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TYRANNY IN THE COURTS
Vasu Reddy from Chicago
Malini Byanna first was introduced to me through the work of Lotus rising foundation. I covered Lotus Raiding foundation efforts. Below is her story in her own words, and no changes or additions have been made to her story, and it is presented as is in the column.
The system is failing. Mental health professionals are being marginalized. Attorneys and judges are advancing their own personal agendas. Families and children are being bankrupted and torn apart. The rights of parents supersede the rights of a child. Such has been my experience with domestic relations and criminal court in the United States, a land where the law is supposed to administer justice and seek the “truth”, a land where judges are purportedly impartial fact-finders, a land where victims of domestic abuse are supposed to be protected from the predators and perpetrators who continue to harass and to haunt them.
My name is Malini Byanna, an attorney and mediator who is currently focusing her practice in the area of matrimonial and family law in Chicago, Illinois. I am a social worker by training who decided to pursue a law degree to advocate for the marginalized and disenfranchised of the world. I was drawn to domestic relations while working full-time at Apna Ghar, a shelter for abused Asian women and children, and studying part-time at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
I, in fact, secured my first legal clerking position while working for Apna Ghar and testifying on behalf of a minor child who was a client in our Supervised Child Visitation Center and whose father had sexually molested her in my presence. The Guardian ad Litem in the case, David P. Pasulka, a prominent divorce attorney in Chicago offered me a job after learning that I was interested in family law and was particularly eager to advocate for and advance the legal rights of children. After several months of working for David P. Pasulka and Associates, I began to question whether I was adhering to my moral, ethical, and spiritual values by being the “instrument” of divorce. I expressed my concerns and sentiments to my David Pasulka who sympathized with my position but responded with the following: “Malini, people are going to get divorced whether you are practicing in this field or not. If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of problem.” No truer and wiser words were ever spoken.
You see, little did I know at the time that I resigned from David P. Pasulka and Associates that I would be returning to him five years later with a desperate plea for help with my own marriage – a marriage that did not even last two years – and was torn apart due to the reckless, abusive, and neglectful behaviors of my own husband and his family towards both me and my then seven month old baby. I was a law student at the time, with no income, and volunteering for an international development organization, the Swayam Krishi Sangam Foundation, a not for profit corporation that my husband and I launched and incorporated in December 1999, the month and year that we got married.
Shortly after marriage, I learned that my husband had political aspirations in India and that this was the primary purpose for which he wished to reside and work among the village poor. Needless to say, I was taken aback by this revelation, but he had me convinced that his intentions were altruistic and noble and that his ultimate goal was to be an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised – particularly the women and children of India – and to fight the oppressive and corrupt forces that money, power, and status can “buy” in our native country. I, therefore, encouraged him in his pursuits, but made it clear that India was only a “trial run” and that if, for any reason, I decided that I did not want to permanently reside there, that we would return to the United States and live, work, and raise a family among our family and friends.
Then, the unexpected happened. I got pregnant. This was just six months into our marriage. Neither one of us was prepared, but I was elated, elated at the prospect of being a mother, elated at the prospect of giving both my parents and my husband’s parents a grandchild, and elated that such a precious gift was miraculously given to us by God at a time when both my husband and I were being very careful not to conceive. My husband’s reaction, however, was much different, setting off months and months of resentment on his part over my decision to keep and to have the baby, resentment that would escalate into abuse, neglect, and violence in the months and years to come.
Immediately following childbirth, I experienced a very common phenomenon called post-partum depression. The depression stemmed from a convergence of factors, including but not limited to marital problems and conflicts, an absentee husband and father, severe loss of blood during pregnancy, and tailbone trauma resulting from the birth of my child who was suctioned out by vacuum due to a drop in his heart rate after several hours of unsuccessfully attempting to “push” him out naturally. I could not sit for several months without being in excruciating pain, and could barely function long enough to nurse and to feed my child. Anti-depressant and other psychiatric medications were not working, and due to my extreme chemical sensitivity – I cannot even take birth control without experience adverse side effects – medications were exacerbating and not mitigating my depression.
Realizing that I had to get better so that I could care for my child, I consulted with the psychiatrist who had treated me in early 1997 for depression following an 8-month courtship with my husband, then boyfriend, which ended abruptly due to his mistreatment of me in 1996. My former psychiatrist was privy to my chemical sensitivity and suggested a safe and effective, albeit scary, treatment modality called electroconvulsive therapy – otherwise known as ECT – that is reserved for cases such as mine where psychiatric medicines are either ineffective or cause severe and adverse side effects in individuals such as me. Encouraged by my former psychiatrist’s stated confidence in both ECT and in the doctor to whom he referred me, I carefully researched the procedure and decided that it was the best course of action after consulting with several more psychologists and psychiatrists whom I trusted.
The good news is that I was “cured” of my depression in just three short treatments, even though a typical case of depression requires up to twelve treatments. The bad news is that shortly following my recovery, I traveled to India with my husband and then 5-month old child only to be confronted with financial crises with respect to our organization, of which I was previously unaware, increased marital conflict over the health and welfare of my child who was suffering from gastrointestinal problems, severe diaper rash, and viral infections, and the mind-numbing news that my husband intended to relinquish his U.S. citizenship to run for office in the upcoming elections of India even though he had not conducted any polling surveys to see if he even had a “chance” of winning a seat in the state legislature or consulted with any immigration attorneys to determine what the implications would be for him should he lose and want to return to the United States with his wife and child. Moreover, my husband, time and time again, asked both me and other colleagues to participate in illegal and unethical behaviors with respect to the management and oversight of our international development organization, something I consistently refused and cautioned against as a law student and aspiring officer of the court.
I was scared, very, very scared. As far as I could see, my husband’s ego and ambition were spinning out of control given that he was ready and willing to jeopardize the health, welfare, and security of both his wife and child to further both his professional and political aspirations. I first turned to my husband’s parents, praying and hoping they would rein in my husband’s uncontrollable and insatiable need for fame, success, and power, only to be confronted with hostility and blame and an expectation that I “put up and shut up” because that is what they believed was in the best interest of their son, their grandson, and the family unit as a whole.
Realizing that my troubles did not end with my husband but that I had his parents to contend with as well – parents who were in complete denial as to their son’s proclivity for engaging in reckless and destructive behaviors for his own personal gain, parents who could not bring themselves to admit that perhaps my husband was the sole source of our marital problems and not me, parents who wanted to believe that their son was perfectly sane and that their daughter-in-law was perfectly insane, even if it meant risking the health and welfare of their first and only grandson – I then turned to my own family and informed them that I want a legal separation. Specifically, I turned to my parents, my brother, and my sister-in-law, all of whom were understandably heartbroken and shocked at the news. You see, they knew that my morals and values were such that I would sooner go to my grave than break up my son’s family, and they could not accept and digest all that I was telling them – that my husband was a criminal, that my husband had placed both me and my son in harm’s way time and time again, that my husband was capable of kidnapping my child.
It was this last “accusation” I made against my husband that had my family convinced that perhaps I truly was crazy and that perhaps something had gone wrong with my ECT treatments, as alleged by my highly charming and highly charismatic husband, my husband who had never before “abused” either me or my son in their presence, my husband who can and will manipulate and deceive highly honest, moral, law-abiding, trusting, and naive individuals such as my parents, my brother, and my sister-in-law. He had successfully “duped” them all, which is why my family could not understand why I was so paranoid. Why they could not understand the legitimate fears behind the actions I was taking, namely opening up individual bank accounts and safety deposit boxes and storing both mine and my son’s passport and legal documents in places my husband could not touch. Why they could not understand my anger and rage over their repeated suggestions that it was me who needed psychiatric help and intervention and not my husband.
I had also turned to the Swayam Krishi Sangam Foundation’s Board of Directors for intervention regarding my husband’s fiscal irresponsibilities and illegal and unethical behaviors. This time I received a sympathetic ear and genuine professional concern over the welfare of the organization. I also received assurance that any and all matters relating to the management and oversight of the organization would be addressed and dealt with at an upcoming Board meeting that was scheduled for October 7, 2004. I was relieved and somewhat comforted that at least someone on this earth was paying heed to my fears and concerns and that I would be provided with a forum to confront my husband with all that he had done that was jeopardizing both our personal and professional interests.
But one fine day it happened. Everything I had predicted and warned everyone about came true. Rather than complying with a written agreement that both my husband and I signed in the presence of my parents, my brother and sister-in-law, and my husband’s parents – an agreement that required both of us to seek a psychiatric evaluation and to follow any and all recommendations of the psychiatrist, my husband and his family proceeded to abscond with my child under the pretense of taking my mother-in-law and my husband’s cousin to the airport, and never returned. Instead my brother, who is a Partner at Accenture, received a call at work from my husband that same evening indicating that he had the baby, that he would not reveal where he and the baby were, that he had secured an emergency order of protection and had filed a reversible petition for dissolution of marriage, and that he would not return the baby until I met some of his demands. It was for all intents and purposes a “ransom” call with a threat to legally and permanently confiscate my child from me if I did not cooperate with my husband’s and his family’s demands.
The dirtiest part of what my husband and his attorneys pulled was to orchestrate the “kidnapping” and the securing of the emergency order of protection for the day before a judge’s holiday, October 4, 2001, with the weekend intervening, and the following Monday being Columbus Day, October 8, 2001, a court holiday, effectively precluding me from going into court to vacate the order of protection and regain possession of my son, who was just eight months old at the time. My husband further attempted to proceed with the Board meeting that was scheduled for Sunday, October 7, 2004, after I justifiably and lawfully cancelled the Board meeting following the “kidnapping” of my son by another Board member, an action which was supported by our former Board President. My husband was enraged, and I was resolved. This marriage was over. Nothing and no one was going to convince me otherwise. All that I had feared, suspected, and predicted had come true. My husband – whom I married because I thought he was a noble and altruistic man that was interested in fighting oppression, corruption, and power – was capable of using these same means to get what he wants, “by hook or crook,” and he had an entire family, both immediate and extended, who either participated, funded or supported his actions or stood by and let it happen.
But this was not the worst part of it all. My husband neither wanted nor ever intended to divorce me. He and his family simply wanted me to see things “their way.” When he and his family realized that I had called their bluff, that I had hired attorneys to represent my interests, and that I was prepared to go to court to challenge any and all petitions he/they had filed, they panicked. My brother started receiving phone calls day and night, requests for meetings, and pleas for intervention. They said they did not think things would go this far. They didn’t mean any harm. They would either withdraw their petition or bring the baby home if I would agree to joint custody. Knowing all too well who I was dealing with, I told my brother to tell my husband and his family to “go to hell,” that Vikram would get custody over my dead body, and that I would see them in court. You see, neither my husband nor my family ever expected me to challenge their large, wealthy, and powerful family. They thought I would simply back down and cower under the threat of litigation and the loss of my infant child.
Instead, I held my head up high, attended court on Tuesday, October 9, 2001, with friends and family who could attest both to my sanity and my to my ability to raise my son in a healthy, positive, and nurturing manner, and warded off all last minute attempts by my husband and his father to persuade me not to proceed with their tearful apologies and pleas for forgiveness. That same afternoon, after a hearing requested by my husband and his attorney, the court vacated the Emergency Order of Protection, ordered that my son be returned into my care and possession, and further ordered my husband to pay a $7500 retainer to my attorneys since he had given rise to the litigation that was now pending in court. The divorce was set in motion and the custody battle was on.
My family – who was desperate for an amicable resolution, desperate to see the matter resolved without resort to litigation and adversarial processes, desperate to “buffer” my son from the inevitable hostility and mental, emotional, and financial drain of a drawn out custody battle – attempted to persuade me to agree to joint custody and to forego any financial settlement I was seeking for the pain, suffering, and anguish my husband and his family had put me, my son, and my family through, breaking every vow they ever took and every promise they ever made at the time my husband and I were joined in holy matrimony. My brother, in particular, was eager to see a peaceful resolution. He and his wife, therefore, continued to meet with my husband and/or his family without my consent and knowledge to figure out a way to get me to drop my attorneys and to resolve the matter with the help and intervention of family and/or mental health professionals.
What my family did not know or at least did not want to acknowledge or hear – as I had been silenced time and time again at every attempt to impress upon them exactly what type of man they were dealing with – was that I had already consulted with mental health professionals, specifically psychiatrists and psychologists who were not only familiar with personalities such as my husband and his family but also well-versed in the pervasive patriarchy and paternalism of the Indian culture, a culture which often marginalizes and dismisses women and younger members of the family and affords great deference and respect to the males and elders of our communities. These same mental health professionals advised me to never try and reason with this man or with his family, that such personalities are highly irrational and unpredictable, and that I need to deal with them strictly by the book, by the law, and with the help of law enforcement officials.
Despite my relaying this to my brother and sister-in-law, they thought they knew best, decided to take matters into their own hands and to play Russian roulette with my life – albeit with the best of intentions – and very innocently put a proverbial “gun” in the hands of my husband. Specifically, they very naively turned over $80,000 at my husband’s request, $80,000 which my husband secured under false pretenses and proceeded to criminally convert towards unauthorized uses for his own personal gain. Through discovery my attorneys and I learned that my husband had taken a portion of my brother and sister-in-law’s money to pay a $20,000 retainer fee to one of the biggest, most powerful, and prominent law firms in Chicago, to pay off over $10,000 in credit card debt, and to pay the first installment of attorneys fees that he had been court ordered to pay on my behalf since I was an unemployed student and since he had given rise to the pending litigation between us.
My brother and sister-in-law were stunned. They never authorized my husband to use their money for these purposes, much less authorized him to cash the checks they had given him without their consent and knowledge. My brother had to threaten legal action to get his money back, after which my husband and his father came forward to make my brother and his wife whole, but begged my brother for time to secure the money and sent my husband off to India so that he could not be served with legal papers in the interim.
Months and months of legal battles ensued. Months and months of dirty litigation and hostile tactics were utilized. Months and months of mentally, emotionally, and financially draining attempts at mediation failed. Fourteen months and over $80,000 in collective attorneys fees later, I secured sole custody of my son, but not until I threatened to take the matter to trial, my husband’s attorneys withdrew from the case, and the man behind the iron curtain of wealth and power was left with no choice but to acknowledge defeat because his high-priced, high-powered attorneys were no longer available to bully me into accepting what they had put forth as a reasonable and equitable settlement agreement.
The most ironic piece of it all, or perhaps not so ironic given the nature and history of our case, was that this same man who claimed I was crazy, who alleged that I was a direct threat to the health, welfare, safety, and security of my child, who asked the court to impose upon me a psychiatric evaluation – to which I voluntarily agreed – never once enforced or required a psychiatric evaluation of me. Instead, my son’s father took off to India for two months post-decree, after bankrupting both me and my son due to hostile and protracted litigation, leaving his 10-month old child behind with his allegedly insane wife only to return for brief and sporadic visits, with weeks and weeks away from his son. So, just where was the grave concern over the health, welfare, and security of his child, then – the same concern that purportedly led my ex-husband and his family to “kidnap” our son in the first place and fight tooth and nail for joint custody – if my son’s father spent the bulk of his time and nearly a year abroad, halfway across the world, precluding him from protect and monitoring the best interests and safety of his minor child??? The facts speak for themselves.
But the story does not end there, and worst was yet to come. Following months and months of flexibility, cooperation, and accommodation on my part both with respect to frequent and incessant – monthly, weekly, sometimes daily – changes in visitation schedules and acquiescing to requests by my son’s paternal grandparents to visit their grandson during times and periods that were outside of the scope of our custody agreement, my son’s father “let loose” on me on St. Patrick’s Day of this year, March 17, 2004, over his extreme anger and rage that I did not agree to extended visitation for him and his parents for the following weekend.
I decided against being flexible with my husband and his family due to my husband’s refusal to accommodate even a 15-minute change in mid-week visitation pick up so that I could join my choir at Church. He further refused to make a minor change in the schedule for an earlier drop off of our son on Sundays so that he may attend evening mass on weekends when he is with his father, and also refused to accommodate changes in his visitation schedule as and when I had scheduling conflicts due to professional engagements or priorities. After several rage-filled, threatening, and traumatizing phone calls to both me and to my parents throughout the day, he proceeded to engage my father in a hostile confrontation in the presence of my son, making disparaging and denigrating remarks about both me and my father, during pick up and at a time when I had not yet arrived home.
My ex-husband’s rage and hostility continued to fester while he was seated in his car with his mother and my son, rage and hostility that were released upon me the moment my father and mother were out of sight and the moment I went outside to put my son’s suitcase in the car and kiss my son goodbye, something I had done a countless number of times before. I was not only battered to the point where I sustained significant injuries – traumatizing my then 3-year old son who was shocked, horrified, and terrorized by the egregious violence against his “Mommy” at the hands of his “Daddy” – but my ex-husband proceeded to add insult to injury by suggesting to the police officers who were called to my home that I inflicted the injuries upon myself between the time I called the police and the time they arrived at my home.
As if matters could not get any worse, given that my son was uncontrollably and inconsolably crying and screaming, my former mother-in-law further traumatized her grandson by crying and screaming herself, rolling around and prostrating on the floor, touching my feet and touching my parents feet, begging me and my parents to have mercy upon her son, begging us not to press charges and not to send her son to jail, begging us to give him yet another chance – “for the sake of the baby” – despite the already hundred chances we had all given her son before, to no avail. She then refused to leave our home, requiring three police officers to forcefully remove her from the premises, after which she still remained on our front porch, screaming, crying, and banging on our front door, making my son cry even harder than before.
The good news is that my son’s father spent a night in jail – something that had been a long time coming for him – was criminally convicted of domestic battery, was sentenced to one year conditional discharge and court-ordered domestic violence counseling, and was denied a motion for reconsideration of the conviction with the conviction affirmed. The bad news is that the judges on the bench said that my husband was not a threat to the health, safety and welfare of my child. The judges on the bench said that unless my son was or is physically battered and injured by my husband, I had no recourse or ability to require supervised visitation or limited interactions until my son had healed mentally, emotionally, and psychologically from recent events. The judges on the bench said that my husband – a highly dangerous and highly treatment resistant man – still has a “right” to the care and control of his minor child while in his possession.
Indeed, he has this “right” despite a persistent and pervasive pattern of abusive, neglectful, and reckless behaviors that jeopardized and still jeopardize the health, welfare, and security of both me and our minor child. He has this “right” despite both the criminal court judge who heard the domestic battery case and the domestic relations judge – who has been our judge both pre and post-decree – categorically and consistently refusing to hear any relevant evidence that might point to the long history of dangers and threats posed by my husband towards my son, used obstructionist tactics, abuse of discretion, extreme partiality and threats of incarceration and revocation of my 2-year order of protection, to silence me, to intimidate me, and to coerce me into backing down on my legally valid and justifiable concerns over the welfare and safety of my son. He has this “right” despite a child’s “right” to be free from the stress, strain, and trauma of his father’s continued harassment, abuse, and hostility towards his mother and primary caretaker. This my friends, is what the rich, the powerful, and the political call JUSTICE in America.
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