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 had decided to fight fire with fire by filing two motions for contempt against Spain for allegedly thwarting her attempts to contact the children by phone. Blake never bothered to hear those motions. On January 23 she did, however, consider Spain's request for "emergency" termination of Shrader's telephone contact with Nicholas and Allison. Blake chose not to halt the phone calls, but reduced Shrader's conversations with the children to 20 minutes, twice a week.

Then something unusual happened. The following evening, January 24, Shrader called to talk to her children and was told by Jill Spain that another ruling had been made, cutting off her phone contact. It turns out that earlier that day Donna O'Shea had gone before a different judge to get a temporary restraining order suspending all telephone contact between Shrader and her children.

While the ad litem certainly had the authority to do whatever she deemed necessary in the children's interests, O'Shea didn't have anything more to go on than Blake had the day before. Moreover, O'Shea didn't bother to investigate Spain's allegations by interviewing Shrader or the kids, but simply repeated Spain's complaint to Blake that Shrader's conduct constituted "emotional abuse" of Nicholas and Allison.

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

Blake agreed to hear O'Shea's motion, as well as yet more accusations by Spain that Shrader had violated the judge's earlier orders, at 2 p.m. on February 27. Shrader, who still had no lawyer, showed up at the appointed hour to find neither Spain and his attorney nor the judge in the courtroom. She says Blake's clerk told her the hearing had been postponed until 3 p.m. Shrader says that shortly after 3 p.m. the clerk told her Blake was tied up in juvenile court. At three-thirty Shrader left the courthouse to keep an appointment with a Tyler attorney who was considering taking her case.

According to court records, Blake finally convened the hearing at three-fifty, nearly two hours late. Blake could have chosen to acknowledge the confusion caused by unexpected delay in the start of the hearing and reset the proceeding for a day when the accused was in the courtroom. Instead, Blake heard testimony from Steve Spain and Donna O'Shea, as well as a complaint by Spain that Shrader had failed to reimburse him for some of the children's medical expenses.

Because Shrader wasn't present, Spain's testimony that Shrader had failed to pay her share of the children's medical bills went unchallenged. He told the judge that on three occasions he sent Shrader invoices for the expenses, but she never responded.

Yet for some reason Spain didn't produce those letters or, for that matter, the invoices. His exhibits consisted of several charts he had generated on his home computer that allegedly showed Shrader's failure to reimburse him for $344.50 in medical expenses. He also presented a letter, dated that day, demanding an additional $1,835 from Shrader for expenses she hadn't even been told about.

Given the one-sided testimony, the paltry and undocumented amount of unreimbursed expenses, as well as the fact that Spain hadn't informed Shrader of her share of most of the medical bills, Blake might have shown some restraint in punishing Shrader. But of all the punitive measures at her disposal, the judge chose the harshest: She terminated all visitation and phone contact with the children; she issued a warrant for Shrader's arrest for failing to appear; she ordered Shrader to pay Spain $1,437 for unreimbursed expenses; and, to cover future medical expenses, as well as some unpaid ad litem fees, the judge increased Shrader's child support to $2,700 a month.

Moreover, when Shrader turned herself in on the arrest warrant, Blake threatened to jail her unless she paid a $10,000 cash bond -- bail more in line with an accused murderer than a woman who allegedly telephoned her kids too much. Shrader borrowed the money from her mother to maintain her freedom.

By this time, in the eyes of the court Karen Shrader was what's called a "repeat contemnor," someone who habitually fails to obey a judge's orders. Her ex-husband had also planted a few seeds of doubt about Shrader's mental stability. That was clearly the point Spain wanted to reinforce when he had a protective order served on his ex-wife in April 1997, claiming she had "molested and disturbed the peace" of Nicholas and Allison by showing up at their soccer games.

Shrader has not seen or spoken with her children since that day, nor has she made any attempt to do so. But the worst of her legal tribulations was yet to come.

Hearings on Spain's motion for contempt against Shrader for the alleged incidents at Lindsay Field began in June 1997. After two days, however, Ruth Blake fell ill, and the proceedings did not resume until four months later.

Once again, it was Steve Spain's word against Karen Shrader's, and Shrader hauled too much baggage into the courtroom to have much credibility with Blake. Spain told Blake that after one particular visit to the field by Shrader, Allison developed an upset stomach and Nicholas wet his bed. Because Spain is a physician, Blake hardly expected him to produce any proof -- medical bills, for instance -- that his children had been sick that evening.

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