THE MORNING OF the permanent custody hearing, Chris was up at six. Marya had offered to take Ian to school. He knew that something was going on, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He knew it was another one of those court hearings about his mom, where his dad went out in a suit. Chris didn’t want to explain the details to him. And nothing was going to change. Ian was still going to be with him, whatever happened in court today. So Chris didn’t want to worry him. Kim was still in jail, she was still a drug addict, and she wasn’t coming out anytime soon. The only difference after today’s hearing was that if Chris won, Ian would never have to live with her again. She would have visitation, but Chris wouldn’t be getting calls from the police after she OD’d or slashed her wrists with Ian keeping pressure on her arteries until the paramedics arrived. He wouldn’t be picking him up in juvenile detention halls after she got arrested. He didn’t want Ian ever going through that again. And he wanted court-supervised visitation whenever Ian saw her in future.
Francesca had volunteered to go to the hearing with him, but he thought it would be too upsetting for her.
“Excuse me?” she said to him after Ian left for school. “Do I look like a sissy to you? I know what a drug addict is. I know what Ian has been through. I remember when she OD’d and you flew out the door to go get him. I’m well aware that she’s being charged with manslaughter and may go to prison. Why can’t I be there for you?”
“What if I lose?” he said, looking worried.
“That’s even more reason for me to be there for you. And if you lose,” she said firmly, “we’ll try again. You’re not going to lose, Chris. She’s a mess.”
“Her father is a very powerful man.”
“So is yours. You’re related to two presidents, for chrissake. And I don’t mean Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. I mean recent ones. That carries some sway.”
“My family doesn’t like to get involved in public messes. They love Ian but they thought I never should have married her. She wasn’t on heroin then, but she was a mess. I thought I was going to put Humpty Dumpty back together and turn her into a princess. Instead, she turned into scrambled eggs, and always was. They think she’s an embarrassment to us, so they ignore the whole situation, even what it does to Ian. I think they have denial about it. They don’t want to know. Kimberly’s father would lie, cheat, steal, and murder people so she doesn’t have to suffer the consequences of anything she does. That’s part of why she’s never cleaned up. She’s never had to. He cleans everything up for her. There’s no such thing as paying the price in her life. Everyone else does it for her, even our son.”
“Can I come?” she asked again, and he nodded assent, and she kissed him. Their relationship was going well. It had only been a few weeks, but they had spent some good time together, and he had taken her to dinner several times. They hadn’t slept with each other yet, but neither of them was in any rush. They were proceeding with caution, and he had this hearing on his mind. He was going to feel a lot better when it was behind him, especially if he won, but either way. And as Francesca had just said, if he lost, he would try again.
They took a cab to the courthouse on Lafayette Street. They arrived punctually at ten o’clock, and Chris’s attorney was waiting outside. Because she was in jail, Kim didn’t have to be there, and she wasn’t, but her lawyer was, a very nasty woman whom Chris had hated for several years. Her only interest was in protecting her client, and never their son.
Chris’s attorney was a serious-looking man in a suit, wearing a dark tie and steel-rim glasses. Chris introduced them, and he shook Francesca’s hand. She had a good feeling about him. She didn’t like the look of his ex-wife’s attorney. She looked mean and threw dark looks at Chris.
They entered the courtroom at the same time, and took their places. Francesca took a seat directly behind Chris, and touched his shoulder as she sat down. And a moment later the judge walked in, and the bailiff called them to order. There was no one with Chris except his lawyer and Francesca. Ian’s mother was not in the courtroom, only her attorney, and Chris had pointed out discreetly to Francesca as they walked in that Kim’s father was in the room. Everyone knew he was there and who he was. He was hard to miss. He was on the cover of
Both sides of the case were presented. Kim’s immense devotion as a mother and her love for her son. How much she loved him. What a good person she was, that she was going straight into rehab as soon as she got out of jail, because she wanted to be clean for her son. The woman lawyer representing her turned to the judge, and with the most earnest look Francesca had ever seen, she said that there was nothing on earth Kim was not willing to do for her boy, and that she could swear to the judge personally that there would be no further risk to the child, and that joint custody must and should be preserved. And at all costs this eight-year-old boy should not be deprived of his mother once she got out, nor feel abandoned by her if Chris wrested custody away from her, for sole custody for himself. She said that was clearly
Francesca was nervous about Chris’s lawyer at first as he began to speak. He seemed professional more than impassioned. He was extremely dry and unemotional, particularly in comparison to Kim’s lawyer, who had pulled out all of the emotional stops to an alarming degree. A private investigator had been working for Chris, and unearthed information that none of them had ever known before, and surely not the court. Chris’s attorney explained in his opening statement that Chris was not seeking to keep Ian from his mother, that they would welcome court-supervised visitation when she was free to participate in it. They didn’t want to keep the boy from his mother. All they wanted was to keep him safe, and living in a wholesome atmosphere. And given his mother’s history and her poor judgment, they felt that all decisions regarding Ian should be made by Chris. That meant sole custody for him. It meant deciding about schools, taking him to doctors, making regular trips to the dentist. Everything from religious education to braces would be decided by Chris, which made sense to Francesca as she listened. Chris was doing it anyway. Sole custody for him meant that Kim would lose her voice in all decisions. It meant that she could see him, even regularly if she was in good condition, but she couldn’t decide where he went to school, or put him at risk again, if the judge granted supervised visitation.
Having explained very unemotionally that Chris was not seeking to prevent visitation, as long as it was supervised by a third party appointed by the court, but only to gain full custody of his son legally, the attorney then read the essentials of the investigator’s report. It was a list of horrifying acts, failures, episodes, misdeeds, dangerous interludes, and shocking displays of wanton and even criminal negligence. Francesca knew a little from Chris, but what she knew was a drop in the bucket compared to the rest.
Kimberly Harley had endangered her son in every possible way hundreds of times. And Chris had been fighting her and trying to protect Ian for years. The courts had always tried to respect the fact that she was his mother. But the accumulation of evidence was overwhelming now. All of what Chris’s lawyer was telling them was new to the court, and some of it had been new to him. According to witnesses who had signed statements for them, she had left Ian with other drug addicts, abandoned him in truck stops and restaurants where he was brought home by other people, forgot she had him with her and left him by the side of highways, dropped him when he was a baby because she was on drugs, which Chris knew, forgot him on the roof of her car as an infant, where Chris had rescued him before she drove off, left him in crack houses, left him with a dead body, forgot to feed him for days, had attempted suicide several times in front of him, and pointed a loaded gun at him intending to kill him and then herself, and another addict had taken the gun away from her and saved Ian’s life. The attorney said that Ian had called 911 for her countless times when she OD’d. The list went on and on and on and on. It no longer mattered that Chris’s lawyer was unemotional and used none of the bells and whistles the female attorney had. It was better this way. His lack of emotion was far more effective. They were cold hard facts, pages and pages and pages of them, with police reports and signed witness statements attached. Francesca looked behind her at Kim’s father, and he looked like he wanted to kill Chris’s attorney for telling the truth about his daughter. It was the most damning evidence any of them had ever heard and couldn’t be denied. Listening to it, and knowing Ian, Francesca thought Kim deserved a lot worse than prison. She had no idea how Ian had survived it, and it was no longer surprising that Chris was relationship-phobic. Married to a woman like that, constantly endangering the life of their son, even when he was an infant-how could he ever trust anyone again? There were tears in Francesca’s eyes as she listened. The list of horrors finally ended, and Chris’s attorney approached the bench and handed a copy of all of it to the judge. He was sitting silently and stared at Chris. He then asked the attorneys to come into chambers. Francesca whispered to Chris and asked if the judge knew that Kim was currently being charged with manslaughter, and he nodded. Chris was sitting there stone-faced, trying not to remember vividly each incident where she had endangered Ian. She was a public menace, and Chris had said for years that she belonged in prison.
Both lawyers went into the judge’s chambers as soon as he left the bench, and Francesca leaned toward Chris again.
“He can either tell us his ruling today, or he can submit it in writing after he considers the case and reads what we filed. Most judges usually do it in writing, so no one punches them out in the courtroom. People get pretty heated up about custody hearings.” It was easy to see why after what she’d just heard.
“That was some list,” she said sadly, and Chris nodded. The investigator had done a terrific job. Poor Ian. Her own mother had been an embarrassment to her all her life, but never a danger. Ian’s mother had risked his life from the time he was three months old when she went back to drugs, and had been on and off them ever since. Francesca’s heart ached for him, and for Chris, who was still trying to protect his son.
The attorneys came out of chambers ten minutes later. There was no expression whatsoever on Chris’s attorney’s face as he led them out of the courtroom. Kim’s lawyer had gone straight to her father in the back of the courtroom, and they were conferring with bowed heads, as he pointed emphatically in the direction of the judge. He didn’t look happy, but she had given a good performance, and that’s all it was. Theater, not law, and not justice for Ian.
Chris’s attorney escorted them outside, at a rapid pace. They were at the bottom of the courthouse steps before he turned to face them. He had been afraid that someone might call the press, so he got them out of the courtroom as fast as they could.
“What happened in chambers?” Chris asked him with a worried look. His attorney smiled at Chris and touched his shoulder. “You have sole custody of Ian, Chris. The judge said he doesn’t want to hear another word from them in this case. He said that as long as he’s on the bench, you’ll have custody of Ian, and he said that the next time she endangers him, he’s putting her in jail. He said he has no idea how she kept joint custody for this long.” Tears rolled down Chris’s cheeks as he listened to the words, and Francesca choked on a sob. “Now get out of here before someone figures out who you are and calls the press. Her father won’t this time.” Chris beamed at him and thanked him, and then hailed a cab, and he and Francesca jumped in. Francesca burst into tears and hugged him as the cab drove away. It had been a total victory for Chris, and Charles-Edouard and Marya were waiting for them when they got home. They knew immediately when they saw Chris’s face and Francesca’s tears.
“Thank God,” Marya said as she hugged him, and so did Charles-Edouard. It was an enormous relief to all of them. And Chris reminded them again not to say anything to Ian when he got home, and then he went upstairs to change into a sweater and jeans. He was shaken and thrilled. Ian was all his. At last. She could never do any of it again. The horror was over. Ian was safe. That was all Chris had ever wanted. And she had risked his life so many times. The judge had also approved court-supervised visitation by a third party. They had won it all.
Francesca tried to tell Marya about it, and she was horrified even by the few things Francesca remembered from the long list. It had been a total victory for Chris and above all for Ian. His mother would never put him in harm’s way again.
It was even more meaningful and a more important victory when Chris saw an item in the paper a week later. Francesca could see his teeth clench and his jaw work as he read the piece, and she was worried. She asked him what it was when he finished reading, and he silently handed her the paper. This time Kim’s father’s attorneys had won, for his daughter, if not her son.
They had somehow claimed, and probably paid people vast sums to corroborate the story, that the addict who had OD’d next to her was a dealer, that he had endangered her life and not the reverse. Because the deceased was allegedly a criminal, it shed new light on her guilt. They had claimed psychiatric issues for Kim, delicate health, and everything else they could think of to plead her felony manslaughter charges down to a misdemeanor. The district attorney had been willing to plea-bargain with her. The judge had meted out a six-month sentence, with credit for time served since she’d been there, and time off for good behavior. Kim was not going to prison. She would be out of jail in a few weeks and home for Thanksgiving. The article stated that she would spend time at a famous country club rehab to restore her health after her time in jail. She could leave any time she wanted, and knowing her, Chris was sure she’d be calling soon and wanting visitation with Ian. But at least now it would be with court-appointed supervision. Chris was furious that she’d been allowed to plead to lesser charges and was getting out of jail. She’d be back in his face in no time, wanting to see Ian and screw up his life again.
“I didn’t think he’d pull it off this time,” Chris said, looking livid, referring to her father. “She belongs in prison. She’s a danger to herself and everyone around her.”
“Yes, but at least now Ian is protected,” Francesca said sensibly. “You have sole custody, and she’ll have supervised visits.”
“I was hoping she’d be gone for a few years,” he said, looking grim. It made Francesca more grateful than ever that he had won at the custody hearing. No one could have denied or refuted that list.
Chris put the paper in the garbage, where Ian wouldn’t see it, and then he went back upstairs to work without saying another word. It was no secret how much he hated his ex-wife. And Francesca felt sorry for both of them that in a few weeks she’d be back on the streets, and in Ian’s world.