Archive for September, 2019

Cyber Civics: Children and Online Ethics

Monday, September 30th, 2019

It is estimated that children are online more often than they are in school.  Some studies have found that the average teenager is on the internet for in excess of 10 hours per day.  The interactions that we all have online are a gigantic part of who we are.  Our interactions frame us and we will be judged by them not differently than we are judged by our appearance and profession. 

Safe and civil interaction online is fundamental for children.  They often have little idea about how to navigate the bullying and anonymity that goes with it.  Now, schools have begun experimenting with civics classes focused on childrens’ online interactions.  After looking at this issue, it seems at first glance to be the right course when we are increasingly becoming digital citizens.

The introductory phase in these “cyber civics” classes is generally focused on bullying.  Interestingly, it appears that most studies link cyber-bullying predominantly to making fun of one’s appearance.  While there is always online hatred based upon a child who does not fit into a prototypical gender group or traditional sexual orientation, appearance is by far the most common target for online bullies based upon randomized studies.  There are not simple answers, but the focus on bullying seems a logical place to start for the new curriculums being offered.

Cyber civics is also, in a typical curriculum, secondarily focus on being able to identify “fake news” versus true and factual journalism.  Years ago, it was often said that the first tenet of journalism was objectivity.  The only agenda being that no particular agenda was appropriate is the primary goal.  We have come a long way from that basic principle.  If you read either the conservative or liberal media it is all too clear.  No middle ground seems to exist anymore.  True journalism may not even exist anymore.  That’s a shame.

The core values of our society are generally agreed upon.  We must be kind, respectful, and honest.  Although cultures may vary somewhat as to the way they apply these ideals, it is clear that very few would disagree with this basic premise.  Children are essentially being placed into a broader culture when they have access to the internet.  The odds of a child seeing something inappropriate online are extremely high.  Parents are the only filter for their kids.  The internet, as helpful as it can be used as a teaching tool, is also a double-edged sword.

Although cyber civics as an academic study is a relatively new concept, its focus is not altogether different from social science concepts that are well-established tradition.  Whether we call it cyber civics, social media consciousness, or plain old common decency, the concept remains essentially the same.  Unfortunately, the average person should already be familiar with the importance of decency and honesty but may have eluded that long ago.  When online, some take advantage of avoiding this should-be common ground. 

Anonymity plays a huge role in online interactions, and children are particularly vulnerable.  As such, a new era of digital coach is becoming common.  They now exist in public junior high schools in New Hampshire and Vermont.  Many courses are also offered online as a non-mandatory supplemental option.  Go to Google and search for “cyber civics course” and there are a ton of results.  Whether they are useful is still up for debate.  It seems that much offered is simply a reiteration of common decency.

In sum, it seems that the goal of online decency is a noble one, although somewhat arbitrary when distinguished from simple human interaction and courtesy.  Children are at a great risk of depression and suicide from being harassed, intimidated, and otherwise abused online.  The root cause is that we, as a society, seem to have sheltered and protected online interactions that would run afoul of the laws we have already created regarding defamation and harassment.  Until politicians recognize that anonymous bullies are a significant driver of teen and adolescent suicide and depression, nothing is likely to change. 

It’s time that we identify the real problem…poor public policy.  The legislature could solve much of the problem.  We have to let them, as our elected representatives, know that anonymous online harassment needs to end, once and for all.

Matthew Poole is a Jackson, Mississippi domestic attorney.  He was admitted to the state bar and the federal district courts in 2004.

Do Chancery Judges Have a Sixth Sense?

Thursday, September 19th, 2019

Before getting into the nitty-gritty details of my experiences with Mississippi Chancellors, I must say that we have a unique system to determine divorce and custody matters in our state.  Only 5 states in the U.S. have chancery court systems. They are based on English common-law and principles of equity (fairness). Without a doubt, the big difference between chancery and other courts is that a chancellor is not only the final interpreter of law on point, but also the ultimate fact-finder.  This requires playing somewhat of a “dual role” in making determinations that affect not only a divorcing couple, but their children and extended families. So, after 1,300+ domestic cases, do I believe that chancellors have a heightened ability to sense what is not directly in front of them? Yes, and it is largely because they have significant experience in detecting the motivations of those who appear in their courtrooms.  

When in court, attorneys are commonly making points based upon evidence that can be seen and heard.  Most of the proof that we present on a daily basis consists of not only the testimony of witnesses, but video, photographs, documents, and audio recording.  While these are what I would call “empirical” evidence, they are not the only consideration for a fact finder. For instance, let us take a brief look at criminal jury trials.  They are a contrast to chancery proceedings in many ways. The judge has a singular role: interpreter of law. The jury has one role as well: find the facts. That fact-finding is not exactly an exact science.  It is highly nuanced…subjective as all get-out. Reasonable minds can disagree and often do. After hearing testimony and seeing all of the evidence, we can and will come to different, often ant-opposite of conclusions.  That is simple human nature.

Chancellors are the equivalent of both the judge and jury.  Not only do they interpret law, they are the sole fact-finder in divorce and custody actions.  They have to rely on their God-given instincts in close cases. Having seen the inner-workings of the chancery system in Mississippi, I can without question say that chancery judges tend to have a heightened intuition.  It is necessary when determining who is truthful and who is not. That gut instinct decides the outcome of so many close cases. Most of them are close, or they tend to settle prior to trial. Think of all the times you likely disagreed with a jury.  Without pointing to any specific cases, you can surely name a few of your own.

Most divorces and child custody matters are close calls.  Many lack any concrete proof at all. There are almost never any smoking guns or red hands to be caught.  The proof is almost always what I would call luke-warm…even circumstantial. The best approach in any chancery court is to build credibility by telling the truth.  Consistency goes a long way, as it should. Chancellors are pretty good human lie detectors.  

My advice to anyone going through a difficult custody case, divorce, or visitation issue is to be cool-headed and calm.  Be consistent and voice your concern for your children. Do not worry about shaming your spouse, your ex. It will not build credibility with the judge.  Your testimony will be weaker than it could have been when the focus is taken off of your kids. It is always better not to voice the raw emotion that a breakup causes.  The children are what matters now, and the judge could care less how much you may dislike your ex. They hear all too much of it on a daily basis. It gets tiresome, and quickly.

If you end up in court over a disagreement about your kids, your finances, do yourself a favor and relax.  Chancery judges love nothing more than a reasonable, calm litigant who is able to have a laser focus on what matters and ignore what does not.  Kids need structure and stability to thrive. They need a routine that is predictable and not jolted by emotion. If you are able to tap into this thinking, you just increased your odds of obtaining a positive outcome in a tough life moment.

Matthew Poole is a Single Father and Jackson Mississippi Family Lawyer, Recipient of the National Family Lawyer Association Top 10 Award in 2015 and 2018 and Finalist of the Steen Reynolds and Dalehite Trial Competition.  He was admitted to the Mississippi Bar in 2004.

Who is Edgar Egbert, the Madison County Shooter?

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

Last week, Deputy Brad Sullivan of the Madison County Sheriff’s Department was shot through the head with an AR-15 style rifle after police deployed stop sticks to prevent a speeding Jeep from injuring the public on Highway 16 near Canton.  It all stemmed from a domestic situation that resulted in a kidnapping, according to officials with Madison County. While the details have yet to fully emerge, we are all praying for his recovery while in the line of duty. He is a true hero for protecting the public.  God bless him. So many questions linger, but the primary suspect, Edgar James Egbert, is not saying anything, or at least hasn’t in his court appearances while being denied bond. He is probably wise to remain silent.

I know Edgar.  I was his divorce attorney in 2017-2018.  While I am not his biggest fan, he deserves a fair hearing despite his alleged actions.  Edgar is the father of five precious kids. He is now remarried. His new wife was incredibly excited when he popped the question.  That was barely a year ago. His life has been complex, especially after a divorce that had no easy end in sight. They rarely do.   

One of my first experiences with Edgar occurred shortly before Christmas 2017 at the Madison Chancery Court.  Judge Cynthia Brewer held a temporary hearing (which I often refer to as a “stop-gap” measure) and nothing particularly unusual transpired.  Visitation was addressed, some custody and child support was ordered as well. Edgar’s eldest child was about 13 at that time. He had moved to Georgia with his mom and four siblings a few months prior.  My initial read on Edgar was actually quite positive. I felt strongly that he had a soft heart.

After the hearing, Edgar went to his black Jeep, the one involved in the chase last week, and retrieved several presents for his kids.  He approached his son, who is a tall, handsome, quiet young man, and, smiling, handed him several gifts for he and his four sisters. Edgar was calm.  He seemed very caring, and I nearly teared up because I could feel the pain he was in at that moment. He had not seen his kids in months. I appreciated his gesture.  His eldest son said nothing. It was not clear to me whether this was an alienated child or one rightfully bitter at his dad. What I witnessed later made me form a fairly clear opinion.  

At trial several months later, details began to emerge.  I represented Edgar because I truly did, and do still believe that he missed and loved his babies.  My heart went out to him. The tragic events of September, 2019 seem to have appeared out of nowhere.  Although I could see his frustrations were mounting as a displaced dad, I did not see a cop-shooter in the making.  He did, and still does love those children. I am sure of it. Even though, if found guilty, there is no excuse on earth for his behavior, I wonder to myself if it all could have been prevented.  There are no easy answers.

I recently saw that, since my representation of Edgar, he has fallen far behind on child support payments.  His ex-wife, dejected and appearing beaten down during trial, does not work. She home schools the children.  She is reliant upon the good-will of others and her church to survive. So are the kids. Edgar was ordered to pay about $1,100. per month in support.  That’s about $220 per child. Any of you reading this can do the math. Fifty bucks a week doesn’t get a child far. And that amount was not being paid. Attorney’s fees have since mounted for he and his ex-wife.  This event has altered too many innocent lives. He was likely facing incarceration for the contempt that was imminent. There was really no path short of winning the lottery to solve his money problems, they grew exponentially and no end was in sight.  It is hard to ignore the financial roots that grew into this nightmare.  

This is a tragedy for too many reasons.  I know Brad Sullivan, if only vaguely. We must never forget that he likely will never be quite the same, but we can pray and hope for he and his family.  A headshot from any firearm (.223 Remington is more powerful than almost all handgun rounds) is incredibly horrific. It is amazing he is alive. He is one tough cop.   

Edgar’s wife and kids are also victims.  They will likely never have the present love of dad again.  He may very well still love them, but it is tough to see that love being easily reciprocated.  Edgar may also be a victim of his own missteps. While I want it clear that he deserves the presumption of innocence, the benefit of the doubt, the facts do not bear well for him at this point in my estimation.

While I cannot share every detail, I will say that the testimony regarding Edgar’s violent tendencies and drug abuse, marijuana in particular, has left me on one side of the legalization debate.  I also have formed a better understanding of the emotional turmoil a divorce can cause. A parent moving far, far away to escape an unhappy marriage is equivalent to a domestic nuclear explosion. The emotions are difficult to handle.  The pain is palpable, even to the attorneys.  

In the end, I can only ask that you pray not only for Brad, but for the children and family of Edgar Egbert and even Edgar himself.  It is a shame that this has happened and we cannot turn back time. Hopefully we can all learn something about the value of our personal relationships. When all the dust clears, hopefully we will love the ones we are with, even if just a little bit more.

Matthew Poole is a Jackson, Mississippi Family Attorney.  He was admitted in 2004 to the Mississippi Bar.

Modification Mayhem; How to Steer Clear

Thursday, September 5th, 2019

Child custody modification cases are always challenging for a variety of reasons.  First, it is important to recognize that Chancellors are inclined not to “rock the boat” by making drastic decisions about child placement without very good reasons.  They, as they should, need a parent seeking modification to present overwhelming reasons for a sudden change that affects every aspect of a child’s life.  Haphazard, swift decisions regarding children are frowned upon and avoided at all costs. 

I want to focus on a common scenario which occurs and attempt to illustrate the divergent paths it presents.  Quite often, a child turns 12 and is able to voice a preference to the court about where they want to live.  Although they do not get to “choose” (a common misconception), their voice plays a critical role in triggering and potentially effectuating a child-custody claim.  Although the maturity level of the child is not a technical factor in the weight of their preference, it will always play a critical role in the outcome of the modification claim.

I want to share with you a custody horror story, at least from the perspective of a former client.  Often the best lessons are had by failure, not success.  Many years ago, I was hired to prosecute a child custody claim in Rankin County, Mississippi on behalf of a mom whose son had recently turned 12.  We all met at my office and the child was quite clear about the strength of his desire to live with his mom.  I did not question his sincerity for a moment. 

Fast forward several months and we finally have our day in court at a final hearing (trial).  I called the young man to the stand and he performed as I expected.  When my opposing counsel had his shot at making his case, the child fell apart.  It went something like this:  “Young man, why is it that you want to live with your mom all of the sudden?”.  A fair question, right?  The boy then said, more or less, “My dad makes me go to bed at 10 o’clock and eat grilled chicken and vegetables.  I hate vegetables.  When I am with my mom she lets me do pretty much whatever I want.  I can have as much pizza as I want and I can play video games while she’s busy doing other stuff.  My dad is just too strict.”  Whew.  I heard the sound of my case deflate right in front of me.  The odds of winning were nil.  My client was upset and so was I, but he was just a kid after all.

I have seen first-hand how children will attempt to please both parents.  I have had clients hire me on modifications of custody only to realize later that their child was telling their ex that they wanted to stay with them.  Kids have a natural defense mechanism to make both parents happy.  They will tell both that they want to be with them.  It borders on dishonesty, but for the love of God, they are only kids and do not understand adult problems.  This is the way that they cope.  It is frustrating and can cost a client several wasted dollars, but nonetheless I understand the plight of the children torn between two parents that they dearly love.  We must, as the adults in the room, understand how to avoid this mayhem in the first place.  Our children deserve it. 

My advice is simple.  The mature children are going to be far more likely to stay with the parent they prefer.  I doubt many of them are 12.  Once a child has consistently voiced a mature, rational desire to stay with you, consider speaking to a lawyer about a change of custody.  Chancellors are privy to the fact that children are not always able to decide what is best for them.  You can avoid wasting thousands on a failed modification claim by allowing your child to come to their own conclusion. Be patient and kind.  Remember that they are feeling pressure from every direction.  And in the end, respect them and their innocence.  One day they will face adult problems.  It is your job, as a parent, to make it later than sooner.

Matthew Poole is a single father and Jackson, Mississippi Custody and Divorce Attorney with 16 years of experience.  He has managed over 1,300 domestic cases.