ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Everybody in Grady knew Ruth White-Kitchen and her boys.
But then, everybody knows everybody in Grady, a dusty speck of a ranching community, population around 100, on New Mexico’s eastern plains. Here, neighbors are tightknit though their homes may be miles apart.
So when White-Kitchen was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, the community embraced her boys, Adrian Lunsford, then 8, and Adam Lunsford, then 10, to make sure they knew they would always have a home in Grady.
And when she died Jan. 25, 2012, at age 52, thus began an unusual custody battle for the boys that pitted the rights of a parent with the wishes of children and exemplified how sometimes the law can’t always make things right.
White-Kitchen had grown up in Grady and married Cliff Lunsford. The couple had five sons, including Adam and Adrian, their two youngest. The family lived in Pilot Point, Texas, a suburban town less than a hour’s drive from Dallas and about 450 miles east and a world away from Grady.
When the marriage soured in 2002, White-Kitchen packed up her youngest boys and returned to Grady. By all accounts, the boys – smart, athletic and “yes ma’am” polite – thrived in Grady. Both were stars on the schools’ basketball teams. Adam was the salutatorian of his high school class; Adrian was valedictorian of his middle school class.
The boys spent summer and holiday vacations in Pilot Point with their father, often working side by side with him in the mechanic shop he owns.
Things might have stayed as pleasantly as that had White-Kitchen not passed away.
It was her dying wish for the boys to remain in Grady, if they chose to, said attorney Richard Queener of Clovis.
Stanley and Kelly Jones stepped up to make that happen. The Joneses and their two children – classmates of the Lunsford boys – live on a ranch near Grady and had taken in the boys while their mother was undergoing cancer treatments at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
When their mother died, the boys chose the Joneses as their legal guardians. In turn, the Joneses cared for the boys as if they were their own, said Queener, the Joneses’ attorney.
Except the boys weren’t their own.
Back in Pilot Point, Cliff Lunsford had made plans to travel to Grady to take the boys home with him after their mother’s funeral. But on the day of the funeral, he was served with a summons from the 9th Judicial District in Clovis notifying him that the Joneses had been appointed temporary guardians for his sons.
The boys were staying put.
“My client had never met these people. He had no idea who they were,” said Lunsford’s attorney, Eric Dixon of Portales. “He wasn’t given the opportunity to talk with his children or talk with anybody else. It was a fait accompli.”
Both attorneys say Lunsford’s fitness as a parent was never in question. While the boys’ mother was alive, Lunsford paid $260 a month in child support, Queener said. Child support ended once the temporary guardianship began, he said.
Lunsford immediately filed a motion to dismiss the guardianship and demanded that his sons be returned to him. State District Judge Stephen Quinn, who had approved the temporary guardianship, denied the motion in February 2012.
In August 2012, and after several delays caused by the recusal or excusal of several judges, state District Judge Drew Tatum in Portales ordered that the Joneses’ guardianship be made permanent under the Kinship Guardian Act. Tatum did so citing “extraordinary circumstances,” even though the boys had not resided with the Joneses for 90 days before the petition was filed, nor was the boys’ father unwilling or unable to care for them – both required under the Guardianship Act.
Those extraordinary circumstances included how well the boys were doing in Grady and how supportive their environment was. In addition, Queener said both boys were at least 14, the age the courts allow children to nominate their own guardians and give their wishes weight.
Lunsford’s attorney argued that parents have the right to decide what is best for their children. Lunsford, he said, was simply being a good dad.
“Parents make decisions that teenagers disagree with every day,” Dixon said. “The courts just aren’t equipped to be super parents to jump in and second-guess a decision a competent parent makes.”
Queener said he acknowledges Lunsford’s rights as a parent but that sometimes those rights are trumped by certain circumstances.
“I understand where he is coming from,” he said. “But at some point you have to ask what’s in the best interest of the children.”
Last November, nearly two years after the custody battle had begun – and while the boys continued to live with the Joneses and visit their father – the state Court of Appeals reversed the District Court order, thus dissolving the Joneses’ guardianship. In February, the state Supreme Court chose not to hear the case, meaning the appellate decision stands.
Cliff Lunsford had won.
But he had also lost. The custody battle strained what had been a good father-son relationship between Lunsford and Adam, who turned 18 in June, Queener said.
“Adam has basically told his father to go fly a kite,” he said.
Adam graduated from Grady High School last May with an A average and is attending West Texas A&M University in Amarillo, about an hour’s drive from Grady.
Adrian, then 15, agreed to move to his father’s home in Pilot Point in November. Less than two months later, he was back in Grady and back in high school – until his father disenrolled him, Queener said.
Neither attorney could say with whom Adrian is living, but it is doubtful it is with the Joneses, who are in the midst of another battle, this one for Stanley Jones’ life. In February, Jones was diagnosed with melanoma cancer. He and his wife are in Houston, where he is undergoing chemotherapy at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the same place Ruth White-Kitchen was treated.
Adrian turned 16 on Christmas Eve. That day, he filed for emancipation from his father. A hearing is scheduled in June.
Lunsford intends to fight his son’s wishes, his attorney said.
One wonders, though, whether there is much left to win.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.