.A Father’s Quest

The case of Arianas Campos-Reese and his son Tyberius illustrates what's wrong with family court.

On October 10, 2009, the mother of Tyberius Campos-Reese was arrested for prostitution in Hayward. Four days later, his father, Arianas Campos-Reese, filed for sole legal and physical custody of Tyberius. But the court denied his request on the very next day, and on October 16 Arianas was forced to return three-year-old Tyberius to his mother’s care, a weekly exchange that can now happen only at the Hayward police station.

Arianas lives for Thursdays and Fridays. Those are the days of the week that he gets to make Tyberius dinner, take him to the movies, and tuck him in for the night. He’s got two days each week to rest easy with the knowledge that his son is safe under his eye. The other five days of the week, he worries.

For more than two years, the 27-year-old father has been trying to prove his case for full custody in family court. He’s got a record of steady employment, a stable home, and a meticulously kept paper trail of the events of the last 29 months. He appears in family court so often that the clerks know him by name. Other fathers he sees there tell him to just pay his child support and move on. They are tired, broken men who are almost always older than him and have learned the hard way that fathers rarely win in court.

Should fathers cast aside in service of the goal of maintaining the relationship between mothers and their children simply accept their fate and move on?

Arianas is not the kind of father who can fathom “moving on” from his son. His life evolves around Tyberius. With his XXL frame and tightly braided cornrows, he doesn’t appear to be the type of guy who’d cradles his son’s small body as delicately as he’d handle a blown-glass egg. But when he glances at Tyberius, the way his eyes melt at the corners give him away. Arianas knows that Tyberius’ favorite flavor of ice cream is strawberry, and that he loves watching Thomas the Tank Engine but is afraid of trains in real life. He cherishes those details as fiercely as he guards his son’s safety.

The father’s deep-seated fear for his son’s safety has driven him to plead with the court, argue with the court, and ultimately stand in open defiance of the court’s orders when he felt that he had no other choice.

“No one wants to acknowledge that a single, biracial man who’s this passionate about his child might be on to something,” Arianas said. “How does this happen? How many chances does a woman get to show she’s an unfit mother?”

In the Alameda County Family Court system, she can get plenty. The October 15 hearing at which Tenesha Self once again received primary custody of her son was merely her latest chance in a string of escalating incidents that have lasted almost as long as her young son’s life.

Arianas says he tried to work things out when, in 2007, the child’s mother began staying out all night and receiving strange phone calls. When he discovered that the 23-year-old Self was seeing another man, he says he hoped they could remain civil for the sake of their son.

But when his former fiancée left with Tyberius one day in July 2007 and didn’t return, Arianas panicked. He didn’t trust Self’s new boyfriend, but without solid proof that something was wrong, he could only wait for Self to come home. Two days later, she returned with Tyberius, but in the meantime, Arianas had stopped trusting the mother of his child.

So the couple separated, and thus began a saga of disputes involving the particulars of shared custody. Arianas filed a motion in family court for full custody of Tyberius. Police records show that Self dropped out of sight with Tyberius twice more, once for an entire week. Arianas said he began receiving threats over the phone. Accusations flew between the parents that the other was incapable of providing a good home for their son. Throughout it all, Arianas remained certain that the cards would fall his way once the issue was resolved in court.

But that hasn’t happened.

To Mike McCormick, the executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group, this situation is all too familiar. “The attitude of the court toward fathers is ‘You don’t know it yet, but the court is going to manage your relationship with your child,'” he said. “And by that they mean that the mother will by and large retain custody of her child, without much or any consideration of her actions that may contrast with her ability to parent. … Even if he is the better parent, because he is the father he has to be much, much, much, much better to even be considered equal to the mother of his child.”

McCormick said there’s a point in some custody disputes at which action is necessary. He calls that moment “the throw-up threshold.” But in the case involving Tyberius Campos-Reese, neglect, dishonesty, gunplay, and prostitution haven’t been enough to cross the threshold.

September 13, 2007

At the estranged couple’s first court date at the Hayward Hall of Justice, Self, who declined to comment for this story, was a no-show. The court date was re-assigned to November 15, when she and Arianas met with a family mediator.

Family mediators are assigned by the court to assist parents whenever custody, visitation, or guardianship issues arise. The mediator is usually a family court counselor whose stated goal is to help negotiate a mutually agreeable plan for the child. Arianas recalled being eager to explain his situation to the mediator.

The first mediation report, prepared on November 17, 2007 by counselor Alicia Howard, stretched over five pages and detailed Arianas’ concerns about Self’s ability to parent. The report noted that Self had allowed Arianas to care for Tyberius almost exclusively during September, and recommended that Self receive just one day and night per week of visitation time with her son. Howard questioned the mother’s attachment to Tyberius, while noting that the parents’ work schedules and the distance between their homes were the main reasons that an equal custody split wasn’t recommended.

However, Commissioner Elizabeth Hendrickson reviewed the report and disregarded Howard’s recommendation, assigning joint legal and physical custody rights to the parents. Basing her decision on the work schedule of both parents, she gave Self custody Tuesday night through Friday morning, with Arianas retaining custody the rest of the week.

Alameda County Family Law Court serves the residents of fourteen cities and a population of almost 1.5 million. Every year its judges hear thousands of custody cases in a system so overcrowded that many officials share the priority of clearing the docket as swiftly as possible. In the county’s system, a judge looks to the reports of mediators and typically takes their word as gospel. But that didn’t happen in the case of Tyberius Campos-Reese. In fact, to Arianas, the judge seemed to be working against his interests from the very moment he first walked into family court.

Critics of the court say that sort of thing happens all too often. “The court isn’t getting it right,” said Alameda County Supervisor Gail Steele, an outspoken advocate for family court reform. “In fact, 80 percent of the time they get it wrong.”

Steele isn’t just pulling that number out of thin air. A nationwide council of judges examined the workings of family court and support the statistic that 70 to 80 percent of children at the center of contested cases in family court are placed with an abusing parent. And once the court has made one parent the primary custody holder, that parent carries a strong set of legal presumptions that are very difficult to overturn.

January 9, 2008

Joint custody of Tyberius worked out for less than six months. When a shooting occurred outside Arianas’ Oakland home following a rocky January 9 custody exchange between the parents, the father went into defense mode. He reported the shooting to police, but with nothing other than his suspicions to go on, Arianas decided that moving to a safer neighborhood in Richmond was the best thing he could do to protect Tyberius.

Despite such drama, Arianas said he and Self tentatively got along between January and May 2008. They’d both abided by the rules of the joint custody agreement and had even made plans to go on a family trip to the zoo. But then, in early May, Self lost her job, and things started sliding downhill.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Arianas called Self’s cell phone and her boyfriend picked up. According to his subsequent statement to police, Arianas could hear Tyberius screaming and Self laughing in the background, and he became sick with worry about his son. His fear took him straight to her doorstep, he recalls, but Self wouldn’t open the door. So Arianas left and sent the police to her house to check up on his son’s welfare. During the three hours it took for the police to confirm that Tyberius was okay, Arianas received a text message from Self that read “You’re never going to see your bastard son again.”

Two days later, when it was time for their exchange of custody, Arianas told police that Self didn’t appear at the agreed-upon meeting place. The police report shows that officers contacted Self and asked her why she wasn’t complying with the terms of the custody agreement, but after that Arianas was on his own.

Arianas said he spent a frustrating day getting the runaround from police, who by that point were tired of his calls. First they left on another call and promised to return. But when they did return, he was told that his court-issued custody order was invalid because it didn’t have a state seal. After Arianas got a state seal and called the police back, he was then told that only the department’s civil division handles custody issues. He said he kept calling and even drove to Hilltop Mall hoping to find an officer to talk to. Finally, at 6 p.m. on Friday, the police agreed to accompany Arianas to Self’s home. At that point, she had been in violation of the court order for almost twelve hours. Self argued with the police officers who came to her door and was led away in handcuffs.

When the police brought Tyberius out of the house, Arianas saw that all of the hair on his seventeen-month-old son’s head had been shaved off. “Coming at the end of that day, seeing him like that was hard to take,” Arianas recalled. “We had an agreement not to cut his hair, and I knew she had done it just to spite me. A haircut is a scary thing for a baby, and he had nicks and cuts on his head. I was so afraid that something worse was going to happen.”

The following Monday, Arianas filed once again for full custody.

May 13, 2008

As Arianas waited to hear back about his petition, Self’s time with Tyberius began on Tuesday evening. Arianas said he requested in advance that the police be present at his home for the child’s transfer. Because of the incident the previous week, the police had advised Arianas to request their presence whenever he and Self met to exchange Tyberius. When the police did not arrive on time for the standby, Arianas kept Tyberius inside the house with his mother, while he waited outside. Self also arrived late, but even so, the police had still not appeared by the time she got there. When she arrived, Arianas again called the police again and waited outside his home with her.

Arianas recalls standing outside the house, bickering with Self as they awaited the police. Meanwhile, according to the police report, Arianas’ mother called 911 to ask where the police were. Records show that Self also called 911 to ask the same question.

Self’s boyfriend, Keith Andre Dixon, evidently had been sitting in her car the whole time. Arianas told police that Dixon got out of the car and started walking toward them in the dark. “He gets out of the car and starts yelling things — ‘Your baby was sitting on my lap last week; I’m the new father now’ — things like that,” Arianas recounted in a police report filed later that day. “We’re arguing, and next thing I know I hear a gun click.”

Records show that Arianas told police that Dixon was standing next to Self, about ten feet away from Arianas, when he aimed a 9 mm Luger and started shooting. A mixture of scorn and relief still catches in Arianas’ throat as he remembers how Dixon somehow missed him, then got into Self’s green 1999 Honda Civic and drove away with her.

Arianas was halfway into his house to see if a stray bullet had hit his son or his mother when a squad car pulled up, according to the police report. They had literally passed the Honda on the way down the street. Arianas said he gave them all the information they needed — the car Dixon had been driving, descriptions of Self and Dixon. But he says that the officers never interviewed his mother or entered his home to check on the welfare of his son. Even though Self’s 911 call placed her at the scene, Arianas was dismayed that they didn’t seek her out for a statement or track down Dixon.

The bullets that had whizzed past the father’s ears while his son’s mother stood by and watched had reignited his determination to stand his ground. So one day after the shooting, Arianas returned to court with the police report about the incident and temporarily won full custody until a new court date on June 2. At the next mediation session, Arianas was determined to see that Self’s custody be restricted. He felt that she had been a participant in an incident that had directly threatened his life, and to him, it suggested that Tyberius might one day end up in danger as well. Arianas requested that Self receive a psychological exam and be prohibited from seeing Tyberius except in the presence of a county employee.

May 29, 2008

The report by court-appointed mediator James Fiero described the shooting, along with the charges against Self of resisting arrest and violation of a court order. As both parents stood again in front of Commissioner Hendrickson four days later, on June 2, she read the mediator’s report that concluded that “the mediator is not at this time inclined to support the father’s varied requests. … The information presented does not appear to indicate that either parent has been delinquent in their care of Tyberius.”

Arianas’ nightmare was unfolding before his eyes. “I was standing there crying, telling them about the shooting, my ex was standing there with a blank look on her face, and it just seemed like the judge wasn’t listening,” he said. “They were saying there was no reason why I should get full custody. At that point, the courts were telling me to hand my son over to an unsafe and dangerous environment. I couldn’t see myself giving my son to a person who might bring guns around him.”

But a parent’s fear is not enough evidence to prompt a family court judge into action. This is the crux of the court’s worst problem; unless abuse has occurred, most judges turn away.

“One hour in mediation is not sufficient to sort out what’s in the best interests of the child,” said Kathleen Russell, of the Center for Judicial Excellence, who has worked with hundreds of parents who have faced similar stalemates. “There needs to be more adequate time and accountability to fix this crisis in our court system. Parents need more information; a lot of the time they have no idea that their hour with the mediator could end up being the most important hour of their life.”

After the judge’s last ruling, Arianas felt out of choices. He had followed all the rules, but was still being forced to place his son in a potentially unsafe situation. He was sick of seeing no results come from his efforts to comply with court process. So he made what he now realizes was a major mistake.

For the next five months, he openly defied the joint custody order by keeping Tyberius under his care full-time. He returned to mediation and appeared in front of Commissioner Hendrickson several more times, repeatedly stating his concerns about the shooting and the welfare of his son. And several times, he received visits from patrol officers who informed him that he was violating a court order, but then took no action after Arianas explained that his case involved an ongoing investigation concerning the shooting and custody rights.

“From the day after the shooting, I was on Richmond Police Detective Timothy Gray, and his Sergeant Brian Dickerson, calling them, giving them every bit of information I could gather,” Arianas recalled. “My focus was to keep my son away from a potentially dangerous situation.”

In a third mediation report by Olga Paredes that harshly criticized both parents as immature, reactive, and lacking sound judgment, the mediator nonetheless opined that “the child may actually be better off in Mr. Campos-Reese’s care” and recommended temporary physical custody remain with Arianas until the investigation of the shooting was completed. But, with no explanation required, Commissioner Hendrickson again made the rare move of overruling the mediator’s recommendation and reinstated joint custody on July 3 and again on August 31.

Commissioner Hendrickson declined to comment for this story, noting that no judge or commissioner can publicly comment on cases over which they are presiding. However, litigants have the right to ask any court to render a “statement of decision,” which is intended to serve as an explanation of sorts. When Arianas pleaded for a simple explanation of Commissioner Hendrickson’s decision-making process, he was dismissed.

Russell likens the general lack of accountability to the Catholic Church pedophile scandal. “This problem is system-wide,” she said. “There is a total lack of any culture in which authority can be questioned. There is no accountability for the players involved, and it’s easy for a number of things to overrule sound decision making.”

Stories such as this are prime examples of what County Supervisor Steele calls court-sanctioned child abuse. “This is the toughest court in the world because the secrets of a family are never black and white,” she said. “But the courts need to start articulating their decisions; they can’t just say, ‘You’re denied.’ There needs to be accountability in our court system.”

Steele is gathering a group of parents in situations similar to Arianas’ to create a critical voice. She also is pushing to create a council of three high-powered figures in the court system to oversee difficult custody cases and be granted the power to make the court take a step back.

Without any system of judicial checks and balances in place, Arianas can only speculate that he faces racial discrimination, a built-in bias against fathers, or that the commissioner simply does not believe him.

However, Glenn Sacks, the executive director of the advocacy group Fathers & Families, one of the country’s leading voices for family court reform, cautions that race is often less relevant than people suspect. “There’s really no race in family court,” he said. “Everyone gets raked over the coals. We see this all the time, the stereotypes in the media about black fathers running out on their children, and there are certainly irresponsible fathers out there. But a hell of a lot of black fathers make an effort to be fathers for their kids. The problem is that the whole system is against them.”

October 2, 2008

Arianas appeared in court again to repeat his plea that he receive temporary full custody of Tyberius until completion of the shooting investigation. Instead, he was placed in handcuffs, strip searched, and sent to a holding cell at the Hayward Courthouse. Child Abduction Unit inspector Rick Monge met with Arianas after he was taken into custody, and waved a charge of felony child abduction in his face. But Monge also offered Arianas a deal, and told him that things wouldn’t have to go that far if he gave up Tyberius immediately. He was then sent to Santa Rita Jail for the night for violating a court-ordered custody agreement.

The morning after his first-ever night in jail, Arianas asked if the deal was still available. He felt backed into a corner.

“As a father, I only get one chance to mess up,” he said. “If I got charged with a felony, I’d never see my son again. They forced me to give him up, to hand him over to someone who wasn’t taking care of him. It was the most horrible experience of my life.”

In the meantime, Self was granted full custody.

Arianas did not see Tyberius for two months. As his son’s second birthday passed by, Arianas threw himself into finding some way to regain custody. Family attorneys wouldn’t take his case because of the ongoing criminal shooting investigation. Criminal attorneys wouldn’t listen to him because his case came from family court. The attorneys who were willing to help asked for thousands of dollars in retainers.

“I work full-time, nights and weekends as a security guard,” said Arianas. “But I still don’t have money for a retainer. So I called everyone I could think of for help. I asked “7 On Your Side” to take on my story; I wrote a letter to the office of Jerry Brown that included every police and mediation report I had. I talked to one attorney who was referred by Bay Area Legal Aid; he said he wouldn’t take my case because he did too much business with Elizabeth Hendrickson and he didn’t want to make her mad.”

Sacks believes that what Arianas really needed was a good attorney who could go in and kick some butt. “One of the things we want to do with Fathers & Families is set up a legal fund for fathers in situations like this,” he said. “What we need are funds to help people like Arianas, but those funds just don’t exist yet.”

Russell agrees that such a need exists. “Eighty percent of litigants in California are self-represented,” Russell said. “It’s a huge crisis that people are having to conduct their own trials and become law students to seek justice. Many of those who can afford attorneys are preyed upon by the system. I speak with parents every day who have spent thousands, and hundreds of thousands, of dollars in court fighting for their child. And, for whatever reason, the parent that is more of a danger is the one that the child most often ends up with.”

And so, Arianas once again represented himself on December 8 as he stood in front of Commissioner Hendrickson. The judge told him that threatening to bring charges against him had been a way to get his attention. She then reinstated her previous ruling, but granted Self custody of Tyberius five days per week. Arianas was assigned the other two days.

“It felt like they were punishing me for being a vigilante,” Arianas said. “They told me that I couldn’t use the shooting as a reason to keep my son. But it’s the shooting that made me fear for my son’s life. It was the shooting that they were still failing to investigate.”

January 25, 2009

Richmond Detective Timothy Gray appeared in court and stated that despite several interviews with Self about the shooting, she had not been honest with him. In fact, she stated that she was unaware of any shooting or incident on May 13. But the police report stated that Dixon had confirmed his relationship with Self, which directly contradicted her statement. It was revealed that Dixon had recently been convicted of unrelated firearm and drug charges, and was serving time in jail.

Arianas was finally allowed to testify about the shooting in April 2009. He picked Dixon out of a police lineup, and statements were taken from Arianas’ mother and a neighbor who had witnessed the shooting. Twelve months after the fact, Dixon was charged with and convicted of shooting at an inhabited dwelling — not attempted murder, not child endangerment. Self was never questioned or asked to testify about the investigation. Meanwhile, in August 2009, Dixon was released on time served.

Dixon maintains that he has had no contact with Self, Arianas, or their son since that time. “Everything is over and done with between me and him,” Dixon said. “I’ve stayed away from her and her kid since I got out of jail. Every time he says something about me, I’ve got my probation officer calling me and asking what’s going on. There’s nothing going on anymore, period.”

As for Self, she has never made an effort to obtain full custody of Tyberius. During multiple requests for an interview for this story, she declined to discuss her custody case or arrest record. Her sole comment was “Fuck you and your newspaper. You, your newspaper, and my child’s father can kiss my ass and go to hell!”

October 15, 2009

While looking for information to support his court case that fall, Arianas discovered in public records that Self had been picked up in Stanislaus County and cited for loitering with intent of prostitution on May 19, 2009. Her only other citation on record before that date was a ticket for driving with Tyberius unsecured in a car seat. But those points counted solely as circumstantial evidence until October, when Arianas found more evidence documenting the mother’s history of prostitution: the October 10 arrest in Hayward for prostitution.

After Arianas’ emergency motion for full custody was denied on October 15, a hearing date of November 24 was scheduled. He and Self were meant to attend a mediation session on the day of the hearing but, with no mediators available, the couple went straight into court.

A frustrated atmosphere pervaded Commissioner Hendrickson’s courtroom as Arianas and Self waited to be heard. Arianas had Self’s arrest record in hand, which documented the two prostitution-related charges. He had documentation of her lying in court. Her unemployment had stretched on over a year. She had a proven association with a known felon. Her address was unknown. Meanwhile, Arianas was ready to repeat that he had steady employment, a clean criminal record, and a stable home to provide for his son.

But after a cursory look at the paperwork, Commissioner Hendrickson told Arianas and Self that she sees mothers and fathers every day who do things that she doesn’t think are morally right, but that alone wouldn’t make her change their custody agreement. She informed Arianas that, if he didn’t like her decision, he could leave.

So despite all the facts, and all the events that preceded them, full or even equal custody of Tyberius still hangs just out of reach for Arianas. He wishes that he could get somewhere, anywhere, in this process, even if it was just a simple shift in joint custody to award him more time with his son. Instead, Arianas continues to hand Tyberius over to Self five days per week at the Hayward police station. He tries to believe that the tables will eventually turn in his favor, and tries not to let his worries consume him.

“The whole Alameda Family Court System is a joke,” Arianas said. “This system is not operating in the best interests of the child. I’ve heard Commissioner Hendrickson tell other men they can’t keep coming into her courtroom and filing. Why not? It’s her job to hear these cases. She doesn’t seem to understand that I’ll keep fighting for my son forever.”


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