Gerald McClinton experienced the best day of his life on October 9th, 1996 when his daughter Annekah Evelyn was born. The situation leading up to this amazing day was somewhat complicated, as Gerald's girlfriend chose to leave Juneau, Alaska where they were living with her 3 small children, telling Gerald only that she would contact him when she found a new place to call home. Gerald waited on pins and needles, desperate to hear about his baby even before she was born and determined not to miss a day of her life. Finally, Gerald heard from his girlfriend and discovered that she was in Washington, where she would soon give birth.
He quickly packed his things and hopped in his small plane and flew himself down to Washington, never thinking about this move but only feeling his desire to see his baby and experience every day with her. Over the next 7 months Gerald watched Annekah grow and spent his time taking her flying in his small plane, teaching her the things that he loved and loving looking at life through a child's eyes. She would smile every time she saw him and that smile made everything else melt away, it couldn't have been more perfect. She was his life and he realized that there was nothing more rewarding to him than being a father to his precious baby girl.
Sadly, Gerald's time enjoying his child was cut short and everything changed in May of 1997 when Gerald's girlfriend filed a restraining order against him, packed up her things, took her 3 children and little baby Annekah and left, leaving no forwarding address and no way for Gerald to contact her in order to see his daughter. Per the rules of the county, Gerald had to petition for custody of Annekah in order for them to look for her and her mother, which Gerald did. Happily for Gerald, the court awarded him primary custody, recognizing that the restraining order was unfounded and that his love for his daughter and his willingness to do anything to make her smile would make him an ideal caregiver for Annekah. Gerald knew he could provide his daughter with a loving home and a happy life and he relished the chance of enjoying the same by having his daughter with him, watching her grow up. He just couldn't bear to be away from her and desperately wanted to see her again.
It took 6 months for the state's Child Find Unit to locate Annekah and her mother. It turned out that Gerald's girlfriend did what for Gerald was the unthinkable; she fled with Annekah from Washington, where she and Gerald lived, to her home state of Pennsylvania. Now 3,000 miles separated Gerald from his daughter, and all he could do was rely on the courts and the justice system to bring her home to him.
Thus began the worst period in Gerald's life. He felt as though he was fighting for his daughter and for his life. He could not bear being separated from her, and the injustice of it made it that much more unbearable. But the court system in this country is anything but just when it comes to parental rights. Washington state, which had previously awarded Gerald custody, now reversed that decision and gave full custody to Annekah's mother without any sort of due process or hearing. They seemed to feel that since her mother had been taking care of her for the past several months she would do a fine job continuing to do so. It seemed as though they were saying, 'she'll be fine; she's the mother.' But what about Annekah? What about the fact that nothing had changed since their previous ruling awarding Gerald custody other than the fact that the baby was kidnapped by her mother and brought to the other side of the country? None of that seemed to matter to the courts.
The next 11 years were nothing short of painful for Gerald. He fought for his daughter in Washington, he flew back and forth to Pennsylvania and fought for her there. Every penny he had went towards fighting to see his daughter. And her mother did not help the situation. She moved repeatedly, making it difficult for Gerald to even locate where his daughter was living. She returned many of the presents he sent habitually for Annekah for every Birthday, Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, or any other occasion that would give him an excuse to reach out to his child. Every time a box was returned, Gerald's heart sank a little further. He sought out various organizations active in attempting to assist fathers with parental rights but was always stopped by red tape. He sends child support money every month to a P.O. Box that has not changed for 11 years but often does not know where his daughter is living or if she even realizes how desperate he is to be a part of her life.
“The next 11 years were nothing short of painful for Gerald. He fought for his daughter in Washington, he flew back and forth to Pennsylvania and fought for her there. Every penny he had went towards fighting to see his daughter.”
In a country where so many single mothers wish that their child's father were more interested, more active, more caring, in a country that claims to be about family values and children's rights, it is hard to believe that a father who wants nothing more than to know his only child, to be with her and to watch her grow up, is repeatedly denied his parental rights for no other reason than that he is not the mother. It hardly seems like anyone is looking out for the best interests of Annekah.
There is a whole other half of her family that she has yet to meet that can't wait to get to know her. And yet Gerald tries to remain hopeful. He will not stop fighting, he will not give up. And he figures now that at least he's more than halfway there. He hopes that if he is unable to make progress before then, that when Annekah turns 18 she will seek him out on her own. And when she does he will be there waiting for her with open arms, ready to learn what he has missed out on for the past 17 years. And he has saved all those unopened boxes in his garage, knowing that an easy-bake oven may not be as appealing to an 18 year old as it would've to a 5 year old, but still hoping to let his daughter know that he loves her with all his heart and has thought about her every single day that they have been separated.
He desperately hopes that he doesn't have to wait the next 5 and a half years to see his daughter again but he has had such a long journey already that he knows he can weather the storm if he has to. The question for everyone who hears about Gerald's struggle is not an easy one. Where do we begin to change the unfair and gender biased court system in terms of parental rights? How do we ensure that the child's interests are best served? Sadly, there are more stories like Gerald and Annekah's and while the father surely suffers in such a situation, so too does the child who is denied a father's love.
Thank you Gerald, for sharing your Story with us.
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(c) 2009 by Cara Moorehead and Story of My Life®