Fatherly frustration

Non-custodial dads angry over decisions made in Family Court seek possible recall of a Washoe County judge

Photo By David Robert

Nevadans for Equal Parenting meets at 6 p.m. the first Tuesday of the month at the Sparks Library. More info at www.nevadansforequalparenting.org or call 224-1635.

It’s after work on a Tuesday night, and the men—utility designer, doctor, disposal service worker, former attorney, truck driver and others—aren’t meeting at a local bar for a cold draft. They’ve come straight from work to the Sparks Library to unload about their latest battle in Family Court.

Lyle is new to this group, Nevadans for Equal Parenting. He tells how his wife, a stay-home mom, neglected his two children. Lyle, 41, says he came home from work one day to find his two toddlers in diapers that hadn’t been changed all day. Excrement was encrusted in their genitals, he says. When he argued with his wife about this, fearing that the children would be taken from them by social services, his wife turned angry and violent. He says he didn’t hit his wife, but he did push and lock her outside before turning his attention to bathing the children and getting them ready for bed.

The wife filed for a temporary protection order, took the children and left the state. Lyle hasn’t seen his children since. He fears there’s nothing he can do. He worries about his kids.

“I know there are two sides to every story,” he says. “That’s my side. … If my kids were old enough, I know they’d choose me. I’ve seen my wife push away our 3-year-old and say, ‘Get the fuck away from me.’

“They say I was controlling. And I was—trying to control my wife’s abuse.”

Lyle’s story mirrors many others, says Dave Richards, 39, a co-founder of Nevadans for Equal Parenting. The men who come to these monthly meetings are a small portion of those who feel they’ve been ill-treated by Nevada’s court system.

“We’re here to let them know they’ve got support,” Richards says. “Because there is none for non-custodial parents in this town.”

It’s often hard to get men to step up and fight for their kids.

“They’re broke and scared to death of Family Court,” Richards says.

While the men talk in small groups, some pass around a stapled sheaf of paper—a guide to recalling an elected official in Nevada. That’s because, Richards says, there’s one Washoe County judge in particular about which Richards hears a lot of complaints. That’d be Judge Charles McGee, who was convicted for a drunk-driving incident on Dec. 23—after recently completing a stay in a rehabilitation clinic. NEP members think it’s irresponsible for McGee to be allowed to make decisions that so dramatically affect the lives of families and children in Washoe County.

To force a recall vote, the group would have to gather about 30,000 signatures in 90 days. Richards says NEP is contacting other groups to recruit volunteers for the signature drive.

A Reno doctor tells how he tried to make a case for custody of his children in McGee’s courtroom. But McGee, the doctor says, wouldn’t listen, and he questions whether the judge reads case files. In his case, the judge forgot to set exact times for visitation, once stipulating a generic “Sunday” for a visit’s end before being reminded to denote a specific time on Sunday.

“In court yesterday, I accused my wife of being an alcoholic and beating our kids,” the doctor, who didn’t want his name in this story, says. “Here’s an alcoholic deciding whether my wife is an alcoholic and sending the kids back to her.”

It’s not that the men think McGee needs to be removed from the bench altogether—just take him out of Family Court, the doctor says. “I don’t mind if he adjudicates traffic mishaps.”

McGee attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings nearly every day. He sees a psychiatrist once a week and takes a Breathalyzer test in the mornings before taking the bench.

The judge tells the RN&R that he reads every case that comes before him, unless he’s already familiar with the content of a large file—and he currently has 1,800 pending cases. He’s surprised that this group of fathers has chosen him for an attack—and thinks that its “absolutely” related to his recent drunk driving conviction.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and no one’s complained before,” he says. Of family court judges, McGee says he has the best reputation as a protector of fathers’ rights. When a woman files for an ex parte restraining order, telling only her side of the story, she’s given custody of the children until an investigation can be done. The driving idea behind this is to make sure women are protected.

“But it builds in an inequity against some men,” McGee says, “and I argued against that—in favor of abolishing that part of the system.”

McGee didn’t prevail in that argument.

“The domestic violence advocates and their constituency prevailed,” he says. “There are going to be cases where someone lies and these guys do not get a fair shake. I don’t know how to change that. No one in the nation knows how to change that.”

Richards, who has a 4-year-old daughter, says his ex-girlfriend has done everything possible to keep him out of his daughter’s life. He’ll be back in court arguing for visitation in February but says, “it’s a very ugly case.”

Richards says that he supported his ex-girlfriend when she was unemployed. After they broke up, he paid her bills for two years, he says, so that his daughter would have a place to live.

After all of this, during a settlement conference, the dad recounts that McGee made him feel like a deadbeat dad.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to give you a chance to be a father,’ “ Richards says. “He ignored [all I’d done] and insulted me by saying he’d ‘give me a chance.’ To this day, that rankles. It irks me.”

McGee says he doesn’t recall the specific conversation.

“If something in that vein were said, it would be that he has a chance to regain the status of a parent,” he says. “When we err, and we sometimes err, we err on the side of child protection.”

McGee couldn’t comment on the specifics of Richards’ case.

“My quandary is that I’m in the public eye,” he says. “My conviction for drunk driving makes me newsworthy, I guess. … But I have to think about a 4-year-old girl.”

Richards acknowledges that McGee and other Family Court judges face a stressful and mind-boggling backlog of cases.

“Judge McGee may be a nice guy who’s done good over the years despite his own personal problems,” he says. “But he should not be deciding people’s fates for the rest of their lives.”

McGee says he meets once a month with a Bench and Bar Committee that provides checks and balances to the judicial community. That’s one place folks who feel they’ve been unjustly treated can take their gripes. To McGee’s knowledge, the Nevadans for Equal Parenting have never done so. McGee says that, if they’d approach him, he’d “see to it that they’re given a special chance to air grievances.”

“If anything positive can come out of this, so that we are made aware of problems that are fixable, then I’m behind it," the judge says.