Absent a Mother

Karen Shrader has not seen her children since April 1997, when she stopped by Lindsay Park in Tyler on a cool day to watch Nicholas and Allison play in a soccer tournament.

Shrader, a tall, broad-shouldered woman with long, straight brown hair, hadn't been at the park more than an hour when a neatly dressed gentleman walked up and served her with a protective order. Signed by Judge Ruth Blake, of the 321st District Court in Smith County, the order prohibited Shrader from venturing within 100 yards of her children, who have lived in Tyler with Shrader's ex-husband, Steven Spain, since August 1995.

Shrader was no stranger to Blake's courtroom. In September 1996 the judge found her guilty of violating the final custody decree and, at Spain's request, suspended Shrader's visitation with Nicholas and Allison and limited her contact with the children to a half-hour phone conversation every other day.

The protective order demanded that Shrader again appear in court, this time to answer allegations by Spain that she had "staked out" his house and "disrupted and molested the peace" of the children at their weekend soccer games. Citing "a clear and present danger of family violence," Spain wanted Shrader jailed for "emotional abuse" of the children. On October 17, 1997, after four days of hearings, Blake sentenced Shrader to 90 days in the Smith County Jail and barred her from seeing or speaking with Nicholas and Allison until further notice from the court.

"I don't know what it will take to melt your heart about where the kids are and what it's going to take to accept the necessary steps to get you-all back together," Blake told Shrader from the bench. "That has been my goal. But under the present circumstances, you're further away than you were a year ago, and that in itself is tragic."

Karen Shrader would never find it easy to "melt" her heart and accept the sentence Blake had just imposed. Were that the case, she would have accepted what happened in February 1995 in Kaufman County, when a judge ignored the conclusions of his own experts and ordered Shrader to surrender primary custody of her children to their father.

Since then Shrader has been angry, stubborn and, at times, impossibly high-minded. The hostility she feels for her ex-husband has been difficult to contain at times and, coupled with a willingness to say exactly what's on her mind, has frustrated even her attorneys. Indeed, Shrader might have been better off checking her attitude at the courthouse door, where her lack of regard for the legal system wouldn't seem so obvious.

Refusing to accept the decisions of a court of law is a losing proposition, and in a child custody case, the losses tend to pile up. Shrader, who lives in Kemp, about an hour west of Tyler on Cedar Creek Lake, southeast of Dallas, has been found in contempt of court so many times that she has served not one but two stints in the Smith County Jail. She is currently free, pending an appeal, after receiving a third, ten-day sentence in January. Burdened with high child-support payments and enormous unpaid legal bills, most of which are owed to her ex-husband's lawyer, Shrader filed for bankruptcy in December 1998.

The comforts of self-righteousness may, in fact, be the only thing keeping Karen Shrader in the court system and sane. Many people in her position, out of control with fear and anxiety, have chosen to disappear with their children into some underground railroad for dispossessed parents; or, driven completely beyond the brink, to commit a violent crime of passion.

While Shrader clearly considers herself a victim, she's not very good at the role. She's unusually didactic when discussing the case, focusing on legal details. She doesn't talk about the emotional toll exacted by the loss of her children without prompting. Even then, she resists the invitation to become overly sentimental.

But Shrader refuses to succumb to pathos, because no matter what the three judges who have presided over her seven-year custody dispute with Steve Spain might think, she believes she has been unjustly denied the love and companionship of her children for the last three years.

"I absolutely wouldn't do anything different," she says. "I think it's unfortunate that there are people in powerful positions who don't do what's right. I'm not a fanatically religious person. But God isn't going to reward these people."

The 25 file folders that comprise the official record of


are stored in a ground-floor office in the Smith County Courthouse in Tyler: thousands of sheets of paper, scores of pleadings, dozens of rulings that document the consequences of one woman's failure to accept the loss of her children.

Or do they?

As Judge Carol Clark, who replaced Blake on the 321st District Court bench in January 1999, remarked a year ago, "This case is one of the most complicated, convoluted I've ever tried to sort out."

Maybe one day Nicholas and Allison Shrader-Spain, now 11 and 15 years old respectively, will want to find out for themselves why they were taken away from their mother in 1995 and why, two years later, she had all but disappeared from their lives. Because they have not seen or spoken with their mother for so long, the children might expect the facts that have accrued in their "interest" to speak clearly to the menace Karen Shrader represents to their well-being.

Then again, bright as they are, Nicholas and Allison may look at the record and see this long, nasty affair as Karen Shrader sees it: As Steve Spain's relentless effort to so completely destroy their mother that she might never be entitled to spend another minute with her children.

Since Shrader filed for divorce, in October 1993, Spain has used the legal system to ruin his ex-wife's credibility and attack her character at every turn. Described by the original divorce court judge in the case as having a "classic passive-aggressive personality," Spain has repeatedly dragged Shrader into court on allegations that her visits and phone calls were harming the children's physical and emotional health. More often than not, his accusations were largely uncorroborated.

Not that Spain needed any witnesses. To an almost disturbing degree, the courts, particularly the 321st District Court in Smith County, have accommodated Spain's calculated effort to take away Shrader's parental rights.

A Tyler family physician who remarried into a local clan of above-average standing, Spain has been allowed to testify as his own expert witness on two key issues: Shrader's earning capacity as a physician in tiny Gun Barrel City, south of Kemp, and his children's mental health. In August 1996 Spain told Ruth Blake that Shrader should be earning at least $120,000 a year. Without getting a second opinion, Blake ruled that Shrader, who was taking in about $90,000, was "intentionally underemployed" and increased her monthly $900 child support to $1,500.

Seven months later Spain came before Blake again, complaining that Shrader had failed to reimburse him for the children's medical expenses. Blake accepted an accounting assembled on a computer in Spain's lawyer's office, and, ignoring the fact that Shrader wasn't even in the courtroom to defend herself, Blake raised her monthly payments to $2,700.

Whether or not Nicholas and Allison have, as their father maintains, suffered from Shrader's alleged conduct is unknown. They have never been allowed to testify, either in court or via closed-circuit television. In seven years the presiding judge has interviewed them just once, back in September 1996. Ruth Blake forbade even Karen Shrader from reviewing the transcript of that conversation.

At his ex-wife's bankruptcy hearing in January, Spain, a family physician who earns $195,000 a year, testified that his legal assault on Shrader has cost him roughly $500,000. To the extent that his deep pockets have secured his perceived right to raise Nicholas and Allison without any undue influence from their mother, it has been money well spent.

Spain did not respond to oral and written requests for an interview. Nor did his attorney, Jerry Bain. Bain did, however, leave a voice-mail message saying that he often receives calls from reporters wanting to know more about the case. Bain said he has never failed to suggest they come to Tyler and look at the court record.

That record begins in Kaufman County in October 1993. At a temporary custody hearing where the children were allowed to remain with their mother, the judge, Glen Ashworth, proclaimed both parents "pretty good people." By February 1996, when the case was transferred to Smith County, Ashworth was disgusted by what he had witnessed and was more than happy to wash his hands of the entire affair.

"I wish there was some way I could impress upon you the tragedy of where we're going with this," the judge said at one hearing. "[T]hese will probably be the only children that you will have, and, you know, what you build with them in this conduct you're going to have to pay for later."

In Texas, like everywhere else, there is a strong presumption in the courts that children of divorce deserve the love of both parents to the extent that it's available. Restricting or even severing the rights of a parent to foster a relationship with his or her child is not unprecedented. But, because the stakes are so high, for parent and child, it's a decision that is rarely made without careful consideration.

Eighteen months ago, in Hood County, Texas, a woman named Schwana Patterson was sentenced to 23 years in prison for committing the crime of "injury to a child by omission." Patterson's ex-boyfriend had kidnapped and killed her 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, for which he received the death penalty.

Patterson was convicted largely on an account given by her son, Cody, who testified that his mother told him she'd heard Sarah screaming in terror, but had done nothing to help her. Eventually a state district court judge made two decisions about Cody's future: First he granted custody of the boy to his father. Then he authorized Cody to visit his mother six times a year at the Gatesville prison unit.

Karen Shrader has never been convicted of a crime, or even arrested. She has never been the subject of an investigation by Children's Protective Services and has not been diagnosed with a mental disorder.

In June 1998, more than a year after Shrader saw her kids for the last time at Lindsay Park, a Tyler psychologist appointed by Ruth Blake to evaluate Shrader sent the judge these observations: "She impresses me that she loves her children and wants what's best for her children," the psychologist, Tynus McNeel, wrote in a letter to Blake. "I found no evidence that Karen Shrader would likely present an unduly negative or harmful influence to her children at this time. In summary, I would recommend to the court that Karen Shrader be allowed to have visitation rightsŠ."

McNeel offered almost identical courtroom testimony in June 1999. He also suggested that the things Karen Shrader has been accused of doing by her ex-husband -- if, in fact, Spain's accusations were true -- are hardly out of the ordinary for a mother deprived of any meaningful contact with her children.

Karen Shrader is not infallible. But perhaps her biggest mistake, or at least the one that has had the harshest consequences, was made the day she agreed to marry Steve Spain.

At the time, 1979, they were both med-school students at the University of Texas in Houston. Shrader was born in Houston and raised in Pasadena. Her father, a doctor, died the summer before she entered third grade. Her mother remarried a cattle rancher from Nacogdoches 20 years ago. Shrader was a rough-and-tumble kid -- she had four brothers -- and a solid student. Though she had a sharp tongue that annoyed her mother, Shrader was never much trouble.

Spain was born in Bishop, California, and reared in Houston, where his mother, a former schoolteacher, still lives. According to a "social study" submitted to the divorce judge in 1994, Spain was a somewhat rebellious teenager who smoked pot and drank a little. But for the most part he toed a proper line. Spain's parents were married for 47 years (his father died in 1989), but he and his siblings have been much less successful in that arena. Spain's sister has been married three times; a brother in Australia is twice divorced.

Spain was, in fact, already married when he met Shrader in 1978. After his divorce, they moved in together. They were married December 22, 1979. Spain and Shrader graduated from medical school in 1982, did their one-year residencies in Waco, then moved to set up a family practice together in the Cedar Creek Lake area.

Though they had spent most of their lives in and around Houston, Spain and Shrader adapted easily to life in a rural East Texas town. They joined a church, fostered their business -- they opened a second clinic in 1985 -- and started a family: Allison was born March 29, 1985; Nicholas came along May 20, 1988.

How such seemingly solid unions begin to collapse is anyone's guess. Speculation based on courtroom testimony probably wouldn't help much. Is Spain's belief that Shrader was surly, unhappy and demanding any more reliable than Shrader's insistence that Spain was an emotionally detached mope who occasionally spoke of suicide? In divorce court parents say a lot of things about each other as they fight over assets, who gets the kids and under what circumstances those kids will be raised.

Spain set the tone that rings loudly today when he testified at the temporary custody hearing in October 1993 that, after 13 years of marriage, he had come to the conclusion his wife was a lesbian.

As evidence, Spain told a story about seeing his wife hug a woman friend. There was an argument, the woman threw a drink at Spain, and when he grabbed her arm, she tore his shirt. Depending on whom you believe, the woman either instigated the fight by taunting Spain, or Spain started it by asking her to get her "fat lesbian ass" out of his house. Spain testified that he was "nauseated" by what he saw. He left the house and went to his office, where he injected himself with a sedative and spent the night asleep in a chair.

Spain also produced a picture of Shrader sitting on the lap of a childhood chum, as well as a short stack of letters she wrote to a friend whose mother was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. Written over the course of a year, the intimate letters were filled with Shrader's frustrations with the woman's emotional distance. But there was nothing in the letters to suggest the two women had ever had a physical relationship.

Spain also didn't have much concrete evidence a year later, when, in an obvious effort to put his wife in the hot seat just weeks before the divorce trial, he filed a contempt-of-court motion against Shrader. He accused her of trying to run him down with her car, of violating the judge's orders by drinking beer in front of the children, of entering his rental house in Tyler to purloin family photographs. He also whined to the judge that Shrader had cursed him in a hallway outside his lawyer's office and made him wait an hour when he arrived to pick up Nicholas for a scheduled visit. Ashworth threw out Spain's motion.

If Spain's pretrial strategy reeked of a certain desperation, he was prepared to damn the consequences once it began. Among the exhibits he produced at the divorce trial, in February 1995, were a handful of candid photographs of Nicholas wearing a dress. Forget the fact that it's not unusual for boys of a certain age to play dress-up. (Nicholas was seven years old at the time of the trial; he appears to be about two in the photographs.) In many cases, Spain had been the one holding the camera.

In his testimony, Spain went on at considerable length about what he believed was Nicholas's "gender-identity disorder," a potentially serious condition that pretty much speaks for itself. Cross-dressing is only one of several behavioral traits that psychologists look for when making a GID diagnosis.

Nicholas, who by his parents' divorce trial hadn't slipped into his older sister's clothes for some time, may or may not have been suffering from the disorder. His therapist, Alexandria Doyle, testified that she suspected the boy had a mild form of GID, but noted that Nicholas "knows he's a boy and wants to remain a boy." Mark Otis, the court-appointed psychologist, testified that he didn't think Nicholas's behavior fit the criteria spelled out in the scientific literature.

Nonetheless, Spain's attorney, Jerry Bain, rode the issue of little Nicholas's future sexual identity for all it was worth: Won't he grow up to be gay? Or a transvestite? Or a transsexual? And the attorney's questions to Doyle were clearly designed to focus attention on Shrader and, as Spain put it, her "sexual confusion."

"If Nicholas Š were exposed to individuals with homosexual lifestyles and he already has a tendency toward becoming homosexual, would that be bad?

"Wouldn't it be bad, or not in the best interest for the child who is prone toward homosexuality or becoming a transvestite or transsexual, to be around people that live that alternative lifestyle?

"Historically, most of the moms of GID children have emotional or mental problems, don't they?"

Spain also appeared distressed about his son's habit of playing with dolls, which, like the GID, he blamed on his wife's poor parenting skills. But his credibility faded a bit when he admitted on cross-examination that he had purchased a doll for Nicholas as recently as September 1993, a month before Shrader filed for divorce.

Though Spain criticized her for being "in denial," Shrader maintains that Nicholas's behavior was simply a phase he had largely grown out of by the time she filed for divorce. It angers her that Spain so thoughtlessly exploited her son's early-childhood quirks for his own purposes.

"Steve wanted both of these kids to be labeled with some kind of mental disorder," Shrader says, "so he could blame it on me."

Certainly Shrader's own behavior contributed to the "increased fighting and vindictiveness" between the parents, noted Nancy Stark, a licensed professional counselor who conducted a court-ordered social study of the family. Stark testified that Shrader had "screwed up," for example, when she stubbornly turned down Spain's requests for some extra time with his children. Yet Stark disagreed with Spain's contention that Shrader had engaged in "parental alienation syndrome."

"Part of this just happens in divorce," Stark said. "I mean, I have seen worse behavior."

After a week of testimony that was often scurrilous, the 11-person jury -- one woman was booted for hugging Shrader during a break -- agreed on a joint-custody arrangement. The decision on where the kids would live was left to Ashworth. The judge's experts, Stark and Otis, as well as Doyle, the children's therapist, all reached the same conclusion: Nicholas and Allison should remain in Kemp with their mother.

"I'm not saying that their dad cannot parent them," Stark testified. "But it just doesn't make sense, when we have a mother here who these kids want to live with and have a community and friends and schools and therapists and we have a life for them, why they should be punished and moved out of that."

Why Glen Ashworth ignored the expert advice other judges routinely rely upon is difficult to determine. When testimony about Shrader's alleged sexual preferences first arose, his sensibilities didn't seem particularly offended, and in fact the judge urged Spain's attorney to focus on "the real stuff." And his stated belief that Spain was more willing to cooperate in a joint-custody arrangement was hardly supported by the testimony, or by the judge's earlier comments about both parents' petty behavior.

Whatever the reason, Ashworth made the decision to award primary custody of Nicholas and Allison to Spain. The judge then suggested the two parents meet with their children together, and let them know that moving to Tyler at the end of the summer wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Shrader left the courtroom in a state of shock. By the time she got home to Nicholas and Allison, Shrader found that Spain had already been there and gone.

"I don't know how many people can understand the feeling of having a five-year-old boy sit in your lap and say, 'Well, Mom, that means we won't get to see you that much anymore,' " Shrader recalls of that day. "I don't have the words to describe it. You just can't get there from here."

Ashworth also ignored one other very important point of view: that of Rebecca Calabria, the children's court-appointed attorney. As the attorney ad litem, Calabria was Nicholas and Allison's only voice at the trial. Like the judge's other experts, she urged Ashworth to consider the strong bond between the children and their mother and to let Nicholas and Allison remain in Kemp with Shrader. When the judge ignored that recommendation, Calabria fairly vibrated with indignation.

"My clients articulated to me, not jabbered to me, but articulated to me, thoughtfully, that they wanted to live with their mother," Calabria told Ashworth, her voice rising. "They told me that on two occasions."

Perhaps another mother might have accepted Glen Ashworth's decision and learned to live with the kind of disagreements that crop up in a joint-custody arrangement. Maybe, given some time, even someone as proud and headstrong as Karen Shrader could have, for the future's sake, forgiven her ex-husband for dragging her through the muck in their divorce trial.

But perhaps another father wouldn't have been so anxious to perpetuate the damage that had already been done.

In December 1995, barely four months after Nicholas and Allison moved to Tyler, Spain sought a temporary restraining order to restrict Shrader's visitation with her children to a supervised setting. He accused Shrader of defying the judge's custody decree, which ordered both parents to help Nicholas and Allison make a "smooth transition" to their new lives in Tyler.

Spain's evidence was less than compelling. In fact, Ashworth dismissed the case. But the hearing revealed how Spain was willing to sacrifice his children's interests to satisfy his own.

One of the major considerations in moving the children to Tyler was finding a new therapist for Nicholas. Alexandria Doyle had testified at the divorce trial that gender-identity disorder was still a relatively new diagnosis; few therapists had the experience to effectively treat it, she had said. Despite objections from Shrader's lawyers, Ashworth appointed Charles Fries, a Tyler psychologist.

Fries hadn't been treating Nicholas and Allison for long when he was called by Spain to be a witness at the December 1995 contempt hearing. Obviously uncomfortable, Fries refused to make any recommendation on whether Nicholas would be harmed by continued visits with his mother. Fries also protested Spain's demand for the clinical notes he had taken during Nicholas's sessions. Because Spain was the child's "custody parent," however, the therapist had no choice but to produce the notes and testify about their contents.

By the end of the hearing, Fries so resented the position he'd been placed in that he asked Ashworth to relieve him as Nicholas's psychologist.

He was right to do so. According to the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists' Rules of Practice, "A licensee specifically avoids accepting both appointment for evaluation and therapeutic intervention in the same case. A licensee provides services in one but not both capacities in the same case."

Forcing Charles Fries to resign his court-appointed duties may have been Spain's whole purpose of having the therapist testify. After all, Fries obviously did not support Spain's position that the children's contact with their mother should be restricted. He testified that the supervised visitation that Spain was requesting was reserved for extreme cases, such as when allegations of abuse have arisen.

The therapist also reported that Nicholas wanted to move back to Kemp to live with his mother. Finally Fries agreed with Shrader's attorney that Spain's desire to continue fighting his ex-wife in court might be hurting the children. After the turmoil of the divorce trial, Nicholas and Allison wanted their parents to cool it for a while, Fries said.

Unfortunately the children have yet to get their wish. In February 1996 the case was transferred from Kaufman to Tyler, the Smith County seat and home of the 321st District Court. The change of venue put the courthouse practically in Spain's backyard, from which the legal assault on his ex-wife could more easily be pursued.

Karen Shrader has been fighting Steve Spain in Smith County for four years now. Each time she has appeared in the 321st District Court, her right to see and speak with her children has been further eroded. Whenever she believes the situation can't get much worse, something happens to prove her wrong.

In May 1996, three months after the case was transferred, Nicholas and Allison spent the weekend with their mother in Kemp. Shrader says she and Spain had an oral agreement that because summer vacation had started, the children could spend the following week with her. But three days before she was scheduled to return Nicholas and Allison, Shrader was served with a writ of habeas corpus, signed by Blake, ordering her to produce the children. That, of course, was grounds for Spain to file another contempt-of-court charge against Shrader.

"He didn't have to do that," Shrader says. "The kids had talked to their dad, and it was okay. I had talked to their dad, and it was okay. Suddenly, it wasn't okay. It was my fault because I didn't get something in writing."

The contempt charge was heard over the course of several weeks in August and September 1996. Spain testified that Shrader had failed to return the children by the court-appointed hour on numerous occasions, dating as far back as March 1996. Spain's new wife, Jill, also testified, as did his mother, Marilyn, that Shrader's behavior upset and embarrassed the children.

Considering the lack of specifics and the decidedly subjective nature of the testimony offered by Spain and his witnesses, Blake's decision to suspend Shrader's visits with Nicholas and Allison seems unusually harsh. Blake also ordered Shrader to undergo a psychological evaluation, which the judge would consider at a review hearing set for December 12, 90 days away. Blake ordered Donna O'Shea, the children's court-appointed attorney, to find a psychologist and set up an appointment for Shrader.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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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