Thursday, January 1, 2009

Building a Chronology

Custody scams depend on creating confusion with rumors, lies, false accusations, secret meetings, and undocumented decisions in judge's chambers. These true stories can sound incredible.

The first step I have found most useful is to get documents in order, including police, medical and court records, reports, correspondence, lawyer's itemized bills, children's drawings, school papers, and especially photos and recordings. Pin down everything that helps to explain how this story grew, including people's motivations and litigation strategies.

I begin by putting a date at the upper right corner of every possible document, giving year first, then month and day: YYYYMMDD. I hole-punch the pages and place original drawings in plastic sleeves to organize chronologically in notebooks.

On a computer Word document or Excel spread sheet, I use the same date-format to list documents and events. For example:

19981023 Sue and Joe meet
19990225 Sue and Joe marry
19990511 Sue enters shelter
19990603 Sue goes home
19991008 Joey born
19990108 Police report: Joe arrested 1st time
19990109 3-page letter from Joe apologizing
19990115 counseling with Chris Smith, LCMSW
20000220 Joe goes to Florida with his girlfriend
20000225 Joe sends postcard to Joey from Florida
20000310 Sue files for divorce

As the list grows more extensive, I often color-code entries. For example, every entry referring to the guardian ad litem has its own color. Every appointment with a specific court-ordered psychologist has another color. When these two contractors meet together, each one's name is highlighted in its own color. Sometimes converging dates reveal connections among contractors who function as a cabal.

When you do this, you build a data base of critical details that will assure accuracy and accessibility for many writing projects.

When you think chronologically, it is natural to use an active voice, which is a much stronger form of writing than the passive voice. It is simpler to say I ate an apple than An apple was eaten by me. Name the actor before the action. This makes the sentence more chronological and simpler to grasp without having to read it again.

One of the easiest ways to improve writing is to circle these static verbs: is, are, was, were, will be. Try to rewrite without them. This forces us to think more precisely about what is happening and to write more succinctly with active verbs.

Lessons in good grammar and writing skills are online. Just google these subjects. For example, by googling "passive active," you can find handouts like these:

Social workers and psychologists sometimes use the passive voice as if it makes their assertions sound objective, scientific, and authoritative. I call this writing style the Voice-From-On-High. (I will add some examples from court reports by guardians ad litem and clinicians.)

When custody stories get too complex, listeners drift. Audiences appreciate our efforts to keep words precise, focused, and brief.

Shape and polish everything you write like a jewel. Set it aside; read it again. Shorten words, phrases, sentences, until they flow smoothly with no confusion about the meaning. Do not use five words if two will do. You will gain facility at using the same story for different purposes, perhaps in a letter to the editor, an op-ed, a freedom-of-information letter to a government official, statehouse testimony on proposed legislation, a blog, a song, a children's story.

As I became familiar with several custody stories, I combined themes they had in common, such as: profiteering by lawyers and clinicians; teen dating violence leads to custody scams; how information gets extracted from children in court-ordered visits to use against them in court.

Try to observe court hearings and people's interactions directly. Write about what you see and hear. Quote documents directly and annotate them, substituting pseudonyms for the children and their family. Avoid hearsay or speculation that will make your story less credible.

Finally, do not give up when others cannot tolerate these stories.

Many people have experienced horrendous forms of abuse. True stories about childhood abuse and official malfeasance can awaken painful memories. Those who turn away may have good reasons to feel fragile. Some are trying to hold back a flood of rage and despair.

Do not try to tell the whole story at once. It is better to give your readers too little than too much, which can be overwhelming and frighten people from this cause altogether.

Ending custody scams will take time. We need to equip ourselves for a long, steady campaign.

Give your audience reasons to hope. Among the best reasons for hope will be you and your writing.