Dave Jones (not his real name) appears calm and accomplished. A Wyoming native who grew up loving the ranch life, he now owns his own business in South Salt Lake, teaching workplace safety to those who work in dangerous professions. But his ready sense of humor and the fact that he has a close extended family and many friends belies his hidden turmoil. Away from work, his recent years have been filled with stress and strife. More than anything, Jones wants to be a father to his children and feels devastated that he hasn’t seen them in almost two years.
Flying home on a red-eye June 18, 2011, Jones anticipated a Father’s Day lunch with his children the next day. But there was no answer when he called his ex-wife’s home Sunday morning. She eventually dropped the children off for a visit that lasted just two hours before she picked them up again.
That Father’s Day lunch in 2011 was the last time he saw his daughter. A four-hour counselor-facilitated visit is the only time he’s seen his son since.
Jones believes his kids are experiencing parental alienation, which occurs when one parent tries to turn a child against the other parent through bad-mouthing, casting him or her in a negative light and making the child feel guilty for wanting to spend time with—or even loving—that parent. Jones says his ex-wife, Sharon, has turned his kids—Jeremy, 14, and Melissa, 16—against him to the point where they now want nothing to do with him.
[Editor’s note: In consideration of the children’s privacy, the real names of Dave Jones, his wife and his two children have not been used.]
A month after the abbreviated Father’s Day visit, Jones went to Sharon’s house to pick up the kids. She met him in the driveway and said she was not going to let the kids go with him. He said she then demanded to know who he went to Hawaii with. (Jones says he went to Hawaii on business the month before.) She then said the kids didn’t want to go with him because they were afraid of him. Exasperated, he asked what she thought he should do with the situation. She replied, “It really sucks to be you right now.”
Although Jones’ 2010 divorce decree specifies his visitation as every Tuesday night and every other weekend and holiday, he says that’s never happened.
“I am heartbroken that they are growing up, and I am not a part of their lives,” Jones says. “My son caught his first fish with someone else.”
Jones says he understands his kids’ divided loyalty. “I know how manipulative this lady can be. If I was in [my kids’] shoes, I don’t think I would do anything different,” he says. He believes his kids are thinking, “I can either stay with my mother and do whatever she says, or go with my dad and get my mother’s wrath when I get back.”
The 57-year-old local businessman says he pays 76 percent of his children’s support, 50 percent of their medical expenses and his son’s entire private-school tuition. He also says he’s spent more than $10,000 trying to see his kids. He’s hired attorneys, counselors and a “special master”—a court-designated professional who acts to assist divorced families in conflict. He’s been told he can enlist the help of police to enforce visitation, but feels that would make the situation worse.
Jones says that Utah’s treatment of divorced fathers and mothers is highly unequal. “If I didn’t pay my child support, they would take my driver’s license, garnish my wages and maybe throw me in jail,” he says. But there has been no penalty for his wife continuing to keep the kids away from him.
Chris Wharton, a Salt Lake City attorney whose practice focuses on family law and criminal defense, says that the conflict is not so much an issue of mother versus father, but an issue of custodial versus noncustodial parent. “The custodial parent has the advantage,” he says.
Wharton has two cases pending in litigation where alienation is taking place. He says that alienation is not uncommon in cases of high-conflict divorce or separation, especially when children are in their preteens or teens. At that point, he says, it’s easy for the alienating parent to tell the other parent that their child doesn’t want to see him or her.
Typically, Wharton says, the noncustodial parent doesn’t force the issue “because he is concerned that if he continues to push the order in court, it is going to drive the children away even further. The more that he defers, the more time goes by since the children have seen him, and the more difficult it is to resume a more normal, meaningful parent-time visitation schedule.”
Jones worries that his ex-wife is planning to drag out the custody conflict without him having a chance to see the children until they turn 18—at which point they may have become too estranged from him to want him in their lives at all.
Your Father Doesn’t Love You
Ned Holstein is the founder and chairman of the board for the National Parents Organization, a group that has helped pass bills in many states to encourage equitable treatment for fathers and mothers in parenting disputes.
Alienation is very common, Holstein says. The majority of divorces involve some degree of alienation, where one of the parents makes an effort to cast the other in a bad light. “In most cases, it is mild or intermittent when, in their anger or frustration, they let something slip that they may later regret,” he says.
In more serious alienation cases, behaviors cause a child to be mentally manipulated or bullied into believing a loving parent is the cause of all their problems and/or the enemy. The noncustodial parent is then to be feared, hated, disrespected and avoided.
The standard every-other-weekend visitation schedule is the perfect setup for alienating a child, Holstein says. A mother can say, “Your father doesn’t love you. That’s why you’re not seeing him this week.”
When he filed for divorce in 2010, Jones presumed he would have regular visits with his kids. But as soon as he moved out, it became difficult to see them. He often received a text message on Tuesday mornings saying they were busy that night. The times they could visit grew shorter. “They never offered makeup time,” he says. “They never said, ‘I can’t come over on Tuesday, but I could visit Wednesday.’”
Wharton says that under state code, both parents are supposed to work together to try to schedule makeup time at the soonest possible date. But as time passes and alienation continues, pressure builds on both the kids and parents, and the parent who is doing the alienating often becomes more extreme in his or her excuses for why the kids can’t visit.
Differing opinions about the LDS Church helped fuel the Jones’ conflict. He’d joined the church at his wife’s invitation during their marriage, but later decided it wasn’t for him. Early on, when his daughter did visit him, she said that rather than staying over on a Saturday night, according to the visitation terms, she needed to go back home to get ready for church the next day.
In May 2011, when Jeremy visited without his sister, he decided he wanted to stay the entire weekend. Jones called his ex-wife and told her Jeremy didn’t want to go to church the next day and that he was keeping him, per the visitation order. Jones says his ex-wife “went into a tizzy,” and he received an e-mail from her that said his children would be going to church no matter what the holiday or who had visitation.
Wharton has seen other parents disagree over church attendance. He recommends that if one parent is using church attendance as an excuse for alienation, “the other parent can offer to have [the kids] ready for church. The other parent can pick them up and have them back to the other parent within an hour of church ending. Or the parent who is being alienated can take the children to church and sit through it, even though he may not enjoy it.”
LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter says, “We hope that parents will do all they can to maintain a sense of harmony as they keep the interests of their children at the forefront.”
A few weeks after the abbreviated 2011 Father’s Day visitation that was supposed to last until 7 p.m., Jones says, “Jeremy didn’t want to talk or visit me anymore, for no apparent reason.” Jones says that Aug. 16, 2011, during a rare phone call with his children, Jeremy told Jones that he and Melissa did not want to come to Jones’ home anymore because of what Jones believes. Jones says he asked, “What do I believe?” and Jeremy replied that he did not feel comfortable discussing that with his father and hung up.
Jones believes that was in reference to Sharon “telling the kids that since I left the LDS Church, their beliefs must be different from mine,” he says. “I have never discussed my religious or spiritual beliefs with either Jeremy or Melissa, nor did we ever discuss why I left the LDS Church.”
In 2011, Jones retained the law firm of Feller & Wendt, telling them he wanted to return to court. His attorneys advised him against it, stating that it would cost a minimum of $2,500, with the result being that the courts would order a special master to get involved.
Instead, the lawyers arranged a visitation for Aug. 18, 2011, after Jones had been denied visitation for eight weeks. Jones says he waited 30 minutes after no one answered the door. Sharon’s attorney called Jones’ attorney, Jones says, and told him that the kids weren’t coming for their visitation. The attorney said the kids had phoned their mother to say they would lock themselves in the house and not answer the door, or go to the house of a friend where Jones could not find them.
Jones’ attorney then suggested retaining the special master and trying to resolve the situation with the efforts of a counselor, without going to court. He reasoned that if they later went to court, Jones would be able to show that he had already taken those steps, and the judge would be more likely to hold Sharon in contempt.
Jones agreed to forgo litigation as long as his kids were enrolled with a counselor who would work with both him and the kids to resolve whatever their issues were. But Jones says that Sharon continued “not scheduling the kids for regular sessions, stating that she would continue to be an advocate for the kids, sitting in on the counseling sessions with [Jeremy].” He adds that the children refused to have meetings with Jones in the counselor’s office.
According to e-mails between Brian Florence, the special master who worked with the Jones family, and Jones, the counselor said that he had exhausted his efforts to make any progress on the alienation/estrangement.
Florence wrote that the counselor “is not convinced that [Sharon] has not, in some unintentional way, caused the children to want nothing to do with their dad. ... I use the term estrangement, because everything that the counselor hears from the children falls into that category, i.e., David has caused them not to want to have anything to do with him.”
In counseling, the children said they didn’t want to see their father because he made them do their homework; stored a suitcase in the room where the boy slept, making him feel like he was sleeping in a storage closet; and canceled a skiing outing, causing them to say that because he canceled that time, he never did what he said he would do.
Jones followed the counselor’s suggestion to write his children a letter. They wrote back, but the counselor felt the letters were “too hurtful” and chose not to give them to Jones. In a joint e-mail to Jones and Sharon, Florence wrote that the letters were indeed hurtful, adding, “I would be less than candid if I didn’t tell you that I got the impression that they had adult help in saying what they did. The words used and contexts of their complaint felt to me to have come from someone older.”
For her part, Sharon declined to be interviewed by City Weekly for this story.
Where to Now?
Florence felt that Jones had reached the point where he could either back off efforts to see his children and hope that one day they would have some change of heart—or he could take legal steps to force his parent time. “Neither choice is appealing,” Florence wrote in an e-mail. “Each has downsides, and neither has any certain good side.”
Florence added that if Jones wanted to initiate the legal steps, he would suggest writing a report to the court explaining what had happened since his appointment and that no progress had been made. Florence wrote to Sharon stating that he was supportive of Jones seeing his children, and it was time that the children understood that there were potential legal consequences for their unwillingness to spend time with their father.
“In my view, there is a public purpose to be served here,” Florence wrote. “Children do not get to be in charge of their parental involvement. If a judge were to let them succeed here, then it will open the door for many other divorced parents to manipulate such a result.”
Jones returned to court again in summer 2012. He feels he didn’t get much support from the judge or the commissioner, who advised him that he could take the police with him to pick up the kids. Jones felt that forcibly removing the children with the help of the police would be even more damaging than the current situation.
Wharton says that no parent wants their child to associate them with having the police called. “If every time Dad comes to pick up the kids he has to have a cop with him, that doesn’t make parent time seem very fun,” he says.
Jones discovered the National Parents Organization while he was researching parental alienation on the Internet. When he began to notice that they were making “great progress” getting legislation passed to promote shared parenting (parenting by both parents) in other states, he contacted them to see if they were in the process of changing legislation in Utah.
When they told Jones they had acquired 74 names on their mailing list, but had no volunteers or supporters, he agreed to head the Utah organization. He will have the backing of a national organization that has already successfully lobbied and changed laws in other states when he seeks to change the Utah laws to make sure that they are administered fairly.
Jones instructs safety courses at his business. When he concludes each class, he tells a brief version of his custody battle and asks if anyone in the class is going through similar challenges. He has gathered nearly 400 signatures in support of noncustodial parents’ rights and passing family court reform legislation.
One man in Jones’ class paid child support but was not allowed to see his children for 13 years. When the children were over 18, he got a phone call that his daughter was sick and if he wanted to see her a final time, he needed to go to the hospital immediately. The only time he saw his daughter was on her deathbed, in a room full of people. He is currently trying to re-establish a relationship with his son, who is now over 18.
Jason, a father who is a student in Jones’ class, can hardly talk to his 10-year-old son on the phone, let alone see him. His ex often ignores his calls. “When I do get a call from [my son] on my birthday, she makes it so I can only talk a few minutes,” Jason says. “It’s always rush, rush. She’s always listening in on everything I say. She moves around with different cell phones, so I never know which phone to call.” Jason hasn’t seen his son since summer 2012. Christmas and Thanksgiving passed without his holiday visitation. After hearing that his Christmas gifts are always thrown in the garbage, he keeps them at his house to save them for his son.
Because his son lives in Vernal, Jason and his ex-wife decided that his son would stay in Vernal during the school year and spend summers with Jason. “Now, she wants me to split my visitation with some man she broke up with that she feels deserves time with my son,” he says. “She wants me to take that out of my time, not hers.”
Because Ian’s ex had a history of drug and alcohol problems that created an unstable environment for a child, a temporary order granted him full custody of his 3-year-old son for 19 months. Then the temporary order was dismissed without his notification, and his ex “came down and snatched him up,” he says. “During the 19 months he was with me, she only came to see him five times.” But when neither party showed up at the court date, she got her parental rights back, going from limited supervised visitation to having temporary joint custody.
“She won’t let me see him unless I take her back to court or sign the papers her attorney has come up with,” says Ian, who is currently trying to dispute the motion to vacate the dismissal of his ex’s parental rights. He says she owes him $6,200 in back child support for the 19 months he had full custody, without considering her share of the $4,800 he paid for child care during that time. “Yet if I ever told her I couldn’t pay her, she would call [the Office of Recovery Services] and they would garnish it out of my check.”
“These are the people we—and the National Parents Organization—want to help,” Jones says. “All of the parents whose basic parental rights have been taken from them.”
Jones hopes to work toward changing Utah’s laws, but acknowledges that his efforts may not be in time to affect his own situation.
Holstein says that if a parent is successful in alienating a child, it may take decades before the situation ever turns around. “You hear of a 40-year-old reconciling with her aged father after years of never talking or seeing each other,” he says.
Jones remains hopeful and confident that he will have a future relationship with his children. Because Melissa will turn 18 soon, he knows that he may or may not establish a relationship with her. He hopes that as his children get older, they will see how they were manipulated. “It hurts me most that my children felt that a family member was disposable,” he says. “That I could just be kicked to the curb with no remorse or guilt and with no opportunity to defend myself.”
Never Give Up
Looking back, Jones says he would have pushed harder when it first became difficult to see his kids, instead of following the advice of his attorney and counselors. He would have shown up with the police, if necessary, so that he could pick up the kids. He views time as his enemy and feels that the more time his children went without seeing him, the more time Sharon had to help turn them against him.
Jones advises other parents in his situation to never give up and to keep fighting to see their kids. He encourages any such parent to start the legal process as soon as possible. “Unfortunately, the legal process comes with a huge price tag, and many parents can’t afford that, so they walk away.”
Jones points out other pitfalls of court custody battles. “Judges never see the majority of evidence showing what goes on—they are only shown a brief summary that never makes the situation look as serious as it is. Our attorney told us he couldn’t submit all the evidence and e-mails, because judges and commissioners don’t like that. They want everything summed up in a few quick pages.”
He remembers with fondness a time when he and his kids went camping together before the divorce. He really wanted Jeremy to catch a fish. “He wasn’t having much luck,” Jones says. “Finally, there was a fish on my line. I went over and let him pull it in. Years later, after the divorce, Jeremy finally caught his own fish—without his father, while on a Boy Scout trip.
With Melissa, Jones recalls a time when he was assembling a desk for his office. He left the directions in the box, then tried to put the desk together without them. “It was a screw here and a screw there,” he says. Jones realized he needed the directions and went to get them. When he came back, Melissa “had all the screws in the right spots. She said, ‘This just kind of looked like where they would go.’ [Melissa] helped me rebuild cars. She was a good helper.”
While Jones cherishes these memories, he holds onto the hope that he will get the chance to build more memories in the future. “We hear so much about deadbeat dads not paying their child support—but we never hear about the dads who pay their child support and still don’t get to see their kids,” he says.
The National Parents Organization of Utah is next meeting Saturday, April 27, 9 a.m., at 400 W. Lawndale Drive to discuss organizing Utah family court legislation reforms.