Fighting over child custody and visitation is painful under even the best of circumstances, but attorneys and parents say the coronavirus pandemic has brought more stress, more fear, and more "live ammunition" to the battlefield.
That has certainly been true for divorced Austin dad, "M," who asked that his real name not be used to protect his son's privacy.
M dropped his preteen off at the boy's mother's house after a regularly scheduled visit in March. Then M didn't get to see his son again until Independence Day.
Instead of returning the son to his dad two weeks later, as agreed in a hard-fought custody order, M's ex-wife refused to release the child, who has a medical condition that puts him at risk if he catches COVID.
"She said, 'You can't see your kid because of COVID. I'm not going to let you have him at all," said M. "The pandemic helped her use his health against me."
A high level of fear
Austin family attorney Robert Luther said situations like M's have become a regular occurrence.
"There's a lot of acrimony out there, caused by the philosophical and political positions relative to the pandemic," said Luther. "Everybody's fear level is super high, or their defensiveness is super high. It's one or the other."
And if it was bad in the beginning, when canceled schools in March threw custody agreements into chaos, then it's even worse now with the latest surge in numbers, Luther said.
Arrangements between parents who disagree on how to handle the pandemic—or who just don't trust each other—were uncomfortable, but the parents had resigned themselves to it for a few months, he said.
Now trust is eroding, he said.
"This new level of long-term fear has affected a whole different round of people, I think, who thought they were being optimistic," he said. "And now being optimistic is really hard to do."
Help from the courts
In April, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that— without hearings—custody agreements must be honored, regardless of pandemic orders or school calendars.
It helped M, whose relationship with his son had been relegated to texting and Zoom. In June, a judge threatened to hold his ex-wife in contempt if she tried it again, and said M could make up the lost time, according to court records.
The judge also directed him to have a COVID-19 test before another overnight visit with his son.
An uneasy arrangement
Austin mom Jodi has been uncomfortable for months about sending her two young kids to spend time with her estranged husband, who she believes is too cavalier about the virus.
As the numbers have spiked, so have her fears. But there is no written visitation agreement, and the uneasy cooperation that allows them fairly equal time with the kids is precarious. A custody agreement is likely in the future, when a divorce gets filed, and it's vital to her that they stay on good terms.
"I don't agree with how he's handling it, but I don't want to fight," said Jodi, who also asked that her full name not be used to protect her children.
New lines of communication
Some divorced parents have found a way through years of anger and hurt, finding that the pandemic has opened up new lines of communication that benefit the kids.
Anthony and My-Cherie Haley have worked hard to make things easy during this uncertain time, they said. A birthday party and a Pre-K graduation spent together with the kids during lockdown would have been unheard of in the five years since the divorce.
"It's not been bad for us, interestingly," Anthony Haley said. "All that's just been put aside, and we're just working together on all of it. It's the only way to make it through this."
Said My-Cherie Haley with a laugh: "Was it always hunky-dory? No. But we've been really flexible with each other because of this pandemic."
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By Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission was split Tuesday on whether to help save an eclectic lakefront estate from demolition by zoning it historic amid concerns over tax breaks and the likelihood that a previous owner participated in segregation as a business owner.
The property in question, known as the Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and Modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. A Gothic Revival accessory apartment was built in 1946. The current owner applied to demolish the structures in order to build a new home.'
Historic preservationists, for their part, overwhelmingly support historic zoning, which would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features and association to historic figures. City staffers recommend historic zoning, calling both structures one-of-a-kind examples of vernacular architecture.
Tarrytown neighbors have also banded together to stop the demolition. Many have written letters, and a few spoke at the meeting. “How could anyone buy this property with the intent of destroying it?” Ila Falvey said. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”
Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said that the claims made by preservationists are shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have had substantial renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve tearing down and rebuilding – an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.
Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner C.H. Slator is dubious. “These men are not noted for any civic, philanthropic or historic impact,” he said.
What’s more, according to Whellan, Slator likely participated in segregation as the owner of the Tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.
A city staffer, however, said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never landmark a property where a segregationist lived, or there was a racist person,” Kimberly Collins with the Historic Preservation Office said.
Commissioner Awais Azhar couldn’t support historic zoning in part due to lingering uncertainty about Slator. “Focusing on that factor is not here to disparage an individual or family. It is not about playing the race card. This is an important assertion for us to consider as Planning commissioners,” Azhar said.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said that allegations of racism should come as no surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in the 1950s, in Austin, on the west side – and of course they were racist,” she said. But she argued that allowing the house to be demolished based on these grounds does nothing to help people of color who have been harmed by racism and segregation.
The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said that the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting property tax burdens to less affluent communities. City staffers estimate that the property, appraised at $3.5 million, would get either a $8,500 or $16,107 property tax break annually, depending on whether a homestead exemption is applied.
Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the commission focus not on tax breaks but on whether the structures merit preservation. “To me, nothing in the historic preservation criteria lists, is this person deserving of a tax break or not?”
Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code amendment getting rid of city property tax breaks for historic properties.
The commission fell one vote short of recommending historic zoning, with six commissioners in support and three opposed. Azhar and commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.
The odds of City Council zoning over an owner’s wishes are slim. Nine out of 11 members must vote in favor, and there have only been a handful of such cases over the past several decades.
What's new in Austin food & drink this week:
- Nau's Enfield Drug closing after losing their lease. Did McGuire Moorman Lambert buy the building, with its vintage soda fountain?
- Nixta Taqueria Chef Edgar Rico named to Time Magazine's Time 100 Next influencer list, after winning a James Beard Award earlier this year.
- Question: From what BBQ joint did pescatarian Harry Styles order food this week?
- Austin Motel is opening the pool and pool bar Wednesday nights in October for Freaky Floats.
- Vincent's on the Lake closing due to "economic conditions and low water levels [at Lake Travis]."
- Cenote has closed its Windsor Park location. The East Cesar Chavez location remains open.
- The Steeping Room on N. Lamar has closed.
- Local startup It's Skinnyscored new financing for its gluten-free pasta business.
- P. Terry's opened a new location in Kyle, at 18940 IH-35.