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.

McNeel offered almost identical courtroom testimony in June 1999. He also suggested that the things Karen Shrader has been accused of doing by her ex-husband -- if, in fact, Spain's accusations were true -- are hardly out of the ordinary for a mother deprived of any meaningful contact with her children.

Karen Shrader is not infallible. But perhaps her biggest mistake, or at least the one that has had the harshest consequences, was made the day she agreed to marry Steve Spain.

At the time, 1979, they were both med-school students at the University of Texas in Houston. Shrader was born in Houston and raised in Pasadena. Her father, a doctor, died the summer before she entered third grade. Her mother remarried a cattle rancher from Nacogdoches 20 years ago. Shrader was a rough-and-tumble kid -- she had four brothers -- and a solid student. Though she had a sharp tongue that annoyed her mother, Shrader was never much trouble.

Did judges in this building abuse their discretion?
Brian Wallstin
Did judges in this building abuse their discretion?

Spain was born in Bishop, California, and reared in Houston, where his mother, a former schoolteacher, still lives. According to a "social study" submitted to the divorce judge in 1994, Spain was a somewhat rebellious teenager who smoked pot and drank a little. But for the most part he toed a proper line. Spain's parents were married for 47 years (his father died in 1989), but he and his siblings have been much less successful in that arena. Spain's sister has been married three times; a brother in Australia is twice divorced.

Spain was, in fact, already married when he met Shrader in 1978. After his divorce, they moved in together. They were married December 22, 1979. Spain and Shrader graduated from medical school in 1982, did their one-year residencies in Waco, then moved to set up a family practice together in the Cedar Creek Lake area.

Though they had spent most of their lives in and around Houston, Spain and Shrader adapted easily to life in a rural East Texas town. They joined a church, fostered their business -- they opened a second clinic in 1985 -- and started a family: Allison was born March 29, 1985; Nicholas came along May 20, 1988.

How such seemingly solid unions begin to collapse is anyone's guess. Speculation based on courtroom testimony probably wouldn't help much. Is Spain's belief that Shrader was surly, unhappy and demanding any more reliable than Shrader's insistence that Spain was an emotionally detached mope who occasionally spoke of suicide? In divorce court parents say a lot of things about each other as they fight over assets, who gets the kids and under what circumstances those kids will be raised.

Spain set the tone that rings loudly today when he testified at the temporary custody hearing in October 1993 that, after 13 years of marriage, he had come to the conclusion his wife was a lesbian.

As evidence, Spain told a story about seeing his wife hug a woman friend. There was an argument, the woman threw a drink at Spain, and when he grabbed her arm, she tore his shirt. Depending on whom you believe, the woman either instigated the fight by taunting Spain, or Spain started it by asking her to get her "fat lesbian ass" out of his house. Spain testified that he was "nauseated" by what he saw. He left the house and went to his office, where he injected himself with a sedative and spent the night asleep in a chair.

Spain also produced a picture of Shrader sitting on the lap of a childhood chum, as well as a short stack of letters she wrote to a friend whose mother was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. Written over the course of a year, the intimate letters were filled with Shrader's frustrations with the woman's emotional distance. But there was nothing in the letters to suggest the two women had ever had a physical relationship.

Spain also didn't have much concrete evidence a year later, when, in an obvious effort to put his wife in the hot seat just weeks before the divorce trial, he filed a contempt-of-court motion against Shrader. He accused her of trying to run him down with her car, of violating the judge's orders by drinking beer in front of the children, of entering his rental house in Tyler to purloin family photographs. He also whined to the judge that Shrader had cursed him in a hallway outside his lawyer's office and made him wait an hour when he arrived to pick up Nicholas for a scheduled visit. Ashworth threw out Spain's motion.

If Spain's pretrial strategy reeked of a certain desperation, he was prepared to damn the consequences once it began. Among the exhibits he produced at the divorce trial, in February 1995, were a handful of candid photographs of Nicholas wearing a dress. Forget the fact that it's not unusual for boys of a certain age to play dress-up. (Nicholas was seven years old at the time of the trial; he appears to be about two in the photographs.) In many cases, Spain had been the one holding the camera.

In his testimony, Spain went on at considerable length about what he believed was Nicholas's "gender-identity disorder," a potentially serious condition that pretty much speaks for itself. Cross-dressing is only one of several behavioral traits that psychologists look for when making a GID diagnosis.

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