Choosing Jail Over Joint Custody

  • Share
  • Read Later
Griffin: Milkwaukee Sheriff

Matthew Sebuliba (left) holds the child he fathered with April Griffin (right)

(This is the second part of a two-part series. For Part One, see "When Motherhood Gets You Jail Time.")

The road to jail for April Griffin began soon after her son Jesse was born, though she would have never guessed it at the time. Because she had sought state aide for medical coverage for the child, the state brought suit to determine paternity. She said she signed the petition because she was told she had to, though she said she had not wanted child support from the boy's biological father.

That's routine, says Professor Robert Stenger of the Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. "Things are different when you are poor," he said, noting that most states will press child support claims on behalf of mothers who are on welfare. Had she not been on aid and not sought child support, the issue of Matthew Sebuliba's paternity probably would not have been raised, Stenger said.

But it was, and once he was in court, Sebuliba began pressing for the rights that come with the responsibilities of being a father. Griffin was ordered to bring Jesse to a clinic where Sebuliba could have supervised visits with his son, but the child welfare workers would later testify that Griffin was notably clingy, uncooperative, and nearly hysterical during at least one such visit.

By the time the case reached Judge Michael Guolee on May 14, the judge would note early in the hearing that Griffin "was her own worst enemy." And when Griffin had finished cross-examining Sebuliba and other witnesses herself, she had only succeeded in convincing the judge to support Sebuliba. "I think he is a good father," he said. "He would be a good man. He is not going to hurt that baby."

Maybe, the judge said, Sebuliba's lack of involvement during her pregnancy was Griffin's fault. Said Goulee: "And you say, 'It is his fault, his fault. He is not seeing me when I am having a baby...' On the other hand, you may be denying him or pushing him away. I say to myself, what came first? Your pushing him away? Is that why [he] didn't have a relationship with the child?"

As the hearing ended, the judge also agreed to the father's request to change the baby's name from Jesse Moses Peter Emmanuel Griffin to Jesse Moses Griffin-Sebuliba. Griffin objected. "He already has a name," she said. "Too many names. I'm sorry. Too many names," Guolee replied.

Professor Judith McMullen of Marquette Law School said judges are often forced to rely on gut instincts about who is telling the truth in custody cases involving allegations — but little proof — of domestic violence. "It's a credibility issue, and judges often simply go with their intuition about who is telling the truth," McMullen told TIME. "These are very sad cases. People usually want to say well, for example, the mother is lying and the father is an innocent victim. But that is not usually the case. Even if there was no abuse, the mother often truly believes there was."

Until relatively recently, she added, judges routinely considered allegations of wife abuse as a separate issue not relevant to the question of child custody. "That has changed and the courts have come a long way in the past 20 years," she said. "But it still often comes down to he said, she said."

Milwaukee lawyer Narciso Aleman, who took over Griffin's case shortly after she had been incarcerated, has sought Guolee's removal from the case. In a written statement to TIME, he said Guolee "has condemned the entire Griffin family for aiding and abetting the victimization of the father, the child, and wreaking havoc on the judicial system of Wisconsin and therefore fostering anarchy. He has repeatedly pontificated that he stands in defense of the judicial system and the law order required to withstand anarchy. In addition, he has repeatedly called for Ms. Griffin to be examined because there has to be something wrong with any individual who defies his judgment and orders."

Whether there is something wrong with her — or with the system — Griffin says she's not going to change her mind. Meanwhile, the judge's words from May ring as true today as they did seven months ago. "This child isn't getting any younger.... It should learn the name daddy. I love my daddy. I want to be with my daddy. I love my mother. I want to be with my mother. [He] should learn those things."