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.

Spain also testified that his ex-wife had caused a scene at the field. Presumably there were scores of other parents and spectators there that day, but Spain could not produce a single witness to corroborate his story. In fact, his testimony was challenged by the wife of the soccer coach, who had seen nothing resembling what Spain described.

Spain's last bit of evidence was a video that purported to capture Shrader's "inappropriate behavior" at the field one Saturday afternoon. But even that was inconclusive -- or at least it was when seen alongside Shrader's photographs of a smiling Nicholas and Allison hugging their mother and grandmother that same day.

When testimony ended, Blake deliberated all of about ten minutes before finding Shrader guilty of family violence and sentencing her to 90 days in the Smith County Jail.

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

Shrader was allowed to serve the first half of her sentence on work release, meaning she showed up at jail on Friday evening and was released Sunday night. At one point Shrader attempted to have her sentence shortened for good behavior. Blake apparently signed a document excusing her from jail for a weekend. In fact, that document is part of the court record.

However, at a hearing sought by Spain to challenge Shrader's early release, Blake acknowledged that the signature on the document was clearly hers, but said she couldn't recall excusing Shrader that particular weekend. The judge revoked Shrader's work release and ordered her to serve the remainder of her sentence 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the Smith County Jail.

While in jail, Shrader received a rare piece of good news: The 12th Court of Appeals reversed Blake's April 1997 order that increased Shrader's child support payments to $2,700 a month. The higher court ruled that child support cannot be increased for the purpose of paying attorney's fees and sent the matter back to the 321st District Court for a rehearing.

The court of appeals' ruling should have lowered Shrader's child support to $1,500 and offered her some relief from the heavy financial burden Blake had imposed upon her. She certainly needed it. By the time Shrader was released from the Smith County Jail in April 1998, she had been forced to resign her $90,000-a-year job with the Medical Arts Clinic in Gun Barrel City.

After her release, Shrader borrowed $12,000 from some friends to start up her own practice. She also filed a motion asking Blake to rehear the child support issue, per the appeals court's instructions. Blake never set a date for the rehearing. By November 1998 Shrader was still obligated to pay $2,700 a month and had fallen about $2,500 behind in child support. Spain, of course, filed a motion for contempt for nonpayment of child support.

Broke and unable to get a rehearing on her child support obligations, Shrader had little choice but to file for personal bankruptcy protection. She listed more than $700,000 in unpaid debts, including $125,000 to Spain's attorney, Jerry Bain; another $68,000 to her divorce lawyer, George Adams; $10,000 to two other attorneys involved in the case on her behalf; and $25,000 in fees to her children's therapist.

In January 1999 Blake retired without rehearing the child support issue. When Blake's replacement, Carol Clark, heard Spain's motion for nonpayment of child support in April 1999, the new judge was so confused she made an incomprehensible ruling. Clark realized that Shrader's child support needed to revert back to $1,500 per month, but she didn't take into consideration that based on the appeals court's ruling, Shrader had actually been paying $600 a month more than she was legally obligated to since April 1997.

Moreover, those many months of overpayments were reflected in the court's child support registry, which showed Shrader was all paid up. But, just as Blake had done, Clark ignored the registry and found Shrader in contempt for failing to make three $1,500 payments. The judge's convoluted logic was reflected in her final order: Though Clark's decision should have meant Shrader was $4,500 in arrears, the judge's order found her only $1,480 behind -- for which Shrader was sentenced to another 30 days in jail.

When contacted, Clark pointed out that the case was ongoing and refused to comment, saying only that she had ruled on the evidence she heard. Shrader believes Clark was totally baffled by the details of the case, and therefore relied on Steve Spain and Jerry Bain to show her the way.

"It was a completely stupid decision, and completely punitive," Shrader says. "They wanted 30 days in jail, and she found a way to give it to them."

In April 1999 Steve Spain testified twice about what his ex-wife ought to pay in child support, first at a deposition, then three days later at trial. At deposition, Spain calculated that providing for Nicholas and Allison cost him about $1,700 a month. At trial, that figure rose to $2,350.

"How could you be so wrong?" Shrader's attorney asked.

"Well, my wife wasn't there at the deposition," Spain said, adding that Jill Spain had "laughed" when he related how he told Shrader's attorney that he spent $85 a month on clothes for the children. That figure was actually more like $700 a month, Spain said at trial.

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