Events caught on a school surveillance camera in Oelwein, Iowa on January 28 hold many lessons for the family court reform movement. The entire event can be seen here, and it makes fascinating viewing.
According to the dad, whom I will call “Josh”, he enjoys 50/50 shared parenting of his five children under Iowa’s fairly enlightened shared parenting laws. He claims mom had interfered with his designated parenting time the day before, so on the day of the videotaped incident, Josh was determined to avoid a repeat. He notified the school that he would be picking his daughter up an hour early. But the school notified mom, who came to the school six minutes before Josh.
At the 2:00 point in the video, you can see mom arriving and entering the school. At 7:30 in the tape, mom and daughter exit the school and get into mom’s car, parked in clear view of the camera. At 8:01, just as they are about to drive off, dad runs in from the left and stands directly in front of the car. The footage is grainy, but there does not appear to be anything that might be interpreted as a threat.
Josh claims that mom nudges him with the car, but it is not readily apparent on the video. Then, at 9:35 in the tape, the car lunges forward, pushing dad back about 20 feet, at which point he loses his footing and falls to his knees.
Mom stops the car, and he gets up again. He leans over the hood and holds the windshield wipers at their bases, so he can lie on the hood and avoid being run over if she drives forward again. Another period of inactivity follows.
At 12:47 of the tape, a police car drives up, an officer emerges, Josh raises his hands in the surrender position, and the officer cuffs him. According to Josh, the officer approached him with a drawn Taser, screaming, “Get off the car, get off the car, get off the car!” But within a minute or two, after listening to his story, the officer is prepared to release him.
Then, at 14:20 of the tape, another police vehicle pulls up within view of the camera. According to Josh, the Chief of Police emerges, refuses to listen to him tell his side of the story, and insists that Josh be arrested for disorderly conduct. Shortly thereafter, the available tape ends. According to Josh, he was cuffed again and spent the next six hours in jail.
Subsequently, mom filed for a no-contact restraining order, which was granted–even though the judge viewed the videotape and, according to Josh, mom testified that no physical or emotional abuse had ever occurred between the parties. The Oelwein Police Department has not filed charges against the mother, who is apparently guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. The district attorney likewise has refused to prosecute the mother.
According to Josh, he is limited to supervised visitation with ALL his children until April 1. The mother’s attorney must approve the choice of supervisor.
Josh is not without fault in this series of events. He told me that there was no earlier pattern of interference with his parenting time. He admits that on the two days in question, his daughter did not want to go with him, allegedly because he confiscated her cellphone as a disciplinary measure. But Josh has lots of parenting time, a 14-year-old can pretty much choose which house she wants, and one would expect this adolescent mini-storm to blow over soon. One can admire Josh’s determination and courage to be with his daughter, but standing in front of the car was foolish and unnecessary.
What about mom’s conduct? First, she should not have plotted to whisk the girl away from her dad. Then, the most telling detail, in my opinion, is that she never backs the car up. The street is totally clear — no passing traffic, no pedestrians, no parked cars or other obstacles — if she were truly afraid of Josh she could easily have backed up and escaped him.
In most states, if one is confronted with a threat and chooses to use deadly force even though a means of escape is available, one would be charged with a felony.
Summary: Mom interferes with dad’s parenting time and assaults him with a deadly weapon, but gets off scot free. Dad commits a foolish but harmless act, and is hit like a ton of bricks.
There are several lessons for the family court reform movement:
1) Getting a good shared parenting law is not the end of the battle. We will need to maintain our organizations and our vigilance or our equality as parents will still be undermined. Kudos to Iowa Fathers for standing up for Josh in this case.
2) Some activists believe the root of our problem is money – specifically, all the money that can be made by lawyers, psychologists, trial experts and others by fomenting parental conflict. Yet so far there is little money to be made in this case, and the course of events is nevertheless a travesty of justice.
3) Some activists believe our problems are political, and blame liberals more than conservatives. But Iowa’s shared parenting law came about as a result of the personal efforts of former Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack. Conversely, some prominent Republicans, such as Ohio Governor John Kasich and Arizona Senator John McCain, have been dismissive of family court reform. A simple liberal-conservative explanation of our problems does not work.
4) Our problems are created by multiples actors, not just one institution. Let’s look at the behavior of multiple participants in this incident:
i. School Staff: According to Josh, he notified the school he was coming to pick up his child early, and that it was his designated parenting time. The staff had no good reason to notify the girl’s mother of his plan.
ii. Responding Police Officer: A man is standing motionlessly in front of a car on an empty street. The car driver can escape by driving backwards. There is no need to approach the scene with a drawn taser while screaming at the motionless man.
iii. Police Chief: The police chief overruled the responding officer and insisted upon arrest in a situation that was already resolved, in which the arrested party was calm and cooperative, and there was plenty of fault on the other side.
iv. Judge: The judge ignored both the videotape and, according to Josh, mom’s testimony that there had never been any physical or emotional abuse.
v. Prosecutor: The prosecutor has refused to pursue a clear, documented case of assault and battery with a deadly weapon.
5) Clearly, the main problem here is ideological — gender bias. Try to imagine a scenario where a father hits a mother with his car and the mother is arrested and then cut off from her kids, while the father isn’t charged with anything. You can’t–it’s impossible.
The gender-biased ideology that is the primary cause of our difficulties has been translated into power politics. This movement will overcome these travesties by uniting together in ever-larger numbers to pursue political and ideological reform. In this way we will win, because our values are so widely accepted: we simply want to raise and nurture our kids, and we believe in gender equality.
Ned Holstein, MD, MS
Founder and Chair of the Board