We arrived at the courthouse just before 9a on Tuesday, after spending most of Monday wrangling alternate plans in the event of snow delays/cancellations (thankfully, we barely got a dusting of snow, and most of that while we were in court). Bro and his wife 2nd Ed. were there, but there was no sign of XSIL. Ms. Sciuto (our lawyer) had predicted that XSIL wouldn't show, or that she would call on Monday to manufacture some excuse for why she would be unable to make it to the hearing the next day. That hadn't happened (to our great surprise), so it looked like Ms. Sciuto was right.
When the judge came into the courtroom, the court crier had all of the potential witnesses who were not principals in the case come in, so that they could all be sworn in along with those of us in the courtroom. Then Mom, Dad, and 2nd Ed. went back out, and we began. Bro's lawyer informed the judge that Bro had spoken to XSIL the previous week, and XSIL had told Bro at that time that she was applying for counsel through the court that week: either she had within the last few days, or she was about to. It was unclear. The judge then recessed for about fifteen minutes to find out if any such application for counsel existed.
When the judge returned, she announced that there was no record of XSIL ever applying for counsel (quelle surpris), and she had determined that XSIL had been duly served, had had plenty of time to respond and/or make arrangements for the hearing that day, and decided that we would proceed as long as no one else objected. (Nobody did.) The court crier also searched the courthouse to see if, "perhaps," XSIL had somehow gotten directed to the incorrect courtroom. (Nope.)
Hubby was on the stand first. Between Ms. Sciuto's direct examination of him, Bro's attorney's cross-examination, the guardian ad litem's ([GAL] the lawyer appointed to act on the girls' behalf) cross, Ms. Sciuto's redirect, and Bro's attorney's recross, Hubby spent the better part of two hours on the stand. In fact, it might have been longer than that. I was up next, and Ms. Sciuto whispered a reminder to me during the GAL's cross of Hubby that I needed to shut up when I'd answered the question, and not talk to try to fill the space. The GAL, she said, wouldn't be doing it on purpose to get him to reveal more than he should or to make him say something he shouldn't, but Bro's attorney would. We finished with my direct testimony just before noon, and the judge opted to recess for lunch.
Lunch was entertaining. Because the lawyers had agreed to sequester the witnesses, we were not allowed to discuss our testimony at all, not even with each other, since I still had cross and redirect and recross to go. Those of you who know my mother at all also know that she was sure to be brimming with questions after 3 hours of court that she was unable to witness. And she wasn't able to ask these questions! "You're fun when you have questions you can't ask," Dad observed at one point during lunch. We had to not talk or make innocuous comments about the pretty falling snow outside when Mom would ask what she thought was a surely appropriate question that we could not answer.
Before we left for lunch, Hubby grabbed Bro in a big bear hug. I have no idea exactly what was said, but my understanding is that Hubby was reaffirming how much he loves Bro and that this has nothing to do with whether or not he's loved.
There was one objection raised all day, by Bro's lawyer, while I was answering a cross-exam question from Mr. T, the GAL. He had asked why we sought counseling for the girls when we did, and not earlier. I expressed my reasons, and further elaborated that there were obvious struggles on Large Fry's part regarding the departure of her parents from her life. That's when Bro's attorney objected, saying I was only supposing on the part of Large and could have no way to know exactly how she felt (actually, I did, since Large had verbalized those feelings; but I kept my mouth shut). The judge overruled her almost as soon as she finished speaking, which surprised me.
2nd Ed. was next. Her testimony was mostly about the girls' interaction with Bro, as observed over the course of several visits and their wedding. 2nd Ed. said that they were always happy to see him, always hugging and loving on him. Four photographs were entered into evidence as proof that the girls were always happy and clingy with Bro because they loved him, one from a visit while at Mom and Dad's, and the other three from his wedding (one a family shot of Bro, 2nd Ed., and all five kids; the other two were during a daddy/daughter dance).
Bro was on the stand next. The crux of his case was that we had pushed him out. His explanation for not seeing his kids in over a year and a half was that Hubby had refused to do any more work to arrange visits, leaving everything up to him. (Hubby had testified that he had stopped supervising for several reasons, not the least of which was a new job. Prior to that, Hubby had been doing the bulk of the work for scheduling and transporting kids to visitation.) Ultimately, Bro's lack of contact with his daughters was our fault. He did, surprisingly, make some very nice comments about how much work we've done with the girls and how appreciative he was of the excellent care we've given the girls over the last nearly six years. (I still noted that he did not refer to what we've been doing as parenting.) He also said he could understand why we wanted to keep them; they are great kids.
Ms. Sciuto's cross-examination was next. Towards the end of her cross of Bro, Ms. Sciuto asked him whether or not he'd ever called the doctor's offices' numbers we'd given him when he demanded copies of the girls' medical records. He hadn't. Because, he said, we'd pushed him out so much that he wasn't sure what he was entitled to have access to. She asked him why he didn't find out. He said he had no money for an attorney, and he was saving up to take us back to court so he could find out. Then she asked him what grade Large Fry was in. He had to think for a good fifteen seconds before he said, "Second? Maybe third?" She asked him next if he'd ever called the school to ask for further details regarding the girls' schooling, since he was dissatisfied with the "generalities" we had given him. He said he had called the school in Dec. 2013 to find out what he could access, but he hadn't gotten any further than that one call. Then she asked him again why he hadn't called earlier for access to the girls' grades. Ms. Sciuto watched the judge carefully as Bro replied, again saying that we had pushed him out of so much that he didn't want to be pushed out of even more, and so he refused to do anything that might cause us to cut him off further.
The judge rolled her eyes at that.
I am no legal expert, but I can't imagine that it's good for your case if the judge is rolling her eyes at your excuse.
When cross, redirect, and recross were all finished, we recessed for ten minutes before the GAL would give his report. Upon resuming the hearing, Mr. T stood and delivered his report. He opened by saying that he agreed with Bro; these are great girls. He had only spoken to Bro once, last week, he said; he'd never spoken to XSIL at all. He came to our house and spent several hours with us, talking briefly with the children before talking with us at length. He said he'd inspected the girls' bedrooms and overall found that we had a very suitable home. He didn't ask the children many questions, because of their ages, and he said it was obvious that they were very comfortable and secure here. He further went on to counter the insinuation that the girls were only ever overly-affectionate with Bro by telling about how Hubby had sat down on the couch in our den, and the girls immediately swarmed all over him, cuddling and snuggling. He told about how Medium Fry went under her loft bed and conducted a conversation from under there, occasionally popping out her head to talk or sticking out a thumbs-up. He concluded from our visit that the girls are simply very affectionate and loving kids, and they were appropriately affectionate towards both of us, even if they weren't climbing all over me the way they do Hubby. (Ms. Sciuto leaned over and whispered that this was probably due to my physical limitations, which I'd earlier testified to.) The GAL said he was quite confident that Bro loved the girls, and that they loved him in return, but he firmly felt it was in the best interests of the girls that parental rights be terminated, citing the appropriate case law, so that we could then adopt them. He said it was clear that we had been the parents for a very long time, loved these girls, and that they deserved to have what they know as their family be permanent. The judge took a few moments to ask several questions to clarify some of Mr. T's statement, and then moved on.
Since the burden of proof was on us, the judge (who doesn't usually like closing arguments) offered to hear closing arguments from Steve's counsel first, as ours would have the last word. Naturally, Bro's attorney argued that we hadn't even come close to demonstrating that rights should be terminated under the case law cited by Mr. T, and stated that her client believed he would clearly have had a better relationship with his daughters had we not been so bent on keeping him out of their lives.
Ms. Sciuto delivered her closing arguments then, stating that we had more than met the burden of proof against both parents; XSIL had shown her lack of caring about the children by not even bothering to show up. Bro had opportunities to work around the obstacles he felt were in his way; he refused to take advantage of those options. We had been the parents of these girls: we kissed boo-boos; provided food, shelter, and clothing; cared for them when they were sick; attended parent/teacher meetings; took them to doctors as needed; searched for interventions when necessary, even from the very beginning. We were the ones who had truly been parents. The girls, she said, deserved the stability of making legal what they already know: they are ours, and they belong with us.
The judge paused, and stacked her papers. "I am going to take some time to think about this, and then I'll let you know my decision," she said.
It was disappointing to not have a decision that day.
"This isn't bad," Ms. Sciuto said. She explained that it was obvious the judge wasn't feeling well and was battling a bad cold; it could be she just wanted to go home. After nearly six hours of emotionally grueling testimony and pontificating, I was ready to go home. I couldn't blame the judge for wanting the same, when I knew she didn't feel well. Ms. Sciuto also said that the reason for the judge's delay might be that the judge smelled an appeal on the wind, and she wanted to write her own opinion in addition to the prepared orders Ms. Sciuto had submitted or wanted to write a full opinion on her own. We asked when we might find out the judge's ruling. Ms. Sciuto speculated that it would be 7-10 business days, which we know means about two weeks. She also said that she fully expected the judge would rule to terminate rights.
Before we all left the courtroom, while Ms. Sciuto updated Mom and Dad with what she'd told us, Bro approached Hubby again. They hugged. Bro then turned to me and held out his hand. I took it...and pulled him into a hug. I told him I loved him, but I love the kids too. He looked at Hubbyafter that and said he just couldn't live with himself if he'd just rolled over and given up. We can understand that, to a certain extent.
We met Mom and Dad at a restaurant on our way home, so that we could debrief Mom (and Dad, but mostly Mom) on what they hadn't seen/heard. (They were in court from the time it resumed so the GAL could give his report until the judge ended the hearing.) We knew Mom couldn't hold off on her questions, and we also knew that asking those questions in front of the kids would be bad. The kids knew we'd had a "big meeting" today, about being able to adopt them (which was all we'd said). I told our sitter, one of the teen girls from youth group, and she was fine with that; she and the kids were watching "Frozen" and having a great time.
When we got home, happy squeals abounded. Medium was the loudest. "What'd they say? What'd they say? Can you adopt us? Did they say yes?" she chanted.
"No," Hubby said. "They didn't say yes. The judge wanted to think some more."
"We gave her lots and lots of information today," I told her. "It was a lot of stuff to think about."
Medium was most unhappy when she heard it would take forever to find out what the judge had to say. I suppose, when you're seven, two weeks is forever. Then again, it certainly feels that way to me, too.
Ms. Sciuto is confident that the judge will rule in our favor, and so we're trying to relax and trust our attorney's gut, which has been right every time so far. Assuming Ms. Sciuto's analysis is correct, once we receive the paperwork with the judge's ruling, we'll file our adoption petitions right away. We just can't have the adoption hearing until after the 30-day appeals timeframe has passed.
One thing we do not know is whether or not Bro will try to appeal. His comments after court seem to suggest that he needed to fight this for his own sake, and he'll accept it if he loses. But with him, it's so hard to say. XSIL will likely not appeal, since she didn't even make the effort to be here to fight the first time around.
So, now we wait. Again. Which is really hard for all of us. We can see the end of the tunnel. Of course, we wait again once we get the judge's decision.
But the end is in sight, and we're excited.