Editor’s Note: The names in this piece have been changed because the subjects were minors at the time of the court hearing. Shauna, now 18, is still living with her parents.
Samuel is teething. His gums are swollen with the wait, alternating between itching and aching for weeks. Mercifully, he’s asleep.
Shauna Garcia, his young mother, shifts the drowsy toddler from her left side to her right, trying her best not to wake the boy as she reaches for her purse on the floor beneath the courtroom’s wooden bench. He isn’t hungry, she knows that, but when his gums start bothering him, she’s learned a bottle is the best remedy to help everyone around them maintain their sanity.
Shauna and Samuel have been sitting in a child support hearing now for over three hours. Shauna was told that the weeks she’d spent arguing with Samuel’s father, Tony Sona, about an agreed order for child support and paternity would be “in everybody’s best interest.” And today—proud she’d finally talked him into attending the hearing—would be her reward: some certainty her son would be acknowledged and cared for.
Endless case numbers are droned in a rhythm not unlike that of the sluggish ceiling fan overhead, a duet of dullness and heat. Under the whirring fan, every day of every week of every year, parade young parents, mostly mothers, asking the court to enforce DNA test results and declare “baby daddies around the state.
If any one of these parents were a bank, their outfits would be different, but so would their outcomes. Credit card deadbeats, hot check writers and the like rarely get away with the kind of institutional robbery supported in this room. Yet getting courts in Texas and other states to enforce child support laws is often too expensive for parents to pursue.
Shauna won’t set Samuel down, hoping his dormant amnesty will continue. Every time she shifts him from one arm to the other, she trades numbness for an ache in the empty arm, and she’s afraid the Bailiff might hear her moans. The alternative to this clumsy two-arm ballet is even worse. If Samuel were to wake up and see Shauna, in all her misery, he’d let loose with a wail so disturbing it had once driven her from a Walmart before he’d taken his second breath.
And if Samuel started wailing now, in this warm, stale room, she was not only afraid he wouldn’t stop, but that she might join him. She’d been waiting, too: for his father before she realized he wouldn’t be coming around much anymore, for her pregnancy to end, to heal from the birth, and finally to be sure that she could keep her son safe from the moody restlessness of his father and the chaos of his own family.
Shared parenting was a daydream: parenting for Shauna had begun the moment she read her pregnancy test, taken a shower, and secured a job before suppertime. Samuel’s father was parenting only in fits and starts. And when the issue of child support came up, it was mostly fits.
Samuel has lots of drowsy, teething peers around the State of Texas, more than most other states. And most of these young parents are bound in the same tense, unhappy struggles. They’re often made to feel that they have shamed their parents, their congregations, their relatives, their schools. The “shame” is magnified for young mothers for the simple reason that their parenthood shows. If they remain in school, they’re often segregated from their peers. And out of fear of their family’s reaction, many young mothers don’t acknowledge their pregnancy and postpone the prenatal care their baby needs. The one thing most of these young mothers can’t seem to avoid, however, is ending up, sooner or later, in a room like this one. While no longer the growth sector it had been in the 90s, today’s teenage parents face a much more hostile economic climate.
In the absence of information and birth control, the result is youngsters trying on responsibilities like fashion trends: custody agreements, child support orders, budgets, their own parents (“I mean like, how can they ground me? I’ve already got to be here for the night feedings…”).
Texas is no exception. Like other state governments around the country, family services, educational programs and medical care for children have all been slashed. By the time the children born to these children are around 3, most of their teen fathers will be in arrears on their child support payments, turning young fathers into criminals. And instead of spending toddler birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese's, these couples frequently spend their child’s “special day” in the very unsentimental child support courtrooms of Texas.
The judge calls another name that isn’t hers. Shauna’s tense, weary gaze meets Samuel’s father seated across the aisle, his hands fidgeting in his lap. That gaze, like so many lately, contains no emotion; certainly no furtive, supportive signal that surely the next name called would be his, or hers or the baby’s. No recognition beyond that of a man unsure what to do with his hands, or of a woman who has none free.
More than gazes were exchanged, of course, between these two during their senior year when they met, courted and conceived. Shortly after sharing the news with Tony that they would be parents, Shauna learned a lesson about which she’d heard plenty from the aunts who’d gather for card games around her mother’s table: he’d taken up with a younger woman, a junior who’d caught his fancy and whose figure wouldn’t be changing.
Even though he had a “new woman,” he promised Shauna that he would be responsible for her and his son. The same day she learned she was going to have a baby, she got a part time job. But as she looked at her expanding waistline and the constricting balance on her bank statement, she knew she would have to do more. Her parents weren’t happy, but she hadn’t suffered at their hands like one or two others in her class had. She could stay with them as long as she needed to, and they agreed to make her next step possible: within six weeks of giving birth, Shauna attended her first weekend with the Army Reserve, a way to ensure she could manage college tuition and keep her son insured, too.
Yet money wasn’t the most challenging part of this new adventure. For many teen parents, the words “custody,” “visitation” and “rights” invite a cold fear that can make for sleepless nights. Tony’s visits were rarely announced any further in advance than on the gravel at the head of her driveway. And these short, erratic visits were generally more work than help. Often he’d slam the door of his shiny new truck and shuffle toward her parents’ doorway. Shauna would try to head him off, afraid of what her father might say or do if he witnessed these unannounced visits.
Sometimes Tony would hand her an oil-smudged, multi-creased envelope with cash, never more than $50. Other times he would bring “gifts” to “my boy,” surprises like a queso-stained, size medium Cowboy’s jersey; a Phillips screwdriver; or a new lure with a bright blue feather. “You know how to make this safe, right? You just put a cork on the end…” Tony handed the bright blue, feathered hook to Shauna. He saw the look on her face, even in the dark: “Hell, Shauna, nothing’s safe enough, is it? If that’s how you feel, just tell him the second-best bet is a freshly squashed frog.” He climbed back into the cab and spun gravel again, staring in the rear view mirror to see if she laughed when he wasn’t looking.
It was after that visit that Shauna knew she had to do something “legal” about this. Something that might cost money, would surely cost time and would probably not be pleasant. But it would be more pleasant, she thought, than the night Tony showed up with paper that said he had the legal right to drive out of her driveway with Samuel. The sound of gravel as the pickup truck spun out of that driveway was the sound that echoed over and over in Shauna’s mind, fueling her double shifts and finally the night off she asked for to get ready to go to court.
While other wait staff freshened their lipstick after shifts, Shauna was calling home to see if her mother needed her to bring home anything from the store. It had been nearly a year since she got to leave with her cohorts. But that night she had a special date. She’d asked her boss to leave early so she could take three buses to a downtown family law clinic where single parents can get free advice and forms for child support, custody and modifications.
Shauna is gorgeous. She smiled as men stared at her on the bus. She knew a romance could happen any time. But not now. Not until she had the paternity and child support paperwork she needed that have Tony’s name signed under the word “AGREED.”
Nothing will make a young woman appear more mature, more ready to parent, than to get that other parent to agree to the orders. The court will almost always sign child support papers when two parties work out issues together before they appear in court. The clinic had told her that on the phone, the clinic where she was now headed, the clinic where they’d show her how to put together her custody papers.
The clinic was packed. Perhaps 40 women (and one man) sat at a double-long, wooden table in the middle of the room. The top of this table was covered with crawling, pawing, laughing, wobbly children. The older, sophisticated 9- and 10-year-olds rolled their eyes.
Every parent inside the room was juggling with five pieces of paper per child. Pencils and a few pieces of paperwork were grabbed from drooling mouths, removing first pages, portions of signatures. Amidst the mayhem, Shauna sat down and finished her questionnaire, waited to speak with an attorney, waited for a second set of papers;, filled those out and waited for a coordinator to give her a date.
Two hours after she’d walked in, Shauna had her paperwork that said, in legal language, there would be NO impulse midnight fishing trips, NO showing Samuel off at Tony’s watering hole, NO to the 12-year-old car seat Tony had purchased, NO to the slurring father taking his son in that car seat to the bar where they sold the lures and NO to the unscheduled spitting gravel at the end of her driveway. On her ride home that night, Shauna tried to clutch the papers without wrinkling them. One word was in all caps: AGREED. It was dark on the bus. So Shauna used her cell phone’s light to read it over and over again.
That was a different time of day, and a different month. It had been cool on the bus that night. Now the air in the courtroom was stuffy, sultry, as if it contained everyone’s anxiety-induced perspiration. Older siblings crawled across the benches. Babies woke up, protested, then fell back into a fitful sleep. Mothers withstood the bailiff’s glare and changed diapers on the court’s benches. Earlier, the bailiff had announced that the air conditioner was in fact on, but by this time it was a matter of faith, not relief.
When the couple at the bench finally finished up with the judge, Shauna took advantage of a brief recess to finish her search for Samuel’s bottle, just in case. She refused to leave the courtroom. She had waited, waited, waited, and she wouldn’t risk missing her name when it was called. Or Tony’s name. Or Samuel’s name. She would use the restroom later, after she got the paper, the paper with the signatures that would make it easier for her to sleep tonight. Tony changed his mind about everything, almost by the week, and she wanted those signatures because she needed a rest from his moods worse than she needed to use the restroom. She wanted ink, good and dry, and then he couldn’t change his mind about anything.
The judge called another name that wasn’t theirs. Shauna remembered her last argument with Tony. Back from the clinic and surprised by a midnight visit, she’d shown him the applications she’d filled out. But when he tried to read the papers, she realized it wasn’t the darkness that was making him squint. “We’ll just see about this,” was all he said. But this time the gravel made a slow, soft crunch as Tony hesitated at the end of the driveway before he drove away.
Arriving at the courtroom, she was relieved when she spotted him sitting inside. After all the phone calls and bus rides and hassle, waiting inside the courtroom for her name to be called didn’t bother her at all. She remembered that he’d called her once after that night, and that was when she realized for the first time that Tony was scared. She would have felt some relief, or pity, or even some companionship for her own fears if she hadn’t listened as carefully as she had.
It was clear that Tony was scared a judge might make him pay more child support than he could afford. He’d bought his new truck to celebrate his “new woman’s” pregnancy, had driven it to his parents’ home to show them all on the Saturday he’d signed for it. Tony’s pregnant girlfriend had come out of the house first, and seemed happy that Tony was happy showing off his shiny new machine.. And his parents had surprised him, as well—this truck wouldn’t have been possible, he knew, if his parents hadn’t invited his new family to join his old one. His parents were already hosting his older brother’s small family, an uncle from South Texas who was looking for a job and their aging grandmother. There was just enough room, one last small bedroom, which Tony thought would be perfect for his family of three. And a great spot in the driveway for the truck.
Shauna knew how he felt about that vehicle, knew he’d celebrated the news he’d be a father by his new girlfriend by buying rims that cost $1,200. Times four. On a few occasions, Shauna had taken a ride with Tony so he could show the baby off to his friends. He held Samuel up in the air and showed him more like a fancy hood ornament than his newborn. Sometimes he’d drive them to houses where his friends walked around the truck a couple times before they’d peek in the window at Samuel.
Shauna figured taking Tony to court would end her troubles and increase his. She was trying her best to be reasonable. She’d agree to the state-mandated minimum level of child support so Tony wouldn’t have to sell his new subwoofers. But Tony didn’t want to even pay the minimum amount. He told her no judge could make him pay her money because he was already starting a new family. Shauna didn’t argue with him. She simply explained that if he came to court and signed the paperwork titled “Agreed,” that the judge would let them do things pretty much the way they wanted. He asked if that meant he could keep his rims and his subwoofer. She said she would agree to that.
Her strategy seemed to work. He is sitting in the courtroom across from her. And despite the long, hot wait, he hasn’t left yet. If he was going to bolt, she figures, he’d have done it two hours ago.
Another couple approaches the judge. Because the front row is now empty, Shauna can now see and hear through the sounds of babies crying and the undulating heat that moved the fan around. “Your Honor, I can’t keep coming back. This is the third time we’ve been here, and he had some story for you, and this time my boss said I can’t keep taking these half days off…” Shauna looks at the young man standing in front of the judge. He’s wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, even though the sign in the hall had established a “no jeans” policy. She can see that he is going to win and that the woman is going to lose. “Judge, there’s just nothing I can do, you see that, don’t you? When somebody steals every single one of your tools out of the back of your truck…”
Now the woman’s shoulders are moving, though Shauna can hear nothing at all. She can only feel dread creeping up her arm. The judge sets a continuance; the man in the plaid shirt shakes his head, tells the judge he’ll “do his best” until the next time and saunters out of the room. The woman stands, fixed. The court reporter leans over and hands her tissue; as she turns to walk out of the courtroom, she is crying and shaking her head. “I can’t come back again,” she murmurs.
“GARCIA, SHAUNA, AGREED PATERNITY AND CHILD SUPPORT…”
Shauna jumps. Her eyes dart toward Tony. He turns rigid, except for his fingers, which are still fidgeting.
“AGREED?” The judge seems to be asking a question. Shauna shifts the still miraculously sleeping Samuel, partially stands and answers “Yes, Your Honor…”
“Sit down m’am, it’s not you I want to talk to.” Suddenly, Shauna feels like she is a child in trouble, unsure what she’s done wrong.
“AGREED?” the judge repeats, seeming to ask the entire court. “Mr. Sona, are you present in the courtroom?”
Tony jumps to his feet. “Here, Your Honor”.
The judge stares at Tony. “Mr. Sona, come up here, son.” Tony ambles up the aisle, alternately muttering, “excuse me” as he steps on several feet along the way to the bench.
“Now what kind of nonsense is this from a schoolboy?” the judge says. “You think you know everything, don’t you? You don’t. You are very, very young to be making this kind of decision. Do me a favor: turn around and look at the men in this courtroom. Just look. Now do you think there are a lot of people in this room who look something like you? Go ahead, you think I’m kidding? Just look.”
Tony is confused. Shauna thinks she might start crying, although she doesn’t know why, and time seems to stop completely as she looks down at Samuel: he is still sleeping. Tony is now facing the courtroom, his face twisted in embarrassment and confusion. He looks uneasily at Shauna.
Shauna realizes he feels betrayed. She convinced him that their agreement would be well received; that the court would thank them for working things out, congratulate them for demonstrating responsibility by working the issues out among themselves rather than taking up the court’s time. Now, she wonders if Tony might turn and flee.
The judge resolves everyone’s bemusement to no one’s satisfaction. “Now what do you see, young man? You see what I mean? You see that just because this pretty little thing over here who’s so eager to jump up in court is probably just as eager to have you sign these papers? And all these guys looking something like you? You think you’re so smart you’re going to make a decision like this? Based upon what your true love told you? I don’t like the smell of this arrogance, son. You don’t know enough to sign away 18 years of your life.”
Tony turns back around to face the judge, then over his shoulder at Shauna. She suddenly begins to understand. The judge is suggesting she is a liar. He is saying she had sex with someone besides Tony. Tony knows differently, but everyone knows exactly what the judge is insinuating. Shauna feels ashamed.
The judge is now writing on her Agreed Petition. “Here’s what you all are going to do,” he says, looking at no one while seeming to speak to everyone in the court. “This paperwork doesn’t pass my smell test, son. So I want you and this pretty mother to go get some science. I have not just denied this motion, I’ve written down ‘corrected for youth.’ Understand? You two are going to have some blood drawn, and we are going to get some DNA and then we’ll let the results tell us what we need to know. You go back to the clerk’s office. They’ll give you the paperwork and a date to come back here. When you have those results, Miss, bring them back in along with that pretty face, because there’s no way I’ll sign this boy’s version of whatever you told your own daddy.”
Shauna is standing now. Samuel seems to weigh 500 pounds. She wants to cry, she is thirsty, she has to use the restroom, and she knows this meant more waiting—for the clerk, for the science, for Tony, for the judge and his smell test.
Tony leaves the courtroom. Just as the door starts to close, Shauna follows behind, holding her bag, her purse, sleeping Samuel. She grasps the diaper bag as she reaches for the door and starts to make her way out of the room, into the weeks ahead, the weeks that would, she was sure, bring her the signatures, the ink, the sleep…
Samuel awakes suddenly with a hiccup. He looks at Shauna, surprised. And Shauna looks lovingly at Samuel, still teething.