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A Father's Quest

The case of Arianas Campos-Reese and his son Tyberius illustrates what's wrong with family court.



On October 10, 2009, the mother of Tyberius Campos-Reese was arrested for prostitution in Hayward. Four days later, his father, Arianas Campos-Reese, filed for sole legal and physical custody of Tyberius. But the court denied his request on the very next day, and on October 16 Arianas was forced to return three-year-old Tyberius to his mother's care, a weekly exchange that can now happen only at the Hayward police station.

Arianas lives for Thursdays and Fridays. Those are the days of the week that he gets to make Tyberius dinner, take him to the movies, and tuck him in for the night. He's got two days each week to rest easy with the knowledge that his son is safe under his eye. The other five days of the week, he worries.

For more than two years, the 27-year-old father has been trying to prove his case for full custody in family court. He's got a record of steady employment, a stable home, and a meticulously kept paper trail of the events of the last 29 months. He appears in family court so often that the clerks know him by name. Other fathers he sees there tell him to just pay his child support and move on. They are tired, broken men who are almost always older than him and have learned the hard way that fathers rarely win in court.

Should fathers cast aside in service of the goal of maintaining the relationship between mothers and their children simply accept their fate and move on?

Arianas is not the kind of father who can fathom "moving on" from his son. His life evolves around Tyberius. With his XXL frame and tightly braided cornrows, he doesn't appear to be the type of guy who'd cradles his son's small body as delicately as he'd handle a blown-glass egg. But when he glances at Tyberius, the way his eyes melt at the corners give him away. Arianas knows that Tyberius' favorite flavor of ice cream is strawberry, and that he loves watching Thomas the Tank Engine but is afraid of trains in real life. He cherishes those details as fiercely as he guards his son's safety.

The father's deep-seated fear for his son's safety has driven him to plead with the court, argue with the court, and ultimately stand in open defiance of the court's orders when he felt that he had no other choice.

"No one wants to acknowledge that a single, biracial man who's this passionate about his child might be on to something," Arianas said. "How does this happen? How many chances does a woman get to show she's an unfit mother?"

In the Alameda County Family Court system, she can get plenty. The October 15 hearing at which Tenesha Self once again received primary custody of her son was merely her latest chance in a string of escalating incidents that have lasted almost as long as her young son's life.

Arianas says he tried to work things out when, in 2007, the child's mother began staying out all night and receiving strange phone calls. When he discovered that the 23-year-old Self was seeing another man, he says he hoped they could remain civil for the sake of their son.

But when his former fiancée left with Tyberius one day in July 2007 and didn't return, Arianas panicked. He didn't trust Self's new boyfriend, but without solid proof that something was wrong, he could only wait for Self to come home. Two days later, she returned with Tyberius, but in the meantime, Arianas had stopped trusting the mother of his child.

So the couple separated, and thus began a saga of disputes involving the particulars of shared custody. Arianas filed a motion in family court for full custody of Tyberius. Police records show that Self dropped out of sight with Tyberius twice more, once for an entire week. Arianas said he began receiving threats over the phone. Accusations flew between the parents that the other was incapable of providing a good home for their son. Throughout it all, Arianas remained certain that the cards would fall his way once the issue was resolved in court.

But that hasn't happened.

To Mike McCormick, the executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group, this situation is all too familiar. "The attitude of the court toward fathers is 'You don't know it yet, but the court is going to manage your relationship with your child,'" he said. "And by that they mean that the mother will by and large retain custody of her child, without much or any consideration of her actions that may contrast with her ability to parent. ... Even if he is the better parent, because he is the father he has to be much, much, much, much better to even be considered equal to the mother of his child."

McCormick said there's a point in some custody disputes at which action is necessary. He calls that moment "the throw-up threshold." But in the case involving Tyberius Campos-Reese, neglect, dishonesty, gunplay, and prostitution haven't been enough to cross the threshold.

September 13, 2007

At the estranged couple's first court date at the Hayward Hall of Justice, Self, who declined to comment for this story, was a no-show. The court date was re-assigned to November 15, when she and Arianas met with a family mediator.