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.

Perhaps another mother might have accepted Glen Ashworth's decision and learned to live with the kind of disagreements that crop up in a joint-custody arrangement. Maybe, given some time, even someone as proud and headstrong as Karen Shrader could have, for the future's sake, forgiven her ex-husband for dragging her through the muck in their divorce trial.

But perhaps another father wouldn't have been so anxious to perpetuate the damage that had already been done.

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

In December 1995, barely four months after Nicholas and Allison moved to Tyler, Spain sought a temporary restraining order to restrict Shrader's visitation with her children to a supervised setting. He accused Shrader of defying the judge's custody decree, which ordered both parents to help Nicholas and Allison make a "smooth transition" to their new lives in Tyler.

Spain's evidence was less than compelling. In fact, Ashworth dismissed the case. But the hearing revealed how Spain was willing to sacrifice his children's interests to satisfy his own.

One of the major considerations in moving the children to Tyler was finding a new therapist for Nicholas. Alexandria Doyle had testified at the divorce trial that gender-identity disorder was still a relatively new diagnosis; few therapists had the experience to effectively treat it, she had said. Despite objections from Shrader's lawyers, Ashworth appointed Charles Fries, a Tyler psychologist.

Fries hadn't been treating Nicholas and Allison for long when he was called by Spain to be a witness at the December 1995 contempt hearing. Obviously uncomfortable, Fries refused to make any recommendation on whether Nicholas would be harmed by continued visits with his mother. Fries also protested Spain's demand for the clinical notes he had taken during Nicholas's sessions. Because Spain was the child's "custody parent," however, the therapist had no choice but to produce the notes and testify about their contents.

By the end of the hearing, Fries so resented the position he'd been placed in that he asked Ashworth to relieve him as Nicholas's psychologist.

He was right to do so. According to the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists' Rules of Practice, "A licensee specifically avoids accepting both appointment for evaluation and therapeutic intervention in the same case. A licensee provides services in one but not both capacities in the same case."

Forcing Charles Fries to resign his court-appointed duties may have been Spain's whole purpose of having the therapist testify. After all, Fries obviously did not support Spain's position that the children's contact with their mother should be restricted. He testified that the supervised visitation that Spain was requesting was reserved for extreme cases, such as when allegations of abuse have arisen.

The therapist also reported that Nicholas wanted to move back to Kemp to live with his mother. Finally Fries agreed with Shrader's attorney that Spain's desire to continue fighting his ex-wife in court might be hurting the children. After the turmoil of the divorce trial, Nicholas and Allison wanted their parents to cool it for a while, Fries said.

Unfortunately the children have yet to get their wish. In February 1996 the case was transferred from Kaufman to Tyler, the Smith County seat and home of the 321st District Court. The change of venue put the courthouse practically in Spain's backyard, from which the legal assault on his ex-wife could more easily be pursued.

Karen Shrader has been fighting Steve Spain in Smith County for four years now. Each time she has appeared in the 321st District Court, her right to see and speak with her children has been further eroded. Whenever she believes the situation can't get much worse, something happens to prove her wrong.

In May 1996, three months after the case was transferred, Nicholas and Allison spent the weekend with their mother in Kemp. Shrader says she and Spain had an oral agreement that because summer vacation had started, the children could spend the following week with her. But three days before she was scheduled to return Nicholas and Allison, Shrader was served with a writ of habeas corpus, signed by Blake, ordering her to produce the children. That, of course, was grounds for Spain to file another contempt-of-court charge against Shrader.

"He didn't have to do that," Shrader says. "The kids had talked to their dad, and it was okay. I had talked to their dad, and it was okay. Suddenly, it wasn't okay. It was my fault because I didn't get something in writing."

The contempt charge was heard over the course of several weeks in August and September 1996. Spain testified that Shrader had failed to return the children by the court-appointed hour on numerous occasions, dating as far back as March 1996. Spain's new wife, Jill, also testified, as did his mother, Marilyn, that Shrader's behavior upset and embarrassed the children.

Considering the lack of specifics and the decidedly subjective nature of the testimony offered by Spain and his witnesses, Blake's decision to suspend Shrader's visits with Nicholas and Allison seems unusually harsh. Blake also ordered Shrader to undergo a psychological evaluation, which the judge would consider at a review hearing set for December 12, 90 days away. Blake ordered Donna O'Shea, the children's court-appointed attorney, to find a psychologist and set up an appointment for Shrader.

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