Lance Jasper had hoped his client, Shanna ManyWounds, would be reunited with her 5-year-old son in time for Christmas.
Instead, ManyWounds, of Elmo, doesn’t even know if her child is still in the country, according to Jasper, her lawyer., the Daily Montanan reports.
“Seeing Shanna at Christmas with an empty house and presents for her son that are going to go unopened, it’s gut-wrenching,” Jasper said in an interview last week.
In late October, Jasper and lawyer Spencer MacDonald, both of Missoula, made an emergency request that the Montana Supreme Court take over a child custody case from Lake County District Court.
They agreed to represent ManyWounds, largely pro bono, after reading a transcript of a child custody hearing in September that resulted in a “draconian transition” for the child, a description the lawyers used in a court filing.
At the hearing, Judge Kim Christopher ordered the child to be immediately taken away from his mother, who had raised him, and be placed with his father, who had visited the child only four days a year.
Neither parent had proposed that plan.
The judge, however, argued the change would build the child’s “stress muscles,” remove him from an overly controlling “helicopter” mother, and give the father an equal chance to parent, for the next five years.
Last week, Jasper said the wait for an order has been excruciating for his client and confusing for him. In district court, he said, orders on emergency filings typically come out within one or two days.
At the very least, he said, part of the emergency in this case comes from the district court’s decision to prevent the mother from contacting her son, which he said is detrimental to both.
In their petition, the lawyers argue that prohibition made an already traumatic situation for the child even worse.
In this case, the deadline for the father to file a response in court was Nov. 30, and Jasper said the matter has been on the Supreme Court’s calendar for the last two weeks and this week.
“It has been the toughest calls that I’ve had to deal with with a client in my whole career,” Jasper said of the lack of substantive updates for ManyWounds.
At the hearing, one of the issues the parents had argued about was whether the child should be allowed to visit his father’s family in Jamaica.
ManyWounds didn’t want that to happen right away, but Jasper said she has since received an administrative notice that the child had applied for a passport.
She isn’t allowed to contact the father and ask questions, and the father, Jonathan Whyte, hasn’t volunteered any information to her, Jasper said.
So he said she’s in the dark about whether her child is in Oregon, where the father has lived, or overseas, or elsewhere.
“We’re in a situation where we don’t even know where the kid is,” Jasper said.
Whyte’s lawyer, David Diacon of Lolo, earlier said he does not comment on active cases; he did not return a phone message left Wednesday with another person at his firm, Hrafn Law.
In earlier interviews, both Jasper and MacDonald said the decision by Christopher represents one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice they have witnessed.
They want the Montana Supreme Court to return the child to ManyWounds, assign a new judge to the child custody dispute, and refer misconduct concerns to disciplinary counsel.
In an earlier interview, Christopher said she couldn’t say much about the case, but she said when parents represent themselves in court, as they did here, disputes are unpredictable.
The judge admitted she was emotional in the case, but she also said she took time to reflect on it later, as she does in other “hotly contested” cases.
In a court filing, she noted she subsequently finalized the parenting plan “with more judicial temperament.”
Jasper and MacDonald both have said the emergency petitions like the one they filed are a long shot with the Montana Supreme Court, especially in family law cases.
Jasper said district court judges are given much deference, but he said he believes their case has met the burden.
Although Jasper said district courts typically rule within 48 hours on emergency matters, he also doesn’t believe the state high court is required to issue an order within a particular timeline.
Nonetheless, Jasper said the long wait in this case is difficult because of the stresses on the mother and likely added trauma to the child.
ManyWounds is undergoing counseling “to maintain some semblance of not losing her mind,” he said, and he anticipates the child is struggling.
“This is the hardest time of year with Christmas and all of that, and a little boy that’s 5 years old not knowing what is going on with his mom and why his mom isn’t calling him and talking to him,” Jasper said.
He said the lack of communication from the father is nerve-wracking.
Now, Jasper is worried about what he will tell ManyWounds if the child ends up in Jamaica, either on a short trip or for a longer stretch.
“Who is to blame? Is it us, the attorneys? The system?” Jasper said. “You can’t try to explain that to a mom of a 5-year-old, that she’s just the victim of the judicial system that wouldn’t act quickly enough.”
Daily Montanan is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Daily Montanan maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Darrell Ehrlick for questions: [email protected]. Follow Daily Montanan on Facebook and Twitter.
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