By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The family court hearing was quick. The child's mother wasn't even there, and her ex-boyfriend swore up and down that she was no good: She was a druggie who'd lost her license for driving under the influence. She left their five-year-old girl with a child molester and failed to enroll her in school. As an upstanding citizen, he wanted custody for the sake of the child.
State District Judge Linda Motheral listened to him and was suitably distraught. The little girl had to be saved, she decreed. The father would have sole custody. If the mother wanted to see her baby, she'd have to do it under the watchful eye of court supervisors. Case closed.
There was only one problem: Everything the ex-boyfriend had said was a lie. Even, perhaps, the fact that he was the child's father.
And Judge Motheral never even bothered to check.
Brandy Zackery has raised her two girls with little money. She's close to her own mother and her two sisters; they're not a big family, she says, but they take care of one another.
There's no indication that anyone complained about her parenting prior to the custody hearing. Her daughters, now eight and six years old, are well dressed and happy. They've tacked a picture of their family on their bedroom wall. Zackery smiles serenely; the girls in their summer blouses hug her side.
Outside, the Villa Americana apartments simmer in a sea of blacktop. This is public housing, and the ugly orange buildings have been given no more attention than is absolutely necessary. Landscaping is nonexistent; paint spatters mar the bricks around the door frames.
But inside, Zackery has nested with care. Round red candles, chosen to match the love seats, perch on wall sconces; Zackery's daughters beam from big frames on the mantel.
The older daughter, Chyna, sidles in to say she's walking to the store with her friends. She wants money for juice. "Don't you be buying things for everyone," Zackery says, smoothing the eight-year-old's braids and giving her a few bills. "This is for you."
Zackery was 16 when Chyna was born, and she got pregnant with Lauren just a year later. Chyna suffered from hydrocephalus, a congenital spinal fluid disorder that can cause learning disabilities, headaches and bad vision. Lauren, who weighed just four pounds at birth, has asthma.
"Two with health problems; I had to grow up fast," Zackery says. Stylish and poised, with short red-streaked hair and a perfect manicure, she seems older than her 25 years.
When she got pregnant with Lauren, Zackery was seeing two men. Around the time she detected her pregnancy, she and the more serious boyfriend broke up. She found herself depending on the other guy, a wheeler-dealer two years her senior. Lloyd Tyrone Robinson already had been in trouble for forging checks, stealing a TV and smashing a friend's windshield. He went by Tyrone.
They never lived together, never planned a future. "It was basically a friendship," Zackery says. "It never was 'I love you' or nothing like that." Today, six years after they split up, she tersely dismisses the notion of a love match: "He had money. That was about it."
Zackery wasn't sure which guy was Lauren's father. Robinson was at St. Joseph for her delivery, and Zackery gave Lauren his last name. But the birth certificate lists no father. Zackery says Robinson insisted on that: He'd failed to show up in court after a forgery arrest, and he was facing up to ten years in prison for a burglary conviction, according to court records. He had good reason to lay low.
Custody arrangements were informal at best. Robinson's mother, Lisa, frequently baby-sat, sometimes for days on end. But Robinson "never gave me any money or anything for her," Zackery says. When Lauren was just four months old, Robinson was picked up on the forgery warrant. By the time he was released from jail, Lauren was two, according to sheriff's records.
Even after that, and after Robinson's relationship with Zackery deteriorated badly, they managed to keep the peace. Lisa Robinson remained a strong presence in Lauren's life. And Tyrone Robinson tried to be a father. "He'd comb her hair, and he'd do it all wrong, but it was so nice to see," Lisa Robinson says. "He didn't meet his dad until he was 16, so to see him try to be a father, it just touches me."
But in 2002, Zackery's mother, Jacqueline King, was transferred to California. And the casual arrangement disintegrated into a bitter battle.
Zackery and her daughters had lived with King, an Aetna Insurance consultant, since Lauren's birth. So King's cross-country move threw the family into upheaval. By Zackery's account, she and her daughters moved seven times that year, staying with relatives in Texas, Louisiana and California.
Chatty and outgoing, Lauren seemed to roll with it. But the turbulence upset the child's father. Robinson later told Judge Motheral that he was concerned about "this movement, constant movement, no stability, no schooling." In October 2002, he filed to establish his paternity.
The suit languished until the next year, mostly because Robinson didn't know where Zackery was. Then, that February, Zackery visited her sister in Houston. She called Robinson.