California’s Cruel Custody Law
A 13-year-old finds herself trapped by her government’s rule of law.
Allie Harwell is almost 13 years old, I have known her since she was 9. I was her teacher once, but I don’t do that anymore. Time passes and so do most of the faces. There are some kids, though, like Allie, whom you don’t forget.
In any case, Allie is nearly 13, not old enough in the state of California to drink or drive or vote. And not old enough to have any say-so about where she lives—that is, which of her divorced parents she lives with. In California they split her up, pretty much half and half, regardless of what’s going on in the two places she lives.
For a long time now Allie has been worried about things that a kid her age should not have to worry about. She worries for instance about what her mother brings into the house. Her boyfriend Javier, for instance.
Kristina Harwell is late thirties, Javier is mid-twenties or so. Mom is a late-thirties dropout—she has dropped out of most everything she ever started—and works part time these days as a hair stylist at a place called Kuality Kutz. Javier is not currently employed. No one will accuse either of them of careerism, but is that enough in common for a relationship?
Not long ago Allie’s mother brought Javier home, again—they’d split the sheets, then made up, which was something that had happened before, and probably would again. Allie was not overcome with joy to see Javier again—she did not much like the way he had been studying her lately—and was not overjoyed to see that her mom had also brought home a handgun. “What’s that for?” said Allie, meaning the gun. They both already knew what Javier was for. He feels at home here and had already walked into mom’s bedroom.
Mom local rolled her eyes and put the gun in the top shelf of the front closet. “For protection,” she said. “Duh…”
They say Duh quite a bit at the Harwells’s.
The only person who might need to be shot was Javier, and he and Mom were all back in love. Javier has left the bedroom door open and when Allie glimpses him in there, he is chewing his toenails with his teeth. Allie doesn’t like Javier much but she has to admit he’s flexible.
The gun discussion is not over, and Allie can see her mother is becoming annoyed. They are together two days a week, Monday and Tuesday, and every other weekend, and she knows the symptoms.
Mom says, “Look, little Miss-I’m-Smarter-Then-Everybody-In-the-Goddamn-World, I’m a single mother. Who’s going to protect us from the illegals around here, in case they come in looking for somebody to rape?”
Allie went quiet. When her mother gets like this it is best to keep your head down and your mouth shut. A moment passed though, and her mother sat down on Allie’s bed. Oh, Jesus no. A mother-daughter talk.
“Sweetheart, it’s a Beretta,” Mom says. “It’s Italian.”
The days Allie spends with her mother seem longer than the days with her dad. Without knowing she’s doing it, she calls one place “my mom’s house” and the other place “home.” At her father’s house—home—dinner is at 6 o’clock, bedtime is 8:30. She and her dad play basketball after homework. They take road trips in summer. The time goes by unnoticed until Sunday evening rolls around and she begins to realize that the next two days are going to be spent with Mom and Javier. The weekends over there are pointless, a waste of time.
Allie is clean by nature; her room is as neat in one place as the other. The one in her mother’s smells though like dog piss, and there’s nothing she can do about it, and actually nothing the dog can do about it either. Rusty is a small dog—a Chihuahua—but little dogs have to go too, and when Allie is at school or at her dad’s place and Kristina is out for the night, Rusty does what he has to do, and for reasons unknown he does it in Allie’s room.
Allie was 6 when her father filed for divorce. It was not a friendly split.
Overnight Allie went from being a kid to the one who had to tell mom to stop for redlights, to watch where she was driving. She was the one who had to figure out somewhere to fall asleep in a house full of drunken adults. (She prefers an upstairs closet. She has also tried the spare bathroom, but often her mother’s friends found it anyway, turned on the lights and used the toilet even with the kid lying in the tub under a blanket.)
She was 10 when her mother got pregnant again, a brother. Allie’s mother calls Jaxson her “accident in diapers,” and if you can call a baby born into this kind of life lucky, then Jaxson is lucky because two days a week and every other weekend his older sister is there to take care of him. And protect him. And so she speaks up when her mother blows through a red light, or when she wakes Allie and Jaxson up and drags them somewhere in the middle of the night, or, for that matter, brings home a Beretta. Allie walks a narrow line in this, protecting Jaxson but careful not to infuriate her mother with something her mother calls that look. Mom doesn’t always like the way her daughter looks at her when she reminds her the stoplight is red, or the dog hasn’t been let outside, or that Jaxson hasn’t eaten breakfast. And suddenly Mom just blows up. As in: “What the fuck is your problem?”
The same words she said when Allie—awakened at 3 a.m. last year—went into the living room to see why her mother was vacuuming the house: “What the fuck is your problem?” Only this time she screamed it, over the vacuum. And this time she picked a pair of scissors off the kitchen counter and threw them, more or less in Allie’s direction. The scissors hit the dry wall and Allie retreated to Jaxson’s room, where she spent the rest of the night curled up with her brother and the Chihuahua, Jaxson and Rusty, in Jaxson’s crib.
After Allie told her father about the scissors he called Child Protective Services and hired a lawyer, trying to find a way around California’s 50/50 custody rules. He said he would go to court, even go back to the “mediator,” which in this case at least was nothing but an uninterested state bureaucrat there for the paycheck, apparently blind to the danger. And unwilling to make waves, even with a kid’s life—now two kids’ lives—in the balance.
Two months later Allie’s father had run out of places to go: The mediator was a dead end, Family Court said that since neither of the kids had visible bruises, Allie’s mother wasn’t breaking any laws—could not be proved to be breaking any laws—and nothing could be done. Allie accepted that, and even admitted she had been afraid of winning in court. “At least I’m there half the time,” she said. “If I wasn’t there, there would be nobody protecting Jaxson at all.”
Allie is beginning 7th grade. Javier, who had moved out after an argument, has moved back in. Smokes all the time. “He says he’ll quit if my mom will marry him,” she says. “I said, ‘Smoke on.’”
Recently Javier was roughhousing with little Jaxson and broke his leg.
And here Allie is, not 13 yet, part-time protector of her 3-year-old brother, living with full-time anxiety, while the state of California is patting itself on the back for its progressive handling of child custody. Allie doesn’t think about it long-term, it’s too big. She just plugs along, day by day.
Putting up with the yelling, watching out for flying scissors.
And what about Jaxson? What if there is another broken leg?
Allie does not want to think about that, and mumbles when she answers.
“At least I know where to find a Beretta,” she says.