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Monday, August 25, 2008

The $4000 "Free" Trip to Paris

My oldest child has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that slowly erodes her vision. She is now legally blind, but eventually, she will lose all of her sight. Her world will go dark forever, and there’s not a thing I can do about it. Some day, medical science will hopefully find a cure, but until then, we deal with the situation as best as we can.

My daughter has had a fascination with Paris ever since I read the Madeline books to her when she was very, very small. When she got older, she told me quite often that someday she was going to go to Paris. I smiled, but I just kept my thoughts to myself. One day, she came to me and point blank asked me to take her to Paris so she could see the Eiffel Tower before she went blind.

My heart just broke because as a single American mother of 4 children going through a horrific and costly divorce, Paris was just not on my “can do” list. There simply was no way I could even dream of affording such a trip. I tried to do the best I could for her—I got her French lessons and books on Paris. I bought her an Eiffel Tower 3-D puzzle and helped her put it together. I hoped that she might accept this instead of the real deal but all of these things made it actually worse.

I was homeschooling my children at that time and they were attending a local homeschool co-op where I taught. My daughter was taking French lessons there and happened to mention to her teacher that she wanted to go to Paris before she went blind. The teacher had actually lived in Paris and still had contacts there. She didn’t say anything to my daughter or me, but she began to work on that Paris trip.

The group began to do fundraisers and spread the word that they were raising money for a community service project. The project: granting a wish to a handicapped child which would allow her to see Paris before she lost her sight. Our community rallied behind this project and the group collected enough money to send both my child and I to Paris for 2 weeks along with the French teacher as our guide. Another mom in the group agreed to keep my other children for free.

When the French teacher told my daughter and I that we were going to Paris after class one day, my child cried tears of joy. She was SO happy and I simply couldn’t believe it; maybe the world wasn’t such an awful place after all. The teacher bought tickets for the airline as we assumed (wrongly) that my ex would be excited for his child to go to Paris, especially since it was free, and would help in any way he could.

I went to my ex and told him about the trip and asked him to sign the paper for the passport. He refused. I went again and again and went with friends and he still refused. I had my lawyer write his lawyer a letter and they never responded. The Paris trip was approaching.

I know it sounds stupid. I mean, why wouldn’t the man just SIGN the paper and be done with it? To understand that, you’d need to understand a little bit more about the relationship the ex and I had. My ex was a very abusive, controlling man. He also had been diagnosed schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder.

Another thing that happened shortly after I left and filed for divorce was that my daughter had admitted to a counselor that he’d been abusing her during her court ordered visitation. Because of this, he’d lost his visitation privileges for a time. They’d been recently re-instated, but he was furious. He was angry that I’d left him and filed for divorce; he was angry about the abuse charges; and he was mad that we were moving on with our lives without him. We were going to pay for what we’d done to him, and this was the perfect opportunity for him to demand payment.

My lawyer advised me to sue him in court and ask the judge to order him to sign the paper. The only catch—it would cost me $3000. I signed the papers and charged the 3k to my credit card. I remember how angry and embarrassed I felt. I simply couldn’t believe that one nasty man was spoiling this wonderful thing for everyone. Strangers had, out of the kindness of their heart, given of their time and money to make this possible for our child and he was going to spoil that. Another thing, how can you deny your child her wish to see Paris before she went blind, if the trip is FREE? How? He was a cruel, heartless person indeed.

The day of the court hearing arrived and we argued our points in front of the judge. The ex’s lawyer argued that our daughter should not be allowed to go to Paris for a whole bunch of stupid reasons and asked the court to deny my request. My lawyer argued that our daughter should be allowed to go to Paris for a whole bunch of reasons and asked the court to grant me my request. Many of those who had contributed to the wish fund were present observing the court session. They too were shocked that things had gotten to this point.

After a brief recess, the judge agreed to grant me my request. He ordered my ex to sign the passport and allow our daughter to go to France and then the judge left the courtroom. This is when the ex, his sister, and his lawyer made a break for the exit. They had no intentions of obeying the judge’s order.

I lost them in the crowds as the different courts let out. I can not even describe the amount of anger I felt at that point. Well, maybe I could describe it, but my description would be peppered with a lot of not so nice words. I saw that across the hall, the ex had taken the elevator with his lawyer and I ran for the stairway followed by a bunch of the people who had supported me. We ran down the stairs and found…nothing. He and his lawyer were gone. I ran out of the courthouse and there they were, talking in one of the gardens in front of the courthouse. I ran up to them both and they were shocked.

“The judge told you to sign this. Do it now.” His lawyer started to argue that he couldn’t and make a whole bunch of excuses when the rest of the group of my supporters caught up with me. The ex and his lawyer were surrounded by a group of us…all very, very angry.

“Sign it. Or I’ll call the judge and report you to the Bar Association.” His lawyer, seeing we meant business, told him to sign.

The crowds started cheering and the ex and his lawyer left. We walked to the parking garage, and the ex’s sister came out of nowhere and tried to hit me and get the passport paper away from me. My friends helped me to fight her off and we continued walking.

I know, it’s incredible, but it really happened this way.

I expedited the passport application, which cost me several hundred extra dollars, but I did get the passport back in time for the trip. The judge had also ordered that my ex be allowed to contact his child for regular phone calls of 1 hour 3 times per week. It was my job to pay for these expenses too. This cost me several hundred dollars as well.

If my experiences were a commercial, it would read this way:

“Free” trip to Paris for 2: $4000
Knowing that your child has seen the Eiffel Tower before she went blind: PRICELESS

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Expensive Road Trip To Hell and Back

Life isn’t fair. Perhaps you have learned this tidbit already. Family court really isn’t fair. You may not have learned this already.

When I divorced my ex, I didn’t realize that the share of justice pie you get largely is determined based upon how much money you can shell out to hire a lawyer. My ex’s family re-mortgaged their expensive suburban Philadelphia house in order to hire him a lawyer. My family smiled and said, “Good luck with that!”

I hired the best lawyer I could almost afford and wracked up debt on my credit cards paying for his services. That was a bad decision, but the only one I had really. My ex was abusive and I really feared for the safety of my children. So my choices were: fight for my children or go into debt. I chose the first option.

Years went by and I happened to go into a coffee shop one day while the kids were visiting their dad. I met the most wonderful man who was a soldier visiting the area for some training. He lived over 800 miles away near the beach in Virginia. We ended up exchanging information after we’d finished our coffee and went our separate ways. I really didn’t expect anything to come of it at all, but life rarely turns out like we expect.

Fast forward a year or so and we are preparing to get married. We went to court to work out visitation because my ex frankly asked the court to NOT allow me to move out of state with the kids. I assumed that the judge would give us a standard “long distance” visitation arrangement. You know, the non-custodial parent gets the summer and long school breaks. It didn’t work that way.

Incredibly, the courts ordered me to meet my ex half way each month in DE to exchange the children with him. Some months, with holidays and breaks, it is even two times a month. The visits are from Friday to Sunday (normal visits, not the holiday breaks) and take approximately 16 hours to complete. With gas, tolls and food costs, we are spending an incredible $500 a month if we have to do 1 visit. This month, we will make two trips—spending an astounding $1000 to obey a court order. His regular monthly visitation occurs a week after his court ordered Labor Day holiday visit and so, in the space of 6 weeks, I will spend $1500 on visitation. Of course, the total amount of money the trip costs depends upon the wildly fluctuating price of gasoline. The ironic thing—he has been court ordered to pay me $930 a month for our 4 children. I spend more paying to take them to visit him than I actually get in child support.


For him, this is really no big deal. His family feels sorry for him and pays all of his expenses, including a rental car to make the trip and reimburses his gas money. I do not have a financial fairy Godmother.

In order to ask the court to re-consider, I would have to save up a retainer fee of $5000. I have asked my ex to re-consider, but he refuses. I have caused him great pain by remarrying and getting on with my life, and he wishes to make it most difficult for me.

I try to not let it get me down…and think of all the things I could do with that money. Right now, I am trying to get the kids ready to go back to school, and that $1500 could surely buy a lot of clothes, backpacks and school supplies. It could also buy a lot of food. But I have no choice. If I can't make those trips, I risk being sued for contempt of court. Conceivably, if I was found guilty, my children could be taken from me and given to my abusive ex.

This month, to make the budget work, we’re eating a lot of Macaroni and Cheese and other pasta meals. I’ve found that if we eat soup once a week, that really helps the budget too. I’ve bought a bunch of back to school clothes at the local thrift stores and I shop on half price Wednesday in order to stretch that already pinched budget even further. I have even learned how to cut hair in order to minimize our expenses even further. As gas prices continued to rise this summer, we cancelled our vacation plans and other fun events we’d planned in order to be able to afford to pay for the trips I was court ordered to make.

Some days, the stupidity of it all really gets to me. My youngest child is 9 years old and I simply can't imagine having to do this for 9 more years, but what choice do I have? With how tight the budget is, there is no money left over to be able to save to go back to court to ask the judge to re-consider the current arrangement.

I don’t for a minute regret marrying my current husband and moving. My children are doing very well and loving life near the beach. Yes, moving was one of the best decisions I ever made. But if I had to do it all over again….I think I’d ask my husband to move too…and we’d go across the country, where no one would tell me I had to go through this insanity every single month. Sure, it would mean purchasing plane tickets several times a year so the ex could get his visitation, but think of the money I’d save!

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