The last time I wrote, my life was floating in an odd kind of limbo, awaiting resolution of a judge’s decision on whether James’ three young children would be sent back to their mother in Georgia — the object of an abuse and neglect investigation prompted by the kids’ therapist — or whether they would stay here with us, a family complete, a family whole.
On August 12, 2013, we went to court and showed the judge everything we had. Professionals took the stand to lay out our case, and witnesses (including one from Georgia) substantiated the claims the children had made to their therapist. But the judge chose to disregard all of that, and instead believed their mother, who swore under oath that the children’s claims were lies fabricated by James and me. It was her word — and her word alone — against multiple witnesses on our side. But she pulled it off. And so the children were sent back to Florida.
It was a stunning, unexpected defeat. Everyone following the case, including sitting and former judges, were shocked and amazed that Carnie, the children’s mother, had managed to convince a judge to ignore all expert testimony to the contrary. But that’s how powerful a liar she is.
The judge’s ruling came down late in the evening after a 3 1/2 hour hearing. I will never forget reading the verdict on my iPhone while out to dinner with James and our Georgia witness, and knowing that when I turned to show it to James, I would be delivering a crushing blow. The children were already with Carnie, as the court had ordered parenting time for her after court adjourned, and she was to regain custody, effective immediately. She was not even required to let the children say goodbye to us.
James texted her to ask if we could bring the children some of their things from our house, and she agreed, upon the condition that she wanted to speak to him, alone, with the children. At first he resisted, but I convinced him to go and hear what she had to say, while I waited nearby, within sight. The meeting was wrenching to watch from the sidelines, as the kids clung to him and Carnie pleaded with James to get back together with her, going so far as to get down on one knee. He blanched, and I honestly wondered if he was going to lose his dinner all over the pool deck, but he held it together long enough to make clear that such an idea was preposterous and to end the conversation. She didn’t want to allow the children to say goodbye to me, but James insisted. I had but seconds with each of them, time enough for a few whispered words of encouragement and endearment, before she ordered them back to her side. And then we left, hearing their whimpered tears behind us, and leaving pieces of our hearts there on the pool deck.
I don’t remember much from that night after our goodbyes. I remember calling my girls (who were at their dad’s) to tell them the outcome, and Bryn’s anguished cry when she realized that Chelsea had been ripped away from her. Sabrina was furious, wondering how a judge could ignore the videotaped interviews of the kids, their earnest pleas to the social workers that they be allowed to live here with us and not be returned to Florida. My girls wanted answers, and I had none.
The next morning — and many mornings thereafter — I awoke and immediately felt the heaviness of grief press down upon me. The first few days after the hearing were nearly unbearable. Our house was so quiet and our pain so palatable, that James and could hardly stand to be there. We tried to distract ourselves. We shut the doors to their rooms — left disheveled because no one expected that they wouldn’t be coming back — and tried to block out the memories of the summer. We got random texts from them as they made their way back to Florida. Short phrases, pregnant with their ache and loss. And we felt helpless.
James and I both cried a lot at first. Small reminders would reduce one of us to tears. I had to avoid music altogether, as it brought back too many memories of riding in the car with the kids, going here or there, with the music blasting, the windows down, and all of us singing along together. I framed lots of the art the girls had made for us over the summer, crying each time I placed another piece between glass.
We had set up new email addresses for the two oldest, Chelsea and Jay, for them to communicate with us, and during their first two weeks back in Florida, we heard from them frequently. They used the email portal just as we’d intended — as a small way to touch back to us, to connect and feel our love without the filters their mom tries to impose.
The allegations and evidence presented at the hearing clearly frightened Carnie. She quit her bartending job, began spending much more time at home on the weeknights, and started trying to connect with the kids in more positive ways. The court ordered that she be randomly tested for alcohol, and as far as we know, she is complying with that order, but we have yet to see any test results. The court also ordered another parental evaluation, to be conducted by a licensed Child-Family Investigator (CFI). Carnie’s attorneys tried mightily to get the court to approve a CFI in Florida, but our attorneys prevailed and a local CFI was assigned. The CFI begins her investigation next week, which will include interviewing licensed professionals associated with the case, family, and even the children. She’ll travel to Florida to see the circumstances there and conduct interviews, and will visit our house and us as well. It’s an intrusive, long process, designed to overturn every stone in search of any deep and dark secrets hidden beneath. The judge — thankfully, a different one from our earlier hearing — will likely follow the CFI’s recommendation, so the outcome of the case might ultimately hinge on this one person’s conclusion of how to serve the children’s best interests.
Whether Carnie’s new-found persona as Devoted Mother will hold up over time or even convince the CFI in the short term is anyone’s guess, but for now it is having its desired effect on the children. They have pulled away from us, for reasons we can only guess at. Perhaps they feel let down that we couldn’t win the case and allow them live in Colorado. Perhaps they believe their mom that we somehow manipulated them to say awful things about her. Perhaps they are tired of all the drama and have resigned themselves to their situation. It’s impossible to know, and heartbreaking to wonder at.
In the meantime, our home continues to heal. The first weekend my girls spent here without James’ kids, they cried quite a bit. Things were solemn and we spent even more time than usual together as a family. But they are now becoming accustomed again to the relative peace and quiet of the house, as are we. School has started and life has fallen into its familiar rhythms again, so that sometimes I can almost forget how close we came to being a whole family.
The case will likely not be fully resolved until early Winter, but I am no longer feeling certain in the outcome. August reminded me that even “slam-dunk” cases can be lost, and those things we count as certain, upended. So for now, we try to find the good in the moment and pray deeply for the future. And a time when we might not be a fractured family any longer.