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A Boy, a Judge and a Bitter Custody Case

When Timmie's mother dies, his father goes to court to regain him. But the child's heart is with his mom's boyfriend.

August 10, 2003|Pauline Arrillaga | Associated Press Writer

WINNER, S.D. — In more than a decade on the bench, Max Gors had learned that most of what a judge sees is misery. Abandoned children, abused spouses, unrepentant killers. "Horrible things," he says. "Broken things."

It is a rare and precious moment when a judge can actually fix something and walk away feeling good. Custody cases are especially tough, because everyone loses.

For four years, the kid now sitting across from Gors in his chambers had been on the losing end of an unusual custody battle. As the would-be parents duked it out, another sort of standoff developed -- between the judge and the determined boy, now 13.

The judge was following the law. The boy was following his heart. And their paths led to very different conclusions about how the dispute should be resolved.

Yet here they were, both tired of the drawn-out case and with a chance to end it.

Gors held Timmie's gaze, and finally asked: "What do you want?"

Of course, the judge knew. The problem was, it just wasn't done. Children get a say in custody cases, but they don't get to pick.

And Timmie Meldrum wanted to choose for himself.

*

When you're a kid, there are certain things you learn to count on. For Timmie, it was the love he shared with his mother, Nancy. She showered him with smiles and spoiled him with gifts: a go-cart once, another time a quilt made of Ford emblems, sewn by hand because she knew her son adored Ford trucks.

Less sure were Timmie's feelings about his father.

Tim Meldrum Sr. and Nancy married in 1988 after graduating from high school in East Moline, Ill. They were just 19 when Timmie arrived four months later.

Meldrum, a mechanic, cared for his son when his wife began traveling as an exotic dancer. But by the time Timmie was 4, Nancy had left Meldrum.

She met rancher Chuck Novotny during a show in Winner, a southern South Dakota farm hamlet. In 1992, she and Timmie moved in with Novotny, and the following year they had a son, Zachary. While Nancy traveled for work, Novotny became a father to both kids.

He drove Timmie to school, enrolled him in Bible study and took him to a psychologist who diagnosed attention deficit disorder. It was Novotny whom Timmie came to call "Dad."

Meldrum saw his son when Nancy took the boys to Illinois to visit her folks, and they spoke periodically. But fate would soon threaten to shatter their relationship, and the family's world.

On May 3, 1998, Nancy lost control of her car and was killed. When Novotny took 9-year-old Timmie to Illinois for the funeral, Meldrum said he wanted his son back. But the boy insisted on returning home -- to South Dakota.

A few weeks later, Meldrum went to court. The case landed on the desk of Judge Gors.

*

Meldrum vs. Novotny at first seemed cut-and-dried for the 58-year-old judge, one of four in South Dakota's Sixth Circuit Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said biological parents have a fundamental right to rear their children. State laws generally agree that a biological parent gets custody over others unless he or she abandoned the child or is unfit.

To Gors, the law was clear. Meldrum hadn't abandoned Timmie, nor was he unfit. Novotny, meanwhile, wasn't a relative or even Timmie's stepfather.

In August 1998, after a hearing in Winner, the judge was ready to rule, but he wanted to see Timmie first. They met in chambers, and within minutes Gors knew this was no ordinary 9-year-old. He wasn't afraid to say what he wanted: to stay in South Dakota.

But Gors wasn't swayed. Besides the law's presumption that Timmie's best interests were served by placement with his biological father, there was something else. The judge simply didn't believe that children should get to pick where they live, because they might not base their decision on reason. A child could choose Dad because they go fishing together, or pick Mom because she lets him stay out all night.

Only the state of Georgia allows children, once 14, to choose their custodial parent so long as that parent is fit. Other states give special consideration to a child's preference, but courts are not bound to it.

Gors awarded custody to Meldrum.

*

Novotny appealed, and Timmie, guided by a children's advocacy group, filed his own court motion seeking a lawyer and demanding another hearing.

The boy even sent the judge a letter.

"I am writing to you today to beg you to help me," he scrawled in rough cursive. "It wasn't my fault my mom died. I should not be punished for it."

Gors granted Timmie's request for an attorney, and the boy remained in Winner while Novotny's appeal was pending. The next year the state Supreme Court ordered the case heard again, because Timmie had not been represented the first time.

When the case came back before him in March 2000, Gors urged the parties to settle.

Everyone agreed that Timmie would live with Meldrum that summer, then return to South Dakota for school. But the deal fell apart when negotiations over holiday visits failed.

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