On New Year’s Eve, Howard Jackson was in court with Ellen Falcone, his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child. For more than nine years, the last three in Oceanside, the two had shared custody of their daughter, Sophia, sometimes living together, sometimes apart. The last half of 2008, they had been living together in an apartment in the Island Club complex near the corner of Melrose and Oceanside Boulevard in Oceanside, not as lovers but as parents with a common interest in their daughter. But in mid-December, Falcone told Jackson that she was taking Sophia and moving back east to live with her mother. Her announcement led to an argument, which ended with Falcone trying to hit Jackson. “She took a swing at me,” Jackson recalls, “and she wound up in jail for the night, which led to me getting a restraining order. The judge ordered that she leave the house, that she had to stay away from me and my job, and that she could not leave the county [with Sophia] — even on a day trip — without my written permission.”
At issue during the court date on the 31st of December was whether the court orders would be extended. Jackson recalls that “the judge [Earl Maas] pretty much looked at her and said, ‘There is no way. I am not going to grant you permission [to leave the county with your daughter]. If you can actually prove that the child is better off away from here, this is how you go about the process.’ ”
The judge laid out for Falcone the hoops she would have to jump through to leave the state with Sophia. Evidently, it all sounded like too much for her. Because, Jackson says, “Six days later, she was gone.”
Falcone and Jackson’s saga started 11 years earlier and 2800 miles from San Diego in a New Jersey suburb of New York City. Jackson’s mother owned a clothing boutique in which Falcone’s mother worked. The two met through their mothers, hit it off, and became romantically involved. The couple planned to build a life together in Southern California. In 1999, they were set to come west when they found out that Falcone was pregnant. The couple decided to stay in New Jersey, and baby Sophia was born in September of that year. When she was five and a half, her parents again planned to move to California. In February 2005, they had a truck packed and ready to go when Falcone backed out of the plan. “But the next year,” Jackson says, “we worked it out. And we made it to Oceanside in 2006. We’ve been out here for three years.”
During their three years here, Jackson says, “We were living together for the first six months and the last six months. In between, we split the time right down the middle with our daughter; we lived five minutes’ walking apart. I was in property management, and I put her up in an apartment two buildings down from mine. We were living in the same community.”
Little Sophia seemed to thrive in the Southern California sun. She surprised her parents by excelling in school. “In New Jersey,” Jackson says of his daughter, “we thought she was going to be heading toward some of the same learning disabilities her mother and I struggled with, ADD and that sort of thing. But when she got here, she got accepted into the Gifted and Talented Education — it is called the GATE program. So she attended that before school and after school.”
On Monday, January 5, Falcone, in violation of the court orders, was staying with Jackson (with his permission) because, Jackson says, “She had nowhere to go. At the time I had no idea she had a motel room with her boyfriend. I found out later that the days that she needed to stay at the house were days that she was fighting with her boyfriend and did not want to stay in the hotel. I was so worn out from the situation, and I did not want to fight in front of Sophia anymore.” So he let Falcone stay in the apartment. Sophia was due back at school that day for the resumption of classes after Christmas break. But Falcone called Jackson at work and said, “ ‘Your daughter is sick. She’s throwing up,’ ” Jackson says. “But when I came home from work, saw my daughter, I could see something was wrong. Ellen left, and my daughter ran up to me and said, ‘Daddy, you need to pinky swear something.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ and she said, ‘I wasn’t sick today. I didn’t throw up. Mommy didn’t wake me up for school. She said Daddy would get mad if he knew that I didn’t go to school today.’ ”
The incident aroused Jackson’s suspicions that Falcone was fixing to leave. “The next day, I woke up, I kissed my daughter while she was sleeping, and went to work. When I got home from work, the whole house was empty. I mean my TV, all the furniture, everything. They got a truck, and they cleared everything out of the house while I was at work. The only things that were there were a broken couch and my clothes.”
Falcone had left a Dear Howard letter that suggested she and Sophia were taking a bus trip “back home” to New Jersey. But for some reason, she also left her cell phone, on which Jackson examined her text messages. From them he found out that Falcone and her boyfriend, whom Jackson describes as “a drug addict, in and out of jail all his life, that had just been released from prison,” had been planning this move for a long time, that it wasn’t a bus but a truck they’d be driving, and it wasn’t to New Jersey but upstate New York they were going. Falcone had met her boyfriend at a methadone clinic. He was headed to New York to live with his brother, who had recently been released from prison in Illinois. And he wanted Falcone and her daughter to come along.
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.