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Advocating For Dads

Podcast Episode Transcripts

Finding Purpose in Advocacy

Episode 1

Sam Heninger:

Welcome to Advocating for Dads with Jana Jones. I'm Sam Henniger, and I'm excited to meet Jana today. We're going to get started. Jana, tell us about your story and what inspired you to become a family law attorney, mainly focusing on advocating for fathers.

Jana Jones:

Yeah. So, Phylicia Rashad on The Cosby Show inspired me to become an attorney. I've always admired her. And she was like a TV mom to me. And I just wanted to be like her. So, the law has been something I wanted to pursue since I was young. Once I entered law school, I became interested in family law but have yet to take a course. When I got out and decided to open up my firm in 2009 and needed to figure out what I would do, I started talking to some attorneys in town. One prominent African-American family law attorney was Billie Ellerbe, and he became my mentor when I first started practicing. And so I fell in love with family law from there.

As an undergrad, I went to Chapel Hill. Go Tar Heels! I studied sociology, and I have always found people fascinating. I'm an introvert, but I find groups of people and stories about people fascinating. And I love to read and be nosy. I find people fascinating. And I was so practicing law made sense. Once I went into undergrad, I knew ultimately that I wanted to attend law school. I decided to pick a major that was going to be interesting. And sociology is that. It's the study of people, the study of people at different points in their lives. It was an excellent preparation for the practice of law more than studying in law school. So, from a sociology background, I studied law at North Carolina Central University. And that is where I got my law degree.

Sam Heninger:

I'm a psychology grad, so studying people is endlessly fascinating. I'm interested to hear more about your mentoring relationship before entering family law and what inspired you to start helping fathers specifically.

Jana Jones:

Yeah, so when it comes to family law, you're dealing with divorce, you're dealing with custody, you're dealing with child support. It might be adoptions. There are juvenile parts of it, which are abuse and neglect. Family law can be a substantial myriad area of things. And many times, people think it includes things like estate planning, wills, trusts, and so on. And that is a separate area of law. It's more of an estate planning side of things. But in any event, throughout all those different kinds of pockets, my niche became custody because, to me, children are the most important thing to fight about, right?

Money comes and goes. Relationships hopefully last forever, but sometimes they don't. But your children are your children. They're your blood. And if there's anything worth fighting over, it's the kids. And so that's the catalyst and the drive behind why I do what I do and why it's the most important thing to me.

Regarding my dad specifically, my parents had a rough relationship. They were married for the majority of my childhood and adulthood. However, it was not a good marriage; my dad was not a good husband. He was an incredible father to me, though. My mother, even though she was very frustrated with the husband that my father was, never tried to speak down about my dad to me and the relationship that we had. She always supported that. She knew I was a daddy's girl and didn't envy that. She understood because she had been a daddy's girl herself as a child. And so it's just really monumental, the impact fathers make on their children, especially their daughters. And if I can be a part of making sure that I can protect that, I want to be.

Sam Heninger:

Tell more of this story about how you stepped into that through that mentor of yours.

Jana Jones:

Yeah. So, when I decided to open my firm, I spoke to another prominent African-American attorney, James Ferguson. He asked me what I was interested in. And I said, well, I think family law. Bille Ellerbe was at the top of the list. He gave him a call and said, hey, I got a new attorney here. She's interested in family law. Billie said, send her over. And the rest was history. He took me under his wing. He let me practice on some of his cases, sit in on consultations, and sit in court. When he had hearings, I represented one of his clients in a hearing so that he could get some practice. So, he rolled it out for me and helped me understand what being a family law attorney is like.

Sam Heninger:

And what would you say thinking about this? There are certainly a lot of horror stories when it comes to dads and how these things can play out in the courts. And so I'd like to know what misconceptions or challenges you've encountered when advocating for fathers in family law cases.

Jana Jones:

Well, I've been fortunate. Here in Mecklenburg County, where I practice family law exclusively, the judges are very thoughtful, and there is not the old-fashioned, well, since the kids are young or mom is mom, the kids should be with mom, and dad should just get some kind of visitation. That is not the standard. Generally speaking, the judges see the parents as equals and want to hear the facts and circumstances regarding which schedule will be the most appropriate. So I'm fortunate in that I'm not fighting bigotry, right, or sexism, kind of the reverse of what we usually experience. But it is still important because a lot of times, you know, women are detail-oriented, right? And so, it's essential to highlight the things that fathers do that may not be detail-oriented but are just as important from a different perspective. And so I always ensure that I illustrate that in any trial before a judge.

Sam Heninger:

What strategies have you used to help fathers navigate child custody and visitation disputes?

Jana Jones:

The most important thing to assure fathers of is that they are parents with equal rights to mom. A lot of times, there is a general assumption that mom is just going to get custody and he's going to get some visitation schedule, and it is just what it is, and it's not worth fighting for. And a lot of times, sometimes, well, I wouldn't say a lot of times, but sometimes my dad's come in with that assumption. And I quickly tell them that that's not the case. We can get that for you if that is what you want. But if you're looking for joint or primary custody, that may be worth fighting for. And you shouldn't just assume that you'll never be able to get it. Again, facts and circumstances have much to do with how cases play out. But generally speaking, the first thing that I want to make sure is that dads understand that they are equal parents. There's a constitutionally protected right to be a parent. And that means parent, not mom, not dad, parent, period.

Sam Heninger:

What do you do to help ensure fair treatment of fathers in the legal system regarding things like child support and parenting time?

Jana Jones:

So, North Carolina calculates child support based on the parties' gross incomes. If you've got two parents that are W-2 employees, that's pretty straightforward. You're looking at pay stubs; you're looking at year-to-date. If you've got someone who is a business owner, things can get more complicated if you get someone who works under the table, that gets more complicated. So, there are mechanisms that the law gives us to try to find that kind of financial information, but everything could be better. And I tell folks, if they getting away with it with the IRS, they'll probably get away with it in state court in Mecklenburg County. We're not detectives. I went to law school. I did not get an MBA. I don't like math. I can't find money. However, there are mechanisms in the legal system that allow us to get more of that type of information. When it comes to fathers who may be paying child support, the most important thing is to make sure that their income is calculated correctly and that, assuming it's mom, mom's income is calculated correctly.

Sam Heninger:

Can you tell me more about how you work in mediation regarding these disputes, especially when advocating for your dad's clients?

Jana Jones:

Yeah, so I'm a real big proponent of mediation. In litigation, you hand facts and circumstances to a neutral third party. Depending on the case's complexity, they will hear your facts and circumstances for an hour or two to a few days. And then they're going to decide that issues concerning the rest of your life. And no matter what kind of case you put on, no judge will ever know everything. They can't. And then the rules of evidence don't even let us bring in some things, right? Sometimes, that ruling doesn't reflect what's fair. With mediation, there's more leeway to work towards a fair agreement. And that ultimately helps everybody move past this new stage and turn over a new leaf. I just had a mediation earlier this week, and we were able to settle all of the issues that were pending. So we don't have to worry about prosecuting his case. And that's a significant relief to him. That's a savings to him. It's far more expensive to litigate than it is to meditate. The parties could hear each other because a neutral voice went back and forth between the rooms, telling that person's side of things. And the emotion you have when trying to talk to your ex-partner about anything contentious isn't there with the neutral because there's no emotional connection. It's just the facts. Sometimes, when people can hear the facts, they can move past specific hurts that will cause them to make decisions much more based on emotion than what's in their best interest.

Sam Heninger:

That makes a lot of sense. I see the value of having a mediator to keep things cool. What you might say is your human touch because you're dealing with clients going through one of the most stressful things a person can go through. And so while mediation occurs, and it's great to have that cool head to help you make better decisions, how else do you operate with your clients human to human?

Jana Jones:

Yeah, so the first step in hiring me is always a consultation. And what I tell folks is that's just a conversation. I'm taking some notes, but I'm not taking copious notes. I'm trying to understand your perspective and what you want to happen. Somebody may be contacting me about a violation of an order and their options for that. But what they want is a different order altogether, right? And you have to listen to those things to dig deep and find out what they're looking for. And so that consultation is the beginning of the relationship. I believe in communication.

I've got to work on cases, I've got to go to court, I've got mediations, etc. but I try to be accessible via email and get back to folks within at least a business day or two, assuming that there's not something I'm already scheduled for so they can get their questions answered. Communication is monumental when it comes to these types of legal matters. Things can change on a dime. You know, you may come to me, and you wanted one thing. Some time passes, and now you want something different. And so it's essential to communicate that update to your counsel. Communication is at the top of the list.

Sam Heninger:

What advice would you give fathers facing these legal challenges regarding their parental rights?

Jana Jones:

The first thing to do is to get a consultation. Know your rights and have a third party tell you that. Sometimes, again, they need to hear that they're entitled to time, right? Whatever they did, however, the relationship ended; whoever's a fault it may have been, they're still the parent, and that child still needs them. So it's essential to hear that and get some actionable items from that consultation. I tell a lot of my dads to reclaim your time. I often see dads get bullied into a schedule, and the challenge is how long that schedule has been going on. From the court's perspective, they're not there to determine what's fair to mom or dad, or mom and mom, or dad and dad. They are there to determine what is in the child's best interest. And so if that child has become accustomed to a schedule where dad is only seeing the child every other weekend, for instance, and that's gone on for six months or a year, you've got a real uphill battle to prove to a court that it's going to be in the child's best interest to change up that schedule. Is that fair to Dad? No, right? He wants more time than that. Maybe he's been asking for more time than that, and Mom just hasn't been willing to give it to him. But the sooner, the better. So obviously, try to work things out amongst yourselves. There are plenty of cases in the legal system, and you want to avoid jumping in that line if you can. But if it cannot be avoided, you can best set yourself up for success by reclaiming your time. So, mom's entitled to her time. You're entitled to the same time. Do not let mom bully you into a schedule.

Sam Heninger:

Are there any other little pieces there? Making sure you use what you have helps prevent further complications. What else might a dad be thinking about more effectively in terms of keeping what he wants or getting more of what he wants by the time he gets a lawyer involved?

Jana Jones:

Document everything. Again, evidence is essential if we're going down the litigation road. So, your testimony is always your most important piece of evidence. You want to be credible. You want to be honest. You want to be factual. But you want exhibits that support the testimony that you're given. And if you are being accused of never reaching out to spend time with the children, you want to show text messages and emails reaching out to mom saying, hey, I'd like to get the kids this weekend. Can I pick them up from school? I'd like to take them to see this family member during the summer. You want to have that kind of documentation. So, along with reclaiming your time, you want to document everything.

Sam Heninger:

Jana, what motivates you to continue advocating for dads in the legal field

Jana Jones:

It is my clients. You know, I've had a lot of success with my business, but I've had a lot of referrals. I have a lot of repeat business-- dads that we get custody orders, and then, unfortunately, mom won't follow it. Now we're back in court dealing with the contempt. Those relationships make me so happy because I know that their relationships with those children are so vital to them and so crucial to those kids. And that balance of having them in their lives along with mom will make for a much more positive and resilient adult, right? And that's what we want to see in the world. We want the next generation to do better than us.

Sam Heninger:

Jana, I appreciate what you've shared with us. I remember that you mentioned how your relationship with your dad was so important to you just earlier in this conversation. That was one of the golden threads that led you through your life. I'd love to hear more about that relationship and how you see that coming up in your work as you're working with these dads who have kids, and you were your father's daughter, and seeing that relationship play out in other lives.

Jana Jones:

Yeah. So, you know, as a young child, my dad was my hero. He could do no wrong. I got older. I started understanding the dynamics of what was going on in my parent's relationship, and I could see things from my mom's side. But again, as I mentioned, my mom never shared any of that kind of stuff with me, never vented to me about that kind of stuff. She probably rolled her eyes plenty of times without looking at me with some things I would say because I was always Team Dad.

Nevertheless, our relationship was excellent. He was a cab driver when I was young, so he worked nights. My mom was a secretary, so she worked days. And so I remember in the summers, he would tell me, all right, baby, let me get some sleep. And then, once he woke up late in the morning, we would swim at the aquatic center or we would go to the park and fly kites. We would get Pringles, stare at the clouds, and discuss what shapes we saw. He taught me how to play dominoes. We had a great bond and a great relationship. And part of that was because my mom was so supportive of it. Again, they had a very tumultuous relationship. I heard far more than I should have when it came to arguments. I knew they were not happy, but it never affected the relationship that my dad and I had.

Sam Heninger:

Tell me more about how you see that coming up in the families you work with.

Jana Jones:

Yeah, so I think that once the relationship goes south, whoever feels aggrieved or like the victim in the relationship wants to use the kids to punish the other parent. And that's not to say that the dads are always the ones cheating, but if you're in that kind of classic scenario and that's what's going on, then I think sometimes moms forget that it's not about you; it's about the kids. And if he's a good dad, that should be all that matters. You're done with him, and you should be, right? But those children still need a father. They still have a father. And if that father is ready, willing, and able to be a part of their lives, you don't want to stand in the way. You never know what effect that might have on them later in life. And your kids are supposed to be the most important thing. So you must push past that hurt, think about the bigger picture, and focus on the kids. And if you're focusing on the kids, you're always going to make the right decision for the kids. If you're focusing on your hurt or the betrayal, you start making decisions based on emotion, not what's best for the kids.

Sam Heninger:

Jana, I just want to thank you again. You highlighted a couple of practical pieces of advice for dads in these types of situations. I appreciate you sharing some of your motivation and story, particularly about thinking about what's best for the kids.

Jana Jones:

Well, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it, Sam.

Sam Heninger:

This has been Advocating for Dads with Jana Jones. I'm Sam Henninger. Please like, subscribe, and follow us because we'll have a lot more great conversations like this. Thank you.
Sam Heninger:

Thanks for watching. If you like this video, remember to hit that like button and subscribe to our channel for more amazing videos like this one. And be sure to follow us on social media.

Dispelling Myths-Understanding Child Custody Dynamics

Episode 2

Sam Heninger:

Welcome to Advocating for Dads with Jana Jones . I'm Sam Henninger, and I'm excited to have another conversation with Jana. We're going to kick things off with: Jana, you practice family law. You're advocating for dads. I want to understand a bit more. You can lay this out in straightforward terms: the differences between physical and legal custody when it comes to child custody and how each type impacts the child and parents.

Jana Jones :

Yeah, so they are different. That's the first thing to note. They get interchanged a lot, but they are technically two other issues. So legal custody is decision-making authority, okay? So it's not where the kid's residing; it's simply decisions related to the child. So those can be things like what religion they practice, where they go to school, what procedure they get, what language they learn, any decisions related to the child, whether they have a passport. Things of that nature are going to be legal custody.

On the other hand, physical custody is where the child resides. In North Carolina, everything is based on overnights. So when we're talking about primary or joint custody, the magic number as of this recording in 2024, because things may change, is 123 overnights. Once you hit that number, you have shared or joint physical custody. If you're at 122 or less, you have visitation, and the other parent has primary physical custody.

Sam Heninger:

What other misunderstandings or lack of knowledge do parents have about this distinction in legal and physical custody arrangements?

Jana Jones: 

So I would say with legal, I think it's important to note that most judges are going to come off the assumption that joint legal is going to be in the child or children's best interest, which means that both parents should be able to equally contribute to decisions related to the child, regardless of the physical custody arrangement. So if you have one parent who has every other weekend and the other parent has primary physical custody, the parent who has every other weekend has just as much say in what religion a child practices, what school a child attends, what medical procedure a child has as the parent who has primary physical custody. Many things can come up when making decisions about kids, and you can't go to court every time you disagree. So what we generally have in many orders is a tiebreaker decision-making authority or a mechanism that gets triggered when it's time to make those decisions, and the parents cannot agree. So when you have a joint legal custody arrangement, the parents should talk to each other about those decisions, go back and forth, weigh the pros and cons, and come together to decide. But if it turns out that one parent wants one thing and the other parent wants the other, and there's joint legal custody, that decision-making authority, if one parent has it, will be what breaks that tie. Other options available are mediation or arbitration. Mediation is where a neutral third party goes back and forth between the parties to express what the other side is saying to see if they can help them facilitate an agreement. An arbitrator is an attorney, but they act as a judge. And so you put on evidence, as each parent puts on evidence, and the arbitrator decides about whatever the parents disagree over. So, say you're trying to figure out which school the child will attend in the fall, and you can't agree. Dad wants one school, and Mom wants another. If your custody order says that you have joint legal custody and if you can't agree that you have to go to arbitration, then each parent is going to have to put their case in front of the arbitrator as to why the school they want is going to be in that child's best interest. Ultimately, the arbitrator will decide which school the child should attend.

Sam Heninger:

How do visitation and one parent having primary physical custody work together?

Jana Jones :

That 123 number is the magic number when it comes to custody. So, 123 overnights shifts you from a joint to a primary custody arrangement. If you both have 123 or more, the parent have joint custody. If you have 122 or less, you have visitation, and the other parent has primary custody.

Sam Heninger:

Is that determined by what the parents do, or is that decided more by the court order?

Jana Jones :

Right. So it depends on where the parties are at. Sometimes, people operate for several years without getting the court involved. And then something happens that precipitates the need for custody or something more formal. Other times, parties who split and have children immediately go into the court system to get a custody order. So when dealing with those issues, you want to get as much time as possible as the parent. You want to make sure that you are getting the time that you deserve and that you wish. And if you need more time, you must file a court case.

Sam Heninger:

What other considerations should parents keep in mind when it comes to negotiating custody agreements outside of court?

Jana Jones :

So it's essential to focus on the children, not what you want, but what is best for your child. So, if you work the third shift, getting up with the kids to get to school or extracurriculars will be challenging. They will miss out on some of that because of your schedule. If they're with you, that's something you must consider when figuring out what kind of custody arrangement is best for your children. Also, you know, co-parenting is so essential. When parents split up, they're generally not happy with one another. Somebody's done something wrong, maybe both of them have, who knows, but they're not happy anymore. But it doesn't negate that they've got kids together; those kids still have things they need, including both of them. So, the most important thing you can do is focus on the children.

Sam Heninger :

Give us an idea of what those conversations or considerations look like when considering the child's best interests.

Jana Jones:

So, generally, what is it that you want to see happen? What schedule do you want to use? If you were writing the order, what would it look like? I believe in starting there. And then I believe in being honest. I'm a straight shooter. So if I think that the schedule they're saying they want doesn't make sense with the lifestyle or maybe the work schedule that they have, then I'm willing to have those hard conversations and make sure that they're prepared in front of a judge to explain why maybe something a little bit unconventional is still going to work and is still going to be in that child's best interest.

Sam Heninger :

How can parents collaborate to create a co-parenting plan that supports their child's well-being despite differences in physical or legal custody arrangements?

Jana Jones:

The most significant thing parents can do is put their differences aside and try to be as objective as possible when figuring out what's best for their children. If it will be more practical for the child to follow a specific schedule, then that's the schedule that the parents need to consider as being the best to implement.

Sam Heninger  :

Could you relate a successful case you've had recently or just a notable one that illustrates parents working together to develop the best solution for their kids?

Jana Jones:

I am a firm believer in getting a case settled if we can. My general premise when working with a parent is that I have them fill out a questionnaire that gives me a lot of detail and information. As mentioned in the first podcast, the first step is always a consultation. And I'm taking some notes, but I need to take copious notes. I'm getting a feel for what you're trying to do and give you some value, information, and next steps because not everybody can hire me. And some people may not be able to hire me yet because they've got plans, but something still needs to change, right? They're just trying to be proactive and get information. I'm not spending a lot of time taking copious notes. Once they become a client, everyone receives a questionnaire to fill out. That's where they gave me a lot of detail and information that I use to draft pleadings and a proposed consent order because it's always worth trying to see if you can settle something amongst yourselves instead of throwing it in front of a judge and hoping for the best. Right? So, in the consent order piece, my client and I go back and forth to craft an order based on what we want to see. And then we will present that to the other side, whether they're represented or not, to see if we can resolve it. Sometimes, we can because the other side is closer to things than my client thought. And we can work towards something that they are both happy with.

Sam Heninger  :

Jana, what challenges do parents commonly face during child custody battles, and how does having legal counsel benefit them?

Jana Jones :

Information is power. I believe that the biggest issue that a lot of parents have with these custody cases is not knowing what they don't know, not understanding how the law in North Carolina works, and not understanding that a judge is supposed to determine the best interest, not what's fair to anybody, but what's in the best interest of the child or children. And like any job, anybody else does, you know what you do because this is what you do for a living. I practice law for a living. Most of my clients do not. Therefore, they must know the complexities of dealing with the legal system, policies, and procedures. And this is about something other than being smart. It's about having information. So, I always recommend that anybody going through these issues get a consultation because you need to know what you don't know.

Sam Heninger :

I particularly appreciate that because I think for most lay people who have not interacted with the courts or law in general, except when they need to as a client, there's generally quite a big difference between what somebody thinks as just the just and fair and common sense thing to do and what the law can provide.

Jana Jones:

Exactly. I often tell my clients they will never be able to prosecute their ex into being a better person. That is not the power of the court system. Who you have is who you have. We can put some parameters on what that schedule looks like and give you guys some footing on what to expect, give the child some stability, and give you some structure to make plans, vacations, et cetera, with the children, without the children. That is what the court can do. The court cannot fix the relationship. That is not the court's job, nor is the court inclined to. That's for therapy. We are here to create orders. It's important to know that when you're in this situation. If you're hoping that getting the courts involved will help your co-parent relationship, that may or may not be the case. But what going into the court system will get you is an order one way or the other. And at least everybody knows what the ground rules are at that point.

Sam Heninger:

What would you say about giving an excellent synopsis of how first interactions work with you with this initial consultation and then coming on as a client, what that questionnaire involves, and how to get started there? What else might you say regarding expectation setting, giving a general timeline, or what to expect next? And how do you set their expectations there?

Jana Jones:

Yeah, so it depends on where you are in a case. If we're starting a brand new action, we're starting with a summons and a complaint. Those are the basics and the basic pleadings of any custody lawsuit. So you will need to know the address of the other party. That can sometimes be a challenge. The relationship may be strained. You may not know their address for various reasons. Attorneys don't fine people. That's what private investigators are for. So you're going to need that information. That's part of the questionnaire, and we can only file something if we have an address. If you have a work address, that could work. Suppose they get their mail at their mom's house. You can serve them there. We can try, at least. Mom may not sign for it, but we can try. But you do have to have an address. That is one of those practical things that many folks need to realize. And so it's one thing to remember as you're starting one of these types of cases. Once we have the information we need in that questionnaire, I start drafting the complaint, assuming we're starting a brand new case. And anything I draft will be sent to my client for approval before anything is filed. So once we have their approval, we make whatever tweaks or edits we need to get that approval, then file and send it out for service. Service is the next big sticker. The court only recognizes that you have a lawsuit once the other side has been served, and they must be adequately served. So that's not shooting them an email. That is filing something with the court that proves they have gotten that service in the way the law requires. So, generally, it will be a certified mail return receipt requested. That green card has to come back with a signature. The defendant can accept service in a couple of different ways. They can draft an acceptance of service. Recently, North Carolina has updated the summons, so you can, as the defendant, sign the second page and accept service that way. Then, sheriffs can serve people, and private process servers can also serve folks. So, there are two things to keep in mind. While they're not sexy, they're essential. You need to know the address and be prepared to deal with the service issue, and understand that that must be done correctly before anything else can start.

Sam Heninger :

I appreciate that. Spelling out these steps before things can get started helps paint a realistic picture of how these things can take time. As we conclude, I'd like another piece of advice you offer to parents who are beginning to navigate these child custody matters and may be unsure where to start or what to expect.

Jana Jones:

The first step is always a consultation. No matter what, you don't know what you don't know. So, the first step is consultation. You should come out of a consultation with any attorney with an action plan, knowing what your next steps are and what's realistic. It's essential to be honest with people. And tell them if their expectations or what they're trying to do are unlikely to happen. So be ready for that. If you're going to somebody to tell you what you want to hear, that will not necessarily serve you well. You're going to want to get some honest information and be able to make an informed decision. So, in conclusion, get a consultation.

Sam Heninger:

Thank you again so much, Jana. I learned a lot, and our listeners did, too.

Jana Jones:

Thank you.

Sam Heninger:

This has been Advocating for Dads with Jana Jones. I'm Sam Henninger. Please like, share, and subscribe to continue having these great conversations.,