I have wanted to tell you about this for MONTHS. Fortunately I wrote it all down in a much more professional and concise format because I knew I was going to be reporting what follows to the appropriate board when it was over, so I have not forgotten anything.
I believe I mentioned my guardian ad litem for our case was removed by the court in January. Here is what I say to you: if you are faced with a list of GALs outside of a courtroom, after being ordered to use one, and there is no more information on said list than their name and prices, I SAY TO YOU, take 5 and search that shit. Even if your lawyer is saying, “I’ve worked with this person, they’re fine.” I know not everyone has a smart phone, but do your best. There’s crackpots out there who will review, you know, DMVs and post offices, but if you see a pattern in the reviews, think twice. I was too trusting in choosing from a list of people who work with a vulnerable population that was provided by the family court. This is your kid, you know?
I think I have said this before, but to be clear about why all this was happening…the purpose of the GAL in our case was to have a “neutral party” to speak with us and Franny and advocate for what Franny wanted and what would be best for her as far as the visitation schedule goes. Franny is not old enough to testify in court in Washington State. The GAL was to testify in court and submit a report of her conclusions about these issues.
The GAL that came to the top of the list was Karin Ballantyne. Karin was appointed way back in December 2011, when it was first decided we could change the parenting plan. We were supposed to go through mediation, and if we could not settle by those means we would avail ourselves of the GAL option. We got to that point in August 2012 and finally, I had to retain her (SeaFed refused to pay his half). Karin said she would do a “short” report since we didn’t have a lot of time before our trial date in early October, so her normal retainer was cut almost in half.
I was to meet with her alone first and there was a hiccup from the get go. We set an appointment via email and she told me what time to meet her at her office, but didn’t specify which day. There was a range of days and it was unclear if it was supposed to be the next day or the day after. I sent her a final clarifying email, expecting to hear back quickly, to the effect of, “Sorry, tomorrow or Thursday?” No response, so I sent her an email telling her I would assume the appointment was for the first day unless I heard back from her. I came to her office the next day, and she did not. I called her and left a message and sent her an email telling her I was there. I felt like I should be careful about giving every appearance of taking this seriously, since I was, of course.
I bring this up because it set the pattern. I was willing to give her a pass on the first time, because we all communicate poorly sometimes, and my motto is usually “shit happens, man,” which has to be said in the voice of The Dude, naturally. Later that day, she replied to the email with (I summarize): “Whoops, see you tomorrow.” She never got back to me in less than twenty-four hours in the beginning, which is fine if appointments are clear. (I find in life that the people who set clear appointments in the first place are generally the ones who are willing to get back to you if you have questions.)
Before the first meeting I spent four hours filling out her short and long intake forms. The long form had about 120 questions and I provided about a paragraph for most questions. There were questions like “What led to the ultimate break-up of the relationship with the other parent? Who initiated the decision and action to end the relationship? What impact has this had on the current situation?” My lawyer encouraged me to paint a complete picture of the situation and it was hard to delve way back into the past. A lot of the questions applied to events that had happened over ten years ago.
I didn’t know what to expect with our meeting. I’ve met with therapists, psychologists, lawyers, drug and alcohol assessment counselors inside and outside of court orders. The usual protocol is to show up, keep your pants on, and tell your side of things.
Once we sat down, Karin hit me with this one: “Sooo I have a new assistant and she seems to have LOST your paperwork. Can you remind me who the people are in this case?” I thought at first this might be some kind of test to see how I handled weird curve balls like this, seriously. Why was I meeting with her if she had no idea who I was, and what the issues were? How could she lose paperwork that I had emailed and posted to her? My understanding was that SeaFed had not bothered to fill his out, so at least she did not just have his side of things. I had to get organized in my head, QUICKLY, and stay on point with what we wanted from a parenting plan.
I started speaking and she asked if SeaFed was a different person with the same last name whose case she was also handling. Then she went on to give me the details of that family’s case, including their names, the age and gender of their child, and where they lived. Alarm bells. What a breach of confidentiality! Holy shit, this lady was crazy! And she was appointed to our case! Fuck fuck fuck. Could I walk out? Could I just be nice and pray since at that point she had all the power and we didn’t have time to get a new person? Maybe this was all a mindfuck and she was great, like I’d been told.
I spent the next hour trying to cram in anything she wanted to know about the case. I didn’t expect anyone with an eidetic memory to handle our case, but I was hoping this shit would at least sound familiar to her. She scribbled notes, obviously hearing about everything for the first time. Somehow it came up that I am gay, that it’s part of my identity.
“What!” she scoffed. “You can’t be gay. You have two children by two different men.”
I thought of telling her how, a woman who looks “straight” (Well, do I? I don’t know. I think I look like myself. I don’t get hit on in straight meat-market clubs, that’s for sure, never have), who doesn’t have a strong preference for any gender is going to be likely to, statistically speaking, meet and settle with a straight man. Because unless you really do have a preference and seek a certain type of person out, then straight men are what’s falling out of trees around you. I did say something about dating women in the past, and did not tell her that one of my worst heartbreaks was at the hands of an ice princess Betty Draper type years ago. Grace Kelly, you are my kryptonite. I felt very much like not a whole or real person at that moment. However, I knew I was only one piece of this puzzle, and that I was there for Franny, and endeavored to move on.
“So you’re bisexual,” she told me.
Again I thought of all the delightful and sexy transmen I have been fortunate to know over the years, and have had connections with…you know what, oh fuck it. This was not my Norma Rae moment. This was not the first time I’ve heard I’m not gay, or am a certain type. I’m pretty frickin gay. Bring in a muffin, I will butter it. Is there a casual way to tell someone you just met that you’re Jerri Blank with slightly better teeth?
“…Okay,” I said.
We got to what court had been like in the wayback, and I told her it was challenging, because there were crazy allegations and statements flying around in 2004, and it was obfuscating what I felt was the heart of the matter. She wanted to know what the dirty stuff flying around was. I was like hey, he’s not really paying attention to this kid when she’s in his care, and it’s dangerous sometimes. What came back in court from his side was, “SJ is a satanist/zoosexual who was so bad her parents had to abuse her. Also she eats too much ice cream.”
Okay. You got me. I love ice cream.
Karin began talking about how she read some really wild erotica in the 70s or something about having sex with animals and how that “freaky” stuff could be really sexy sometimes if it was just in the realm of fantasy. I felt like she was expecting me to say…something? About this? Like she was making a safe space for my true confessions? I had nothing to say. This all seemed about as safe as a stampeding bull covered in hypodermic needles of questionable origin.
Outwardly I sighed. Inwardly I imagined myself fleeing so fast that my bones, organs, and muscles would rip free of the rest of me, leaving a deflated sack of skin and some sad pink weave in her chair. The rest of my time was spent being regaled with tales of how amicable her divorce was. That’s marvy. Really. Uh huh. Wait, you had more to ask me but our time’s up? Okay.
SO THAT WENT WELL. DON’T YOU THINK? I went home and felt like this for about three days:”AAAAAAH!!!!!” I immediately emailed my lawyer a complete account of what had happened, and that I had taken it very seriously but had extreme reservations about Karin’s competence. My lawyer said she thought that was all very strange, and hoped that obtaining the report would give us what we wanted since court was zooming right up.
Then she was supposed to meet with SeaFed, but he gave her some busy-and-important jive and they had a phone interview instead. This is after she gave me a big spiel about how she would be handling both parties absolutely equally. “If I inspect your house, I will go and inspect his as well.” And so on. Then Karin met with him and Franny together in her office to watch her interact with her parents separately. It was a Sunday night and Karin asked me if I could pick Franny up from her office since SeaFed was to return her Monday morning. Could I do him that favor? Of course. I was assured he would be gone.
I rounded the corner to the street that her building’s door opened out to, and BANG, there was SeaFed with Karin and Franny. I felt the blood drain out of my face. I really don’t enjoy running into him unexpectedly. My face always goes all “AMG, VOLDEMORT!” which, come on SJ, get a fucking grip already. I stammered a few pleasantries and took Franny away. It was obvious Karin saw me blanch.
“Well, that was weird,” Franny said, as we walked away to where I was parked.
“What?” I said, recovering slightly and becoming a human with loose joints and regular circulation again.
“She’s just weird, Mom. I don’t like her. And I know you weren’t expecting to see my dad just then, I could tell.”
“It’s okay, it’s just your dad. It was a surprise, is all. How did it go?”
“My dad was acting faaaaake. He asked me before we left his house this afternoon what I want for the schedule and I told him, and then in the meeting he acted like he didn’t know any of that.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry. Let’s go get some sushi.”
Then I had my kid-parent meeting with Karin. She called me the day of to tell me she did not have time to meet at her office because she was coming from somewhere on the Eastside, and could we meet someplace “neutral” in my neighborhood? I suggested a coffee shop. Franny was filled with dread at going through everything again. Karin was an hour late. Basically we played a few word and story games and she watched us interact. Karin asked to be alone with her at the end and spoke to Franny about what she wanted. She met me at the door of the coffee shop with Franny and said she would be submitting the report in a week, in plenty of time for the final paperwork like the brief to be due in early September.
And I never saw or heard from her again. DUN DUN DUNNN.
What happened after that, I can cover pretty quickly. We were ready for court in October and SeaFed even turned in his hilarious bag of mess he called his legal brief so we were locked and loaded. Karin did not produce the report and gave several excuses about being ill/on vacation. We had two continuances because of her, and she was finally removed in January. All of my legal fees from October to January were due to her delays.
My lawyer did get in touch with her a couple of times. Karin said she would be “crafting a communication plan” for me and SeaFed, to which my lawyer responded that we had been communicating pretty well up until this recent action thanks. Karin was concerned about how “scared” I looked upon seeing him unexpectedly. No comment. Karin also wanted to know, oh, was this the supervised custody case? To which I say: Facepalm.
In late February I emailed her briefly, telling her that as she knew by now, she had been removed from the case over a month ago, and I would like my money refunded since no report was provided, and I expected it in my mailbox by March 15. I could hear her cackling upon receipt of this email in my head, but I had to officially ask. March 15th came and went, and the following Monday I went to the courthouse and filed a small claim to recover the retainer and some of the legal fees.
She did respond to my email with more batshit smokescreenery in the form of, I kid you not, “I just found the paperwork removing me from your case in my closet this weekend.” (???!!!) Lady, if your letter carrier is sending your mail to your CLOSET and not telling you, you might want to get a new owl, I’m just saying. How is this an excuse? She also blamed my lawyer for sending emails to an old email address. Really. I happened to know her legal assistant had called Karin’s office several times, and had reached her for some of them. Also that Karin was apprised of the case schedule, and so on. She said of course she would return my money–she did want to do right by me. Karin said she had the report ready, did I want it now? Umm, no thanks. I did not reply.
I took a spin online to find her home address via public real estate records (librarian powers activate) so I would have something to write on the small claims form. I knew her office hours were sporadic and self-set, so it would be almost impossible to have her served there. In my searching I found where she was going to be later that week–bankruptcy court! FAAABULOUS. Was there even a point in trying to recover my money?
Ultimately I decided it was worth a try, since personal bankruptcy did not protect one from things like fees owed, was my understanding, but from “unsecured loans” like credit card debt. I don’t think I will ever see my fees but I would like it to be part of public record that Karin took my money, worked with my child, and did jack shit but prolong this process and stress my kid out further. I’ve taken a lot of bullpucky in the pooper during this process, but NOBODY FUCKS WITH THE FRANNY. When I was searching for her address I also found other online reviews like “Karin is of exceptionally low personal character” and “Karin will take your check and do nothing.” That sounds familiar.
After I paid the fee to file the claim, I went to the sheriff’s clerk’s office, where I could pay another fee to engage them to serve the papers for me.
“Can I tell you if I know exactly where she’s going to be on a certain day this week?”
“Sure,” the clerk said. “But there’s no guarantee we’ll have someone available at that time to come to that place. Where is it?”
I gave him the deets of when and where her bankruptcy court was and he wrote it down.
“I hope it works out, since it’s at this courthouse,” I said.
So I have ANOTHER court date in May. Wow I love court. I’m going to set up a yurt outside of the sheriff’s office. And what I really hope is that this lady loses her license and is not allowed to work with vulnerable people any longer.
This basically summarizes my experience in court so far: