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February 16th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Remember Scott Ritchie?  He’s the Michigan man who agreed with his wife to be the stay-at-home father for their son Kyle.  Ritchie and his wife Kathleen decided that, since she earned more than he did as a middle manager for major corporations, he should be the primary parent until Kyle started to school.  Then, Scott would get back into the workplace full-time.

Well, Scott held up his end of the bargain and, until Kyle reached the age of six, was the hands-on stay-at-home dad.  Apparently, he was a pretty good one.  Kyle grew into a healthy, happy little boy and had just started school when Kathleen lost her job in Michigan. 

She quickly found another with Conagra in Omaha.  Their plan then was for her to try to find employment in Michigan, but if that failed, Scott and Kyle would join her in Nebraska.  That seemed like a good idea because much of their extended family lived in Michigan, so staying there would mean stability for Kyle.  He’d attend the same school, keep his friends and, most of all, maintain contact with all his various grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews.

But a funny thing happened on the way to stability and harmony; Kathleen filed for divorce and cleaned out their $73,000 savings account.  Scott and Kyle were stuck in Michigan with no job and no money.  For a while they relied on food stamps to get by.

Given the fact that Scott had always been the hands-on, stay-at-home dad, and a good one at that, as well as the fact that Kathleen had taken all the money available for her husband and young son to live on, you’d think that child custody would have gone almost automatically to Scott.

But if you thought that you’d have failed to reckon on the anti-father bias of certain family courts.  The referee who made the initial ruling on custody said frankly in open court that he just couldn’t quite grasp the concept of a stay-at-home father.  Personally, I don’t see what’s so difficult about that, or about applying previous practice in child support cases in a gender-neutral way.  But that’s just me.  The referee gave custody to Kathleen and the judge rubber-stamped the decision a few months later.

But the judge added a little something.  Judge Patricia Conlon ordered Kathleen to have primary custody, but, if Scott moved to Omaha, he could have equal custody of Kyle.  In short, she strongly encouraged Scott to pick up and move, regardless of (a) where he wanted to live, (b) where his family lived and (c) what the job prospects were in Omaha.

But there was yet another problem with Conlon’s order.  What she knew well was the fact that Kathleen has a long history of moving from job to job and place to place.  Indeed, in the 17 years they were married, she did so six times.  When I first wrote about Scott’s case, I mentioned the fact that what Conlon was doing was not only condemning a little boy to a life of constant moving from place to place, but doing the same to his father.  It looked to me like Scott Ritchie could look forward to following his ex-wife around year after year until Kyle grows up.

Well, guess what.  I was right.  Kathleen is now on her way to Seattle with the blessings of Judge Conlon.  She lost her job at Conagra and, even though there were three jobs in Omaha with the same company she could have applied for, she didn’t.  She’s moving on to the west coast and, once again, Scott’s faced with a choice; he can either move right behind her or lose contact with the son he raised for six years.

They had a hearing in Conlon’s court to try to stop the move, but to no avail.  This blatantly anti-father judge pretty much agrees to anything Kathleen wants.

Family judges often make noises about the value of stability in a child’s life.  Various mental health professionals agree.  Children, particularly young ones, benefit from stable routines.  They reduce a child’s stress and that makes for a happier child who’s more likely to do better in school.

Judge Conlon obviously disagrees, or at least she does in this case.  Taking a child away from his stay-at-home dad?  Fine.  Taking him from his school and friends?  Fine.  Taking him out of his familiar surroundings?  Fine.  Taking him from his beloved grandparents and other relatives?  Fine.  And, once he’d begun to make himself at home in Omaha, well, it’s once again fine to uproot him from that as well.  This boy is seven years old.

Stability?  Apparently it’s not so important after all, at least when it’s a dad who provides it and a mother who disrupts it.

And, while we’re on the subject of stability, how is Scott supposed to find any in his own life?  How is he supposed to establish a career for himself if, every couple of years he needs to pull up stakes and follow his wife, wherever she may choose to go?  The fact is, he’s looking at 10 or more years of temporary jobs just to keep some sort of minimal contact with his son.  Again, he’s got a choice; quit job after job or lose contact with Kyle.  Nice.

This case is a disgrace.  Patricia Conlon should be censured.

 

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