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November 30th, 2011 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
So it was off to Nebraska for Kyle, in the suddenly-loving care of his mother.  I say “suddenly” because before she filed for divorce, she’d never been much of a hands-on-mother.  Oh, she loved her son and did what she could for him, but she was a career woman first and a mother second, just the way countless dads are.  But once she filed, all that changed and she became the doting mother every judge likes to see.

But Referee Richard Minter’s decision was only temporary.  A second judge, Patricia Conlon, would have to rule on the case and make permanent orders.  She did that on October 25, 2011.

Conlon’s order is like none I’ve ever read.  It can be charitably called “rambling.”  Much of it is simple a stream of consciousness narrative that veers from legal order to the tone of a school principal correcting a wayward child, to am amateur psychotherapist and back to judge.  Conlon contradicts herself more than once and throughout the 34-page order is at pains to construe every ambiguity against Scott Ritchie, the stay-at-home father.  It is, in short, a barely coherent exercise in misandry.

Was Scott a stay-at-home father for all of his son’s life?  Yes, Conlon admits that he was, but, according to her, he failed to behave enough like a stay-at-home mother, principally one of, say, 100 years ago. 

First of all, it does not appear that the father was a “homemaker” under the traditional interpretation of that concept held by females for centuries who tended to be the “stay at home parent.”

True, he cared for his son night and day.  True he was an excellent and loving father who has raised a fine little boy to school age.  But all of that meant little or nothing to Conlon.  Indeed, her opinion entirely skips the first six years of Kyle’s life, preferring to focus on Scott’s failure to get a job prior to his son’s starting school and move to Nebraska to be with his wife.

Never mind that that was their agreement.  Never mind that Kyle was in school in Michigan and had friends and family there.  Never mind that, if they couldn’t get work in Michigan, Scott had agreed to move.  And never mind that he never refused to move until she filed for divorce and cleaned out their bank accounts.

It’s a strange judge who finds fault with a stay-at-home father for refusing to displace himself and his child to be with his itinerant wife who’s just stated via her petition for divorce that she wants nothing to do with him.  As a client of mine used to say, “That just don’t make no damned sense.”  Indeed it doesn’t, but Conlon was just getting started.

You’re probably wondering what Conlon did with the fact that Kathleen cleaned out their bank accounts.  Here’s how.  She found fault with Kathleen’s having done that.  It seems that, according to Conlon, Kathleen was living the high life in Omaha, while Scott and their son “did without.”  That’s not surprising considering she was earning $120,000 a year of her own, plus having taken the $73,000 from their accounts.  A single person can live pretty well on that.  By contrast, a man and a little boy, with nothing at all to live on fare decidedly worse.  All that Conlon called “cruel” on Kathleen’s part.

But it turns out it was all Scott’s fault.  The fact that Scott wanted to stay in Michigan, as they’d agreed to do if possible “led her to withdraw the money from their accounts.”  It apparently also led her to refuse to put any of it back when he asked her multiple times to do so.  How Scott’s hewing to their agreement that was clearly in Kyle’s best interest meant that he “led her” to make off with their only savings, threatening their child with privation, Conlon doesn’t explain for what must be obvious reasons.

Conlon’s self-contradictions and inconsistencies make reading her order like driving on a curving road; it almost makes you motion sick trying to follow it.  For example, one of the reasons she ended up giving custody to Kathleen is that, after she moved to Omaha, she returned to Michigan to visit Scott and Kyle on occasion.  That’s a good thing – a mother visiting her son.  Except maybe it isn’t; according to Conlon, “she got tricked” into doing so by Scott.  How he did that, she doesn’t say, any more than she says why he’d need to “trick” a mother into visiting her son.

Another example of Conlon’s bewildering patterns of thought involves the question of what constituted Kyle’s “established custodial environment.”  Under Michigan law, a child’s established custodial environment dictates which parent should get custody, all other things being equal. 

Now, follow this if you can.  According to Conlon, Minter was wrong to say there was a joint custodial environment because Scott provided that alone at their home near Kalamazoo.  Except the minute Kathleen moved to Nebraska, there was a joint custodial environment.  That’s because she made the effort to see Kyle after she moved.  So Kathleen lived with Scott and Kyle in Michigan, but that’s not a joint custodial environment because Scott was the stay-at-home dad.  But when she moved away without either father or son, that created a joint custodial environment because she came back to visit sometimes.  You figure it out, because I can’t.

Then of course there’s the fact that Conlon decided that as of the date of the trial, Kyle’s primary residence was in Omaha because he’d spent most of his time there for six months.  What about the six years he’d spent in Michigan with his father?  She doesn’t say.

Then there are the strictly gratuitous slaps she takes at Scott.  The most outstanding of which is her opinion that Scott is narcissistic, believing that Kyle is an “extension of himself.”  Her basis for that? 

Somewhere (sic) during the course of this marriage, the father began to see the minor child as being an extension of himself and that was evident in his testimony that the wife was “threatening Kyle and me.”  This is not rational considering the fact that the child is the child of both parents and not just one, and there was nothing to indicate that the mother was abusive to either the child or the father.

Nothing more supports her amateur’s diagnosis. 

But more important is the fact that there was indeed proof of abuse.  If stealing all their savings, including Kyle’s, leaving father and child destitute, in the middle of a severe recession when the father hadn’t had a job for over six years isn’t threatening, I don’t know what is.  But if you’re Judge Patricia Conlon, it not only isn’t abusive, it’s something to use against Scott.  He complained about it in court and that, in Conlon’s telling, renders him irrational.

Well, I know who’s irrational here, but it isn’t Scott Ritchie.

But the real kicker comes when Conlon lists the factors she’s required by Michigan law to consider in deciding custody.  There are 12, and they’re all ties, i.e. neither parent comes out better than the other, except in one instance.  Like Minter, Conlon found that Kathleen is more able to provide for the child than Scott is.

And of course that’s true.  Scott, like almost every stay-at-home parent suddenly faced with the need to go to work, is scrambling to do so in one of the worse economies the country has ever seen.  Kathleen of course is in the catbird seat.

But if earning capacity were the thing that tipped the scales, essentially every divorced father in the country would have primary custody of his child.  But that’s not so.  Indeed, similar analyses of fathers’ and mothers’ contributions describe stay-at-home moms as the next best things to saints, while fathers who go to work every day, just don’t seem to care much about their children.  Indeed, that narrative seems to hold that working to support your wife and child is a suspect activity.  It likely means the dad is an egoist, more interested in his own career advancement than in his child.

Let the sexes be reversed, however, and that narrative disappears entirely replaced by, once again, the mother as heroine.  And so it is in Conlon’s telling.  The fact that Scott stayed home, cared for his son and involved the neighbors in the little boy’s life meant that he was the “social butterfly of the neighborhood.”  Has she said the same about mothers who take their little ones to the park to visit with other mothers who’ve done the same?  What about mothers who have other moms over for coffee and a chat while the children play?  I doubt it. 

The life Scott led was, Conlon writes, “all due to the efforts of his employed wife.”  True, just as it is when fathers work to support their children and stay-at-home mothers.  But it’s only when a father stays at home that the activity becomes suspect.  Did Conlon notice that Kyle’s care was “all due to the efforts of her stay-at-home husband?”  She did not, the well-being of the child having temporarily escaped her notice.

Gone are the encomiums to stay-at-home parents that are so much a fixture of court orders when the parent in question is female.  Amazingly enough, Conlon noticed that Kathleen really had little to do with Kyle up until she filed for divorce.  Then she became a “more attentive parent than she had been in Michigan.”  But no matter that she’d played little part in the boy’s life until it behooved her to do so in her bid for custody.  She’s the boy’s mother and Conlon was bound and determined for her to have custody, the facts be damned.

And so Scott Ritchie lost custody of his son.  Indeed, during the school year, he barely gets to see him at all – only on certain holidays.  In the summer he’ll have him for two months, and that’s it.  Now, if Scott follows his wife to Omaha, then custody is 50/50.  But just consider what that means in terms of Kathleen’s propensity for changing jobs and moving here and there.  As far as I can count, she’s now done that six times during their 14-year marriage.

So what Scott can look forward to is following his ex-wife around the country, dutifully paying child support in order to keep contact with the son he did everything to raise.  He’ll be like a dog following a nomadic band of humans hoping they’ll throw him a bone. 

In the meantime, what does that do to his ability to establish a career for himself?  After all, he no longer has his son, so what’s a dad to do?  The workplace is pretty much it, but if he wants to keep contact with his son, he’ll need to keep to Kathleen’s schedule, not his own.  And since Kathleen moves so much, Scott will need to do that as well, and at a moment’s notice.  How is he supposed to make a career that way?  Conlon’s not only damaged Scott’s relationship with his son, she’s destroyed his ability to pursue a career.

And what about the stability of the child’s home?  That’s usually considered extremely important by judges deciding custody.  But here, placing Kyle with the mother who’s taken little part in his care and who moves every couple of years is preferred to the stable home environment provided by the boy’s father who’s been his sole caregiver almost all his life.

From now on, remember the name Scott Ritchie.  He’s the father who did everything right, who played the game by the mothers’ playbook.  He’s a doting and fine father who devoted his life to his son, only to have the boy taken from him by courts that blatantly apply a double standard to men and women.  Stay-at-home moms get primary custody almost without exception and their selflessness is praised to the heavens.

Stay-at-home dads?  Not so much.  Ever suspicious of fathers, the courts in Scott Ritchie’s case went to absurd lengths to discredit him for doing exactly what countless mothers do.

The case is a disgrace of which any judge of decent sensibilities would be ashamed.

It seems like good fathers just can’t win for losing.

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