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.

Nicholas, who by his parents' divorce trial hadn't slipped into his older sister's clothes for some time, may or may not have been suffering from the disorder. His therapist, Alexandria Doyle, testified that she suspected the boy had a mild form of GID, but noted that Nicholas "knows he's a boy and wants to remain a boy." Mark Otis, the court-appointed psychologist, testified that he didn't think Nicholas's behavior fit the criteria spelled out in the scientific literature.

Nonetheless, Spain's attorney, Jerry Bain, rode the issue of little Nicholas's future sexual identity for all it was worth: Won't he grow up to be gay? Or a transvestite? Or a transsexual? And the attorney's questions to Doyle were clearly designed to focus attention on Shrader and, as Spain put it, her "sexual confusion."

"If Nicholas Š were exposed to individuals with homosexual lifestyles and he already has a tendency toward becoming homosexual, would that be bad?

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

"Wouldn't it be bad, or not in the best interest for the child who is prone toward homosexuality or becoming a transvestite or transsexual, to be around people that live that alternative lifestyle?

"Historically, most of the moms of GID children have emotional or mental problems, don't they?"

Spain also appeared distressed about his son's habit of playing with dolls, which, like the GID, he blamed on his wife's poor parenting skills. But his credibility faded a bit when he admitted on cross-examination that he had purchased a doll for Nicholas as recently as September 1993, a month before Shrader filed for divorce.

Though Spain criticized her for being "in denial," Shrader maintains that Nicholas's behavior was simply a phase he had largely grown out of by the time she filed for divorce. It angers her that Spain so thoughtlessly exploited her son's early-childhood quirks for his own purposes.

"Steve wanted both of these kids to be labeled with some kind of mental disorder," Shrader says, "so he could blame it on me."

Certainly Shrader's own behavior contributed to the "increased fighting and vindictiveness" between the parents, noted Nancy Stark, a licensed professional counselor who conducted a court-ordered social study of the family. Stark testified that Shrader had "screwed up," for example, when she stubbornly turned down Spain's requests for some extra time with his children. Yet Stark disagreed with Spain's contention that Shrader had engaged in "parental alienation syndrome."

"Part of this just happens in divorce," Stark said. "I mean, I have seen worse behavior."

After a week of testimony that was often scurrilous, the 11-person jury -- one woman was booted for hugging Shrader during a break -- agreed on a joint-custody arrangement. The decision on where the kids would live was left to Ashworth. The judge's experts, Stark and Otis, as well as Doyle, the children's therapist, all reached the same conclusion: Nicholas and Allison should remain in Kemp with their mother.

"I'm not saying that their dad cannot parent them," Stark testified. "But it just doesn't make sense, when we have a mother here who these kids want to live with and have a community and friends and schools and therapists and we have a life for them, why they should be punished and moved out of that."

Why Glen Ashworth ignored the expert advice other judges routinely rely upon is difficult to determine. When testimony about Shrader's alleged sexual preferences first arose, his sensibilities didn't seem particularly offended, and in fact the judge urged Spain's attorney to focus on "the real stuff." And his stated belief that Spain was more willing to cooperate in a joint-custody arrangement was hardly supported by the testimony, or by the judge's earlier comments about both parents' petty behavior.

Whatever the reason, Ashworth made the decision to award primary custody of Nicholas and Allison to Spain. The judge then suggested the two parents meet with their children together, and let them know that moving to Tyler at the end of the summer wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Shrader left the courtroom in a state of shock. By the time she got home to Nicholas and Allison, Shrader found that Spain had already been there and gone.

"I don't know how many people can understand the feeling of having a five-year-old boy sit in your lap and say, 'Well, Mom, that means we won't get to see you that much anymore,' " Shrader recalls of that day. "I don't have the words to describe it. You just can't get there from here."

Ashworth also ignored one other very important point of view: that of Rebecca Calabria, the children's court-appointed attorney. As the attorney ad litem, Calabria was Nicholas and Allison's only voice at the trial. Like the judge's other experts, she urged Ashworth to consider the strong bond between the children and their mother and to let Nicholas and Allison remain in Kemp with Shrader. When the judge ignored that recommendation, Calabria fairly vibrated with indignation.

"My clients articulated to me, not jabbered to me, but articulated to me, thoughtfully, that they wanted to live with their mother," Calabria told Ashworth, her voice rising. "They told me that on two occasions."

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