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.

"Well," he explained, "you buy a pair of shoes, it's $125."

It's perhaps commendable that Spain would like his children to be as well-heeled as possible. But he probably wouldn't need as much child support from Shrader if he hadn't pursued her so relentlessly in court. When Jerry Bain testified about the attorney's fees his client has paid him, the lawyer suggested that Spain had been feeding him like a slot machine.

"Dr. Spain has owed me at times as much as $100,000 because he simply couldn't keep paying me as rapidly as the fees were being expended," Bain said.

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

Spain has also got his money's worth from the children's therapists, Gail Burress, the licensed professional counselor who sees Allison, and Steven Westmoreland, a psychologist who treats Nicholas. At the April 1999 hearings, they both testified extensively about the details of their sessions with Allison and Nicholas. Burress hesitated to make any recommendation on whether Allison should see her mother, though she suggested the girl might be better served by supervised visits with Shrader.

Westmoreland testified that Nicholas was likely to suffer a relapse of his gender-identity disorder if he spent time with his mother. Westmoreland, who acknowledged that he doesn't treat Nicholas for GID, testified that Nicholas was at an age when he would be testing his mother's authority. If Shrader "beat down" her son's effort to be more assertive, he said, the boy would likely take a job below his station in life or, maybe, become a homosexual.

"You're serious, aren't you?" Shrader's attorney asked incredulously.

He was, and based largely on the therapist's testimony, Carol Clark refused to reverse Ruth Blake's earlier decision and to let Shrader have any contact with her children.

Shrader made her latest appeal to Clark in January. Spain had once again hauled his ex-wife to court, this time in an attempt to squeeze about $14,000 in back child support from Shrader.

By January, Shrader could no longer afford her attorney, who hadn't been paid in some time. She produced an income statement for 1999 that showed she earned less than $19,000 last year, a salary that won't even cover the $1,500 a month in child support she's still required to pay. Shrader asked Carol Clark to declare her indigent and to appoint an attorney to represent her. The judge refused.

"Dr. Shrader, I don't understand why you don't follow the rules," Clark said, sounding a lot like Ruth Blake back in October 1997. "Your life would be so much easier if you would. My life would be so much easier if you would. But my job is my job, and I'm going to do my job."

When Shrader addressed Clark, she tried to impress upon the judge that she hadn't even tried to see her children since the spring of 1997, though she's sorely been tempted to try. She suggested that perhaps following the rules -- "accepting," as it were -- wasn't really what Steve Spain, or the court, wanted from her.

"People who commit heinous crimes get to see their children, and I've not contacted mine solely at [Spain's] discretion," Shrader said. "He could let me call. He could let them call my mother and stepfather or their aunts and uncles and cousins that haven't seen them in three years. But he hides behind the law saying, 'Well, the judge won't let you do that.' "

Unfazed, Clark sentenced Shrader to another ten days in the Smith County Jail.

Shrader is free, pending an appeal. She is also waiting for the 12th Court of Appeals to rule on her motion seeking a rehearing on the visitation and phone contact that was suspended in October 1996 and April 1997, respectively. If those appeals fail, she says, she'll take her case to the Texas Supreme Court. Shrader and some of her patients have also asked the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct to look into what they are calling an abuse of discretion by the judges in the 321st District Court.

Meanwhile, Shrader's sole contact with her children consists of four letters a year to them, which are screened by Burress and Westmoreland. Recently, however, Shrader learned that Allison had yet to receive the letter Shrader mailed January 15. It seems that Allison hasn't been to her therapist in some time: She's recovering from knee surgery.

Shrader didn't know that. Then again, there are a lot of things Karen Shrader doesn't know about the children she supports financially, yet is unable to see or speak with. Allison Shrader-Spain is a young woman now, doing young woman things: dating, going to dances and proms, learning to drive. Nicholas is on the verge of becoming a teenager, and is undergoing all the radical changes that entails. Shrader knows that the past recedes quickly in the minds of the young. Nothing brings it back.

"There is a part of me," Shrader says, "that I don't think will ever be okay with this."

E-mail Brian Wallstin at brian.wallstin@houstonpress.com.

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