Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Another messy custody case


He waited three hours in a McDonald's two hours from Baltimore. There couldn't have been a mix-up. He could not have misread the directions. And besides, he had been there before. It was the same McDonald's designated as a "drop-off" a few weeks earlier, when Joe Sovitsky left his daughter with her mother.

It was an August day in 1990, and Sovitsky had driven to this place in Virginia, following instructions provided in a notarized letter from his former wife. Sovitsky had visitation rights -- every other federal holiday, every other weekend, summer school vacation -- and he wanted to see his little girl.

But Joe Sovitsky says she never showed that day at the McDonald's. He waited from about 3 in the afternoon until after 6 in the evening.

Then he drove back to Baltimore.

There was no phone number to dial, no address to go to. Sovitsky did not know where his daughter lived. His former wife wanted it that way. That's why she had insisted on a "drop-off."

"I didn't know where they lived then," Sovitsky says. "I don't know where they live now, except that it's somewhere in Pennsylvania. All I ever had was a post office box number. I have no way of contacting them. It's been that way for two years."

His last visitation with his daughter, then nine years old, took place in the summer of 1990, a year after his wife left Baltimore, six months before his divorce was final.

And now Father's Day is coming and Joe Sovitsky, and a lot of divorced fathers like him, will watch it pass without seeing their children. They might have court-ordered visitation rights. They might be among the guys who actually pay child support -- that is, dads who aren't deadbeats -- but they still can't get to their kids. Their marriages were too unhappy, their divorces too bitter. Their wives keep their children from them. And it hurts.

"When was the last time you saw your daughter?" I ask Sovitsky.

"Had to be at the custody hearing," he said. "This had to be -- it's hard to remember -- this had to have been January 11th of '91. I put in court papers for a change in custody, from my wife to me. I got her to court. We didn't know it 'til later, but my daughter was there. My [former] wife had someone watching her outside somewhere in a car. This was in Towson. Afterwards, I was walking to my car, and I didn't know it at the time but they [his former wife and her boyfriend] were parked in the same garage. And they drove by me and rolled down the window and my wife yelled, 'See ya later, chump.' And my daughter was in the back seat. . . . And they drove away."

"It sounds like a lot of payback to me," I say.

Sovitsky was so furious about his wife's behavior and her refusal to grant him visitations -- to even contact him -- that he stopped making his child support payments of $100 a week. In the fall of 1990, he was summoned to court and ordered to pay what he VTC owed -- more than $1,500. After that, his salary was attached for the payments.

"I said to the judge," Sovitsky recalls, "'Why do you enforce my child support payments but not my right to visit my daughter?' And he said -- and I'll tell you his exact words -- he said, 'I don't care whether you've seen your daughter or not.' . . . They're taking my money, and I don't have any problem with that, but I can't see my own child."

Sovitsky was frustrated. He had hired private investigators to locate his daughter. He had called lawyers, cops, prosecutors and politicians. None of them wanted to help. None knew how to help. "What do you want us to do?" an assistant state's attorney asked.

His daughter lived with her mother in another state (first Virginia, now probably Pennsylvania) and a lawyer told him he needed another $2,500 to secure favorable court action outside Maryland.

These are the hardest stories to tell -- desperate dads, custody disputes -- because they are what the police call "domestic things," meaning ugly private affairs that happen to spill into the public record when they reach court. They are messy and unsettling, clogged with emotional dynamics that make discerning fact from fiction very difficult.

"That's why," I tell Sovitsky, "it's been a long time since I wrote about a custody case -- two sides to every story, and the facts are just too hard to sort out."

The emotions smear the facts.

"One thing is true," Sovitsky's father, Bernard, says, pointing to his son. "He has not been allowed to see his daughter. He has not seen his daughter, we have not seen our granddaughter. He has a court order to see his child, and he doesn't see her. Yet, he has to pay support."

"Another Father's Day coming," Joe Sovitsky says, turning away. "We missed one, and another, and now another."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad