a physician in tiny Gun Barrel City, south of Kemp, and his children's mental health. In August 1996 Spain told Ruth Blake that Shrader should be earning at least $120,000 a year. Without getting a second opinion, Blake ruled that Shrader, who was taking in about $90,000, was "intentionally underemployed" and increased her monthly $900 child support to $1,500.

Seven months later Spain came before Blake again, complaining that Shrader had failed to reimburse him for the children's medical expenses. Blake accepted an accounting assembled on a computer in Spain's lawyer's office, and, ignoring the fact that Shrader wasn't even in the courtroom to defend herself, Blake raised her monthly payments to $2,700.

Whether or not Nicholas and Allison have, as their father maintains, suffered from Shrader's alleged conduct is unknown. They have never been allowed to testify, either in court or via closed-circuit television. In seven years the presiding judge has interviewed them just once, back in September 1996. Ruth Blake forbade even Karen Shrader from reviewing the transcript of that conversation.

At his ex-wife's bankruptcy hearing in January, Spain, a family physician who earns $195,000 a year, testified that his legal assault on Shrader has cost him roughly $500,000. To the extent that his deep pockets have secured his perceived right to raise Nicholas and Allison without any undue influence from their mother, it has been money well spent.

Spain did not respond to oral and written requests for an interview. Nor did his attorney, Jerry Bain. Bain did, however, leave a voice-mail message saying that he often receives calls from reporters wanting to know more about the case. Bain said he has never failed to suggest they come to Tyler and look at the court record.

That record begins in Kaufman County in October 1993. At a temporary custody hearing where the children were allowed to remain with their mother, the judge, Glen Ashworth, proclaimed both parents "pretty good people." By February 1996, when the case was transferred to Smith County, Ashworth was disgusted by what he had witnessed and was more than happy to wash his hands of the entire affair.

"I wish there was some way I could impress upon you the tragedy of where we're going with this," the judge said at one hearing. "[T]hese will probably be the only children that you will have, and, you know, what you build with them in this conduct you're going to have to pay for later."

In Texas, like everywhere else, there is a strong presumption in the courts that children of divorce deserve the love of both parents to the extent that it's available. Restricting or even severing the rights of a parent to foster a relationship with his or her child is not unprecedented. But, because the stakes are so high, for parent and child, it's a decision that is rarely made without careful consideration.

Eighteen months ago, in Hood County, Texas, a woman named Schwana Patterson was sentenced to 23 years in prison for committing the crime of "injury to a child by omission." Patterson's ex-boyfriend had kidnapped and killed her 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, for which he received the death penalty.

Patterson was convicted largely on an account given by her son, Cody, who testified that his mother told him she'd heard Sarah screaming in terror, but had done nothing to help her. Eventually a state district court judge made two decisions about Cody's future: First he granted custody of the boy to his father. Then he authorized Cody to visit his mother six times a year at the Gatesville prison unit.

Karen Shrader has never been convicted of a crime, or even arrested. She has never been the subject of an investigation by Children's Protective Services and has not been diagnosed with a mental disorder.

In June 1998, more than a year after Shrader saw her kids for the last time at Lindsay Park, a Tyler psychologist appointed by Ruth Blake to evaluate Shrader sent the judge these observations: "She impresses me that she loves her children and wants what's best for her children," the psychologist, Tynus McNeel, wrote in a letter to Blake. "I found no evidence that Karen Shrader would likely present an unduly negative or harmful influence to her children at this time. In summary, I would recommend to the court that Karen Shrader be allowed to have visitation rightsŠ."

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