Jackson was stunned. “Ellen and I came from a suburban part of New Jersey — upper middle class, white picket fences — and now we were thrown into this crazy Jerry Springer mess. And what killed me was that my daughter was stuck in this whole thing. She knew that this was going on but was just being manipulated by her mother and thinking that if she told me that I would be angry with her.”
Upon coming home to a cleared-out house, Jackson called the Oceanside Police Department, and an officer came over. “He told me to go to the Vista courthouse. I went on my lunch break the next day [Wednesday, January 7], and they pretty much laughed at me and said, ‘You have to come here bright and early in the morning.’ And also at this time, I had taken some time off of work, and I was hanging onto my job by a thread. So I had to work on Thursday. So Friday I showed up at 6:45 in the morning. And they didn’t tell me to leave. I was 18th, 19th in line. They turn everybody after 20 away. They repeatedly told us that if you are first in line there is a chance that you may not be seen. But I was confident that I was going to be seen. And I was there from 6:45 a.m. to 3:45 in the afternoon, when a lady stuck her head out and said, ‘I am sorry. We are not going to be able to see anybody. Obviously we are closed for the weekend, and don’t bother coming on Monday.’ These ladies were probably the rudest people I’ve ever seen. They are worse than the New Jersey DMV, and the DMV in Jersey is horrible.”
Jackson left the courthouse frustrated, frustrated that his daughter had been taken from him, frustrated that he couldn’t contact his daughter, frustrated that the Oceanside police didn’t act the day she was taken, frustrated that the Vista family court didn’t seem to care, frustrated that the court order forbidding Falcone from taking his daughter out of the county seemed to count for nothing. He suspected that had the gender situation been reversed and he had taken Sophia against court orders, her mother would have had a lot easier time getting someone to care. Not knowing what else to do, he called the Oceanside police again. “This time, they told me about the child abduction unit with the D.A.’s office. So I called. At first the lady I talked to got into it. I was really, really excited. She asked me, ‘Do you have custody?’ I said, ‘Yes, we both have custody.’ But that’s when I found out that joint legal custody really doesn’t mean anything.”
Because they had always managed to arrange the joint care of their daughter, Jackson and Falcone never needed a court-dictated visitation schedule. However, they had set up, with the court’s help, a system whereby money was taken from Jackson’s paychecks for child support. That, Jackson says, put him at a disadvantage custodywise. Though he still had legal custody of Sophia, Falcone had physical custody. “Because of that, she told me all they can do is a ‘search and locate.’ ”
Jill Lindberg, an attorney with the district attorney’s child abduction unit, says custody situations such as Jackson and Falcone’s, in which the parents, not the court, set times and schedules, can make enforcement of court orders a little trickier. “Sometimes these court orders [stipulate] that reasonable visitation will be [set up] by the parents. Well, that’s not very helpful, because if the parents could agree they wouldn’t be in family court. So we look at the orders, and we also look at all prior orders to see what visitation has been in the past.”
Told of Jackson’s suspicion that had the genders been reversed he would have gotten more action from the authorities, Lindberg, who did not work on Jackson’s case, responded, “The gender doesn’t matter to us. Mothers violate court orders, fathers violate court orders. They all do it. We try to help whichever parent comes to us and seeks assistance. Now, certainly in other countries, or perhaps even in other states, there might be a bias by some courts that the mother should be with the child, especially a young child. And they might be reluctant to return a child to a father, especially a one-, two-, or three-year-old. But from our perspective, the gender of the parent doesn’t make a difference.”
The “search and locate” was never needed. On Wednesday, January 28, Falcone called Jackson. Turns out, it took Falcone five days to realize the situation in upstate New York with her ex-con boyfriend and his ex-con brother was no good. And she took her daughter and headed south to New Jersey. “She called me back and started crying, apologizing, that it was the worst mistake that she ever made, she doesn’t know what she was thinking, my daughter needs me, all that. Of course, this is not stuff that I have never heard before. I have heard it all in similar situations. But she also told me that she was going into a long-term rehab, which is something she needs. I spoke with my daughter every day after that, and Ellen would hop on the phone and give me an update with school. And they were living at Ellen’s mother’s house in New Jersey.”
The plan was for Sophia to return to Oceanside when her mother checked into rehab.
Last month, Howard Jackson emailed this update: “Ellen and Sophia came back. They drove half away across the country, and I flew into Louisiana and drove the rest of the way with them. Ellen promised that she will be in a program within a few weeks. That promise faded as time passed. Each day I see her slip into the same old habits. Sophia and I have been spending some quality time together. I have been trying to give her as much stability as possible.”
Names in this story have been changed.