Jim' ex-sister-in-law, Estelle, wanted to go to Las Vegas, "Just a quick trip, two days. Please? They like you so much, and I wouldn't want to leave them with just anybody." And so the kids piled into Connie and Jim's kids' bedrooms, even though their Tyler and Sophie were only 4 and 2. Jim's nieces were 13, 10, and 5, with the nephew age 8.
The sister-in-law did not leave the little girl's medication. She sent along no extra bedding, but did remember the kids' clothes- unwashed. She gave Jim and Connie no extra money for food, or anything else.
The weekend passed. No word from Estelle. Jim tried to call the motel where Estelle said she planned to stay. They'd never heard of her. Her cell phone was disconnected. He called his brother, John, a man who was less than stellar when it came to child support, and preferred to spend his time with the ladies and the bottle. "Well, she collected her child support. Found me at the job and said she was gonna give it to you. She didn't? Yeah, well, that's Estelle. Yeah, Bro, can you keep them another week? You know my place ain't good for kids, and anyway, I think Estelle has a court order for me not to have them."
So, while Jim and Connie frantically searched for Estelle, thinking the worst because they couldn't fathom WHY a mother would abandon her children, Connie made sure there were presents under the tree from Santa and asked her mother if it would be OK if there were four more for Christmas dinner (Of course it was).
And Jim walked the floor with the little one, who sobbed for her mommy. They dealt with the smart-mouthed Roxanne, who at 13 felt she was quite capable of watching the children. "I done it lots of times, and for more days than this" was her reply. And Connie went to the schools on the first day back, and let them know that it appeared Estelle had flown the coup.
The guidance counselor in the middle school knew her business. "This isn't the first time Mrs. Johnson took a sabbatical," he said. "Roxanne has a lot of tardies, a lot of absences. She comes to school without a bag lunch, and without lunch money. Sometimes, she comes without a coat. They need consistency, and they need to be in school every day. Frankly, they need somebody to give a damn about them." Connie knew two somebodies who cared very much- but she wanted to check some things first. She told the guidance counselor she would get back to him no later than the next day.
Connie called her mother-in-law. The elder Mrs. Johnson thought she might have a key to Estelle's. She didn't know why she hadn't thought of it before this, but with Christmas, and trying to respect Estelle's privacy, it just slipped Mrs. Johnson's mind. Surely, she would drive over with Connie's to Estelle's and check things out. Before going to her in-law's, Connie picked up today's newspaper, and several disposable cameras. On a hunch, she also picked up a small bag of cat food and a couple masks used for paint fumes and the like.
Sure enough, when Mrs. Johnson opened the front door, a foul odor attacked them. Very quickly, Connie handed her mother-in-law the mask. Connie then took two steps back and photographed the front door, making sure she included the house number. She then had Mrs. Johnson hold the newspaper so that the front page, and especially the date showed.
Connie and Mrs. Johnson carefully walked through Estelle's residence. On the back of a book of checks and some deposit slips, Connie had Mrs. Johnson record some of the highlights of the tour.
The cat food came in handy for Mittens, Estelle's cat, who the children were sure was hungry after not having eaten for two and a half weeks. Mittens, prior to his enforced starvation, had decorated the carpet and several closets with his fecal prowess. Mittens had managed to dig in the garbage for a bit of nourishment. And just as quickly, Mittens had barfed it all up, especially the chicken bones.
Estelle's furniture was gone. Most of Estelle's clothes were gone. She left behind the rickety kitchen set. And there were bills, piles of them, unopened, not just placed through the mail slot, but piled on Estelle's kitchen counters. Mrs. Johnson and Connie continued to patiently catalog, patiently shoot photos of the newspaper front page and the rooms.
The kids' room- the kids all shared one room- well, everything these small people owned was there. "Jim and I will come over later. I'll call the landlord. You can sit with the kids, or Dad can do it." Connie did take the kids' stuffed animals, the pillows and blankets that would be worth the rescue after a wash, Roxanne's Girl Scout uniform, Karen's framed photo of a school picnic, Justin's ball glove.
When they were finished, Connie drove to a drug store that also did one-hour development. She made three copies of each roll. After she dropped off Mrs. Johnson, she took a set from each roll of film and put it in her safety deposit box.
The elder Mr. Johnson and Jim were appalled by the photos. Mr. Johnson was actually sick to his stomach, and he'd seen combat in Korea. Mr. Johnson wanted to get his younger son to Jim's right then and there to read him the riot act, but Connie and Jim told him not to say anything at all until they'd talked with the guidance counselor. Jim took some buddies over to Estelle's to remove whatever was useful to the kids, and to persuade Mittens he needed a new home. Connie came along with disposable camera, a notebook and pen, and blank return address labels. As the men removed items, Connie cataloged them in the notebook, snapped a photo of it, and placed a label someplace on it.
When Connie returned to confer with the guidance counselor, he too was appalled at the photos- but not surprised. "I've actually seen worse, sad to say," he told Connie. The counselor, Mr. Jenkins, was able to connect Connie and Jim with the right people.
Because it was not mandatory in their state, Jim and Connie chose not to involve children's protective services. They did file a police report, and had a child's advocate file an emergency petition giving Jim and Connie temporary sole custody, as well as temporary guardianship, with an order of protection against Estelle and her boyfriend. After sixty days, Jim and Connie's attorney presented evidence in court that caused the judge to rule in favor of plenary guardianship of John and Estelle's children be given to Jim and Connie, along with a court order for child support from both John and Estelle, wherever she was, via garnishment. The senior Mr. Johnson was especially proud of his efforts to ensure Jim cooperated.
Sometime in June, Estelle showed up on Jim and Connie's doorstep, in a cab she claimed couldn't pay, looking for her kids (No, Connie did not pay the cab). Fortunately, the kids were at day camp, along with Tyler. When Estelle started shrieking and causing a scene, Connie simply called the police, and had a copy of the order of protection in hand. Estelle threatened, but never got around to hiring an attorney to have her children returned to her.
John pops in on his kids every now and then. He's managed to keep from pro-creating further.
Connie and Jim Johnson are real people, even though I changed their names to protect them and their family. I know them. They live in my area. They are younger than their brother and his ex-wife, early thirties. Connie is a nurse, and a fine one at that. Jim is a service manager for a major dealership.
Connie and Jim succeeded in obtaining custody where a lot of people would have bungled it. This is why:
- Connie and Jim did not try to accomplish anything during the Holidays. Despite what people might think, trying to get any legal professional- a lawyer, a judge, law enforcement- is extremely difficult during the Christmas season. They concentrated on getting through Christmas. Unless the children are being threatened physically, it is a bad idea to go to court during Christmas.
- Connie and Jim actively searched for Estelle, on the chance she might have been kidnapped, injured or worse.
- Connie and Jim gathered evidence. Each of those persons who entered Estelle's former house was a witness. The cameras recorded how the place appeared, along with the date (newspaper and receipts from the drug store). The guidance counselor had his records, as did the counselor at the elementary school. Connie took notes, and cataloged items. The friends of Jim who helped load up the kids' things were witnesses.
- Connie actively listened for people who would be willing to help Jim and her. The middle school counselor was a font of information, because he wanted to help. When people don't need to be persuaded to help, but actively want to help, they are going to be helpful.
- Connie and Jim hired an attorney. Despite what people say, the majority of attorneys are ethical, honest people. Some are better than others. Choose carefully, but don't go to court without one.