Fifteen Minutes Of Shame

On the day of the hearing, the courtroom was nearly empty. Antonio sat in the benches behind Jess and Nathan and Bruce. To the left sat Colin and Darren Clark.

Judge Lansky allowed the petitioners—Colin and Mr. Clark—to speak first.

"We feel it would be in the best interest of the child to be placed in Mr. McNeil's care until after the custody hearing, when all sides can be explored more thoroughly."

"And how did you come to this conclusion?" Lansky wondered.

"My client is an agent for the Department of Justice. Through his resources he was able to gain access to a laundry list of damning evidence against the Masseys."

"Such as?"

"Nathan Massey has been investigated numerous times by the F.B.I. and local police in the areas where he's lived. He has been suspected of a litany of organized crime activities. In fact, Mr. Massey's father was also investigated for the same crimes hundreds of times in the past thirty years. It is the opinion of several federal agents and law enforcement officials that the Massey family is an organized crime family. In addition to the suspected crime activities, Mr. Massey was also accused of nearly killing Joseph when the child was seven months old. We feel he is a major threat to the welfare of the child. We also feel Mrs. Massey is not much better. Her mental health has been called into question on at least one occation. In 2003, she had a near psychotic break, and the evaluating psychiatrist recommended she be hospitalized. Both parents also work long hours and weekends and have shown almost no capacity to find suitable child care…" And Clark went on to talk about the Halls and Teresa.

By the time Colin's lawyer finished speaking, Jess herself was doubting her and Nathan's ability to be good parents. There wasn't much Bruce could say to refute Mr. Clark's claims. Most of what he said was true. Nathan had been suspected of organized crime. The couple had made poor decisions when it came to the care of their children. Jess did almost have a nervous breakdown. Jess did allow a suspected criminal to become her son's stepfather. Nathan was accused of abusing Joe. Joe was a very troubled and distressed child. So troubled, in fact, that he had been to school only once since Jess and Nathan found out what had happened to him. So troubled that he was seeing a psychologist four times a week.

Judge Lansky had no way of being certain if the child's problems were caused by the abuse he had allegedly endured or by an "extremely dysfunctional family", as Clark put it.

But Bruce tried to paint a clearer picture. "And Mrs. Massey has never been medicated or hospitalized for any mental health problems. As for the care of the child, the Masseys share their home with friends and collegues that have been a part of Joseph's life since he was born. Nicole Scott, a former F.B.I. agent, has recently retired and she will be caring for the child while his parents work. Miss Scott has been almost a second mother to Joseph and her care of him has been exemplary."

"That may be true," Clark said, "but the care of an-almost-second-mother is hardly as good as a loving father, who is home every afternoon and all weekends."

"Has Mr. McNeil made child care arrangements?" Lansky wanted to know.

"Yes, Your Honor. I have made arrangements for school and after school care. The nanny I hired was referred from a national agency. She has excellent business references. She will get Joseph to school and to his therapy appointments while I am at work."

"And you have found a doctor qualified to treat this child's condition?"

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Is there anything you would like to add, Mr. Spencer?"

"Just that my clients are good parents and their son is safe in their home. It would do Joseph nothing but harm to move in with a man he has never met."

"I have another case on my docket scheduled in ten minutes. I need time to think this over. I'll consider all the arguments made here and make a decision about what would be best for Joseph. Let's reconvene in two hours."

xxxxx

The court room cleared out. Jess decided to take the waiting time to talk to Colin.

"You're gonna win."

He nodded. "I know."

"Even after Nathan and I redeem ourselves in the eyes of the court during the hearing, you will still have visitation. It would be better if we waited until then to tell him you're his father."

"I think it's going to be you who has the visitation. Supervised visitation, if I have anything to say about it. No judge will ever give you custody of Joseph as long as you're married to a criminal."

Jess was too exhausted, too grieved to argue. She didn't defend herself or Nathan. She stayed on the point of why she had begun this conversation to begin with.

"If you really love him," she said, "you should want to do what's best for him. He is too fragile to accept a stranger as his father. You're gonna have him for weeks. Let him get to know you, then we can tell him who you are."

"Okay."

Jess was surprised. "Really?"

"Yeah. I won't tell him I'm his father yet."

xxxxx

Two long hours later, Judge Lansky was ready to make her ruling. Everybody knew what she would say.

"This child has been through more unpleasantness than most of us experience in a lifetime. These decisions are never easy. But this one was a little more difficult. This child's state of mind will make any transition all the more stressful than it would be for a well child. So I wanted to be absolutely certain that moving him would be in his best interest. But, of course, there is no way to be certain. As usual, I am forced to look only at what has been presented to me. What has been presented is a father who has been denied access to his child for five years. A father who is doing what he thinks is best for his son. On the other side I have two parents who love the same child. Who clearly want what is best for him. But who seem unable to figure out what exactly that is. Is Nathan Massey abusive to his son? I don't know. Is Jess Massey an unstable parent? I don't know. What I do know is that Colin McNeil is a stable parent able to provide quality care to a little boy who despertely needs it…I feel until we can look closer at this issue that Joseph would be in better hands with his natural father. Therefore, I am granting temporary physical and legal custody of the minor child to Colin McNeil."

Jess and Nathan, obviously unhappy about the ruling, were, however, calm, seemingly calm anyway. They had been expecting it.

"The transfer of custody will happen today, no later than six this evening. The Masseys will be given the opportunity to call the child at least once a day and see him every Saturday at Mr. McNeil's home. This court is adjourned."

xxxxx

While Nathan spent some time with Joe in his room, Antonio, Nicole, and Jess sat with Zachary, Madison, and Toby to explain what would be happening. Really, it was Jess that did the explaining, and the "explaining" was just lying. Everyone figured a lie would be easier for the children to understand.

"Joe is going to be going away for a while. He's going to be with someone who will help him get better. And we're going to go see him in a few days."

"Is he gonna talk again when he comes back?" Madison asked.

"He will talk again someday, but I don't know when."

"Why does he have to go away?" Zachary was an anxious child these days and the prospect of the change of having someone leave the home indefinitely was frightening to him.

"Well, you know how this house is noisy a lot?" Jess chose her words carefully. She didn't want the kids to think they had been the reason for Joe's departure. "We all make a lot of noise, Mommy, Daddy, and me too. And where Joe's going it will be quiet and he'll be able to rest."

"How long?" Madison asked.

"For a while. We'll see him soon."

They all seemed contented.

"Toby, do you have any questions?"

"No."

"Okay. The man who is going to take Joe will be here soon. I want you guys to go up to the playroom and stay there, so we can say goodbye to Joe."

Once all the children were gone, Jess let out a huge sigh. She was so relieved they had taken the news so well. It didn't take much to send them all into tears, so she was expecting a lot of drama. Thankfully, they were all in good form when she told them.

"You did that well," Nicole said.

"Do you want me to take him up there so they can say goodbye?" Antonio offered.

"Yes."

After a brief moment of telling Joe that he had to go somewhere and that Zachary, Madison, and Toby wanted to say goodbye, Antonio brought him to the playroom.

"What are you gonna tell him?" Nicole asked, knowing Jess would be giving him more of an explanation when he came back downstairs.

"I was thinking about this all day and all last night. If I tell him what I told Madison, Toby, and Zachary, he'll feel like he's being punished for not speaking. And I can't tell him the truth, that would be too much too. So I guess I'll say that we're working and Colin is going to be his babysitter…I know it's a lousy explanation, but it's all he can tolerate now."

xxxxx

It was almost six. Colin would be arriving soon. Nathan, who got called in to work, said goodbye and left. Jess knew he really went because he couldn't stand to see Joe leave.

Jess sat his suitcases in the foyer, sat him on one and knelt in front of him.

"Okay, angel, Mommy, Daddy, Nicole, and Antonio have to work, so I found someone who is going to take care of you for a while. His name is Colin and he is very nice. You don't know him, but he knows you and he loves you very much. So you're gonna stay at his house for a while." Jess was careful not to make any promises she couldn't be sure she'd keep. She avoided saying that he would be back soon. It wouldn't be soon. She couldn't tell him when she would be able to bring him home, so she settled on, "I'll come for you when I can. But in the mean time, I'm gonna come visit you at Colin's."

When the bell rang she picked him up and opened the door.

"Hi, Joseph," Colin said with a smile. He was so happy to be meeting his son and getting him out of that home.

"We call him Joe," Nicole, who was there with Antonio, said.

"Joe, this is Colin. He's gonna take care of you for a while."

"Let me put these in your trunk." Antonio brought the suitcases out and Nicole followed him, assuming Colin and Jess would want time alone to make the transition. They gave the former couple time to talk before coming back to the house.

"Here are your keys," Antonio said.

"Colin's gonna take you now, okay?"

Of course, Joe didn't respond. Hoping he would take it well, she handed him to Colin. Joe didn't flinch, get tense, or signal that he was at all uncomfortable. This made Jess even sadder, for it was more evidence of how disturbed her little boy was. No normal five-year-old doesn't care about being sent to live with a stranger. But Joe looked for all the world that he was being sent with a well known relative.

"What time should we expect you on Saturday?"

"Around two."

"All right. You ready, Joe? See you Saturday."

Jess watched as her son was carried off. She had been expected to be emotional about this—which was why she had sent the kids to their playroom—but, as sad as she was, she was not crying at all.

She closed the door and the three of them stood in silence for a while.

"We'll get him back," was all Nicole could say. She said it to comfort herself as much as Jess.

xxxxx

Strapped in a booster seat, Joe watched out the window as the car took him away from his home. He may have looked blasé about the whole thing, but it was a very different story in his mind.

Why is only me going away and not Toby and Madison and Zachary? Who is going to take care of them when Mommy and Daddy are working? I thought Nicole stopped working. Why aren't we all staying home with her? Maybe she's gonna be at the hospital again.

xxxxx

Joe solomnly followed Colin into the elevator that brought them up to his fourth floor condo.

"This is it," Colin said, lowering the suitcases. "This is going to be your home…" He wanted to say 'from now on', but he couldn't be sure of that. "Do you wanna see your room? I got you a really cool race car bed. And lots of new toys. Come on, let's go see."

xxxxx

To the great relief of Jess, Nicole, and Antonio, Toby and Zachary handled Joe's absence relatively well. They seemed to understand that Joe needed help and, as far as they knew, was getting it. Madison, on the other hand, wasn't as accepting as the boys. She didn't really ask or talk about her brother any more than Toby or Zachary, but her acting out increased and it seemed unlikely that it was just coincidental.

On the plus side, all three of them had started counseling with Tori and were happy about Nicole's retirement. Relieved that their children were in good care—finally—Antonio and Nathan were able to keep their minds on work, and Jess went back for good—as opposed to before when she was just on call for emergencies.

Even though they all missed Joe, they all found some comfort in their new routines and getting back to work. Nicole, who expected being home to be a challenge, was perhaps the happiest of them all. Her days, although busy, weren't nearly as full as they were when she was an agent, but she was much more full—full of peace, free from guilt, and best of all, she had control. She always knew where Zachary and Madison and Toby were, what they were doing, and how they were doing. And that was all she really wanted.