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.

Shrader left the courtroom stunned by what she maintains was the "de facto termination" of her parental rights. Still, Blake had promised her a review hearing, and Shrader was convinced that no psychologist would consider her a threat to her children.

A few days after the September hearing, Shrader's attorney, Sam George, phoned O'Shea to find out about the evaluation. It hadn't been set up yet, he was told. A few days later, George called O'Shea again, and again was told no appointment had been made. This went on for three months, until the date of the hearing rolled around and Shrader still hadn't had her much-needed evaluation.

Nonetheless, on December 12, Shrader drove the 60 miles from Kemp to Tyler for her review hearing, only to discover that no one had bothered to tell her it had been cancelled. According to the clerk's docket, the hearing was not held because Spain's attorney, Jerry Bain, was ill that day. Shrader believes it was cancelled because Donna O'Shea never bothered to set up the psychological evaluation.

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

"We bugged her to death," Shrader says. "We were like, 'We're ready, let's get the ball rolling.' After hearing what the psychologist had to say, the judge could have changed everything she did back in September."

Shrader had distrusted O'Shea from the moment Blake appointed her, on July 11, 1996, to represent the interests of Nicholas and Allison. The ad litem's first piece of business was not, as one might expect, to meet Nicholas and Allison. Instead, according to billing exhibits she submitted to the court, O'Shea held a 15-minute telephone conference with Spain's attorney four days after her appointment. The following day, July 17, O'Shea met with Spain himself for an hour, then spent another two hours reviewing letters and documents that Spain had given her.

On July 18 Shrader filed the first of several motions seeking to have O'Shea removed as the attorney ad litem. Blake denied that first motion, as well as the others.

According to court records, O'Shea didn't actually meet with Nicholas and Allison until nearly three weeks after her appointment. O'Shea had already made two court appearances by then, raising the question of whose interests she was serving, since she hadn't yet spoken with her clients.

The records also show that O'Shea met with Jill Spain on at least four occasions, met or spoke with Steve Spain five times and talked with Jerry Bain four times. Meanwhile, between the date she was appointed and the August and September 1996 hearings, O'Shea did not conduct a single face-to-face meeting or telephone conversation with Shrader.

Indeed, O'Shea's statements to Blake at those hearings suggested that while the ad litem knew the children wanted to be with their mother, Shrader should undergo a psychological evaluation to make sure Nicholas and Allison were in no danger. That evaluation never happened, of course. According to the billing exhibits, in the 90 days before the December 12 review hearing, O'Shea spent a grand total of two hours conducting "telephone conferences with various psychologists regarding Karen Shrader's testing."

Shrader was infuriated with O'Shea for failing to set up the evaluation that might have resulted in having her visitation reinstated. The day of the cancelled review hearing, Shrader dashed off an ill-advised letter, threatening to sue O'Shea. For obvious reasons, it's not prudent to antagonize the attorney ad litem. The parent who gets crosswise with an ad litem might find that the children's best interests are suddenly more closely aligned with the other parent.

Shrader already suspected that O'Shea was representing Spain's interests more than those of Nicholas and Allison. Indeed, O'Shea's contention that the children needed "relief" from the emotional trauma of dealing with their mother isn't supported by the available evidence.

When Blake reduced Shrader's contact with the children to a few phone calls a week, the judge ordered Spain to tape-record the conversations. Transcripts of about two dozen of those conversations, between September 1996 and January 1997, show that Shrader's children enjoyed a close, easy relationship with their mother. They spoke of missing Shrader, as well as their grandparents. Contrary to what Spain had often said in court, even passing references to the court proceedings were rare.

But if Shrader felt betrayed by her children's attorney, her letter to O'Shea backfired in a big way. O'Shea retaliated by asking Blake to order Shrader to pay all ad litem fees from that date forward. Calling Shrader "the bad actor in this case," O'Shea argued that "it is simply not fair" that Spain be punished financially for Shrader's "conduct" by continuing to pay half her fees.

The letter to O'Shea also ended up damaging Shrader's relationship with her attorney, Sam George of Tyler. On December 13, 1996, George told Shrader he was withdrawing from the case.

"Karen, you are your own worst enemy," George wrote in a brief letter to Shrader. "Not only have you failed to follow my advice, but you have more or less launched your own crusade to seek justice, which has hurt your case immeasurably."

Steve Spain didn't wait long after Sam George's withdrawal to take advantage of his ex-wife's legal vulnerability. Indeed, it's doubtful that even if Shrader had enjoyed the benefit of counsel, she could have prevented what happened in January and February 1997, when a flurry of motions, hearings and rulings were entered that ultimately led to the jail sentence imposed by Ruth Blake later that year.
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