SUPERIOR COURT OF WASHINGTON
COUNTY OF GRAYS HARBOR
|)||REPORT OF GUARDIAN AD LITEM|
TO: THE CLERK OF THE COURT
Pursuant to my appointment on March 11, 2002, as Guardian Ad Litem on behalf of the minor children, SASCHA and AARON BEN-NETH, in the above-entitled matter, I make the following report:
I attest to the Court that I am free from influence from anyone interested in the result of these proceedings and that I have made the requesite knowledge, training and expertise to perform duties required by the statute. My statement of Qualifications was provided to the parties or their counsel in this matter and is on file with the Court Administrator. I further attest that I am on the Guardian Ad Litem Registry for Grays Harbor County and am qualified to serve as Guardian Ad Litem in Title 26 RCW matters.
Following my appointment as guardian ad litem for the minor children, I made contact and met with each of the parties, have spoken with the parties’ respective counsel, have met with the minor children, have reviewed court records and files and a multitude of materials provided to me by the parties, have made contact with Walla Walla Superior Court, and have attempted to make contact with the person Mr. Bennett informed me was his fiance’ and that individual’s attorney in Walla Walla.
The primary issue before the court at this time is whether or not the children of the parties, SASCHA and AARON BEN-NETH, should be ordered by the court to have either in person or telephonic contact with their father, Richard Bennett. Sascha will be fifteen (15) years of age in August, 2002. Aaron is currently thirteen (13) years of age.
When the marriage of the parties, Shelley Masters and Richard Bennett, was dissolved in October of 1990, the children were only three and one years of age, respectively. Mr. Bennett has spent a considerable portion of the intervening eleven and one-half years incarcerated. The court should already be somewhat familiar with Mr. Bennett’s long criminal history which includes, but is not necessarily limited to, a number of charges and/or convictions involving fraud and/or crimes involving moral turpitude. A brief review of these crimes (which is not to be all-inclusive) includes Mr. Bennett having defrauded an elderly gentleman formerly of Grays Harbor County out of approximately $100,000 for which Mr. Bennett was convicted in February 1998 of Theft 1 by Deception, another Theft 1 conviction in 1981, unlawful issuance of bad checks in 1981, and the unlawful practice of law in 1986. In addition, Mr. Bennett has had several misdemeanor charges over the years including recent charges in Grays Harbor District Court for violation of restraining/no contact orders. Mr. Bennett’s own statements during the course of the 1998 prosecution of his case at that time indicated that he is a “pathological liar”. Mr. Bennett has used several aliases during his long history of fraud and criminal activity and among those aliases are Richard Wayne Bennett, Lawrence Bennett, and Richard Ben-Neth.
While Mr. Bennett was most recently serving time for the Grays Harbor felony conviction, he exchanged numerous letters and cards with his children, the responses he believes the children wrote of their own accord. Mr. Bennett provided me with copies of many of these letters and cards which I have read.
In addition, Mr. Bennett wrote numerous letters to various individuals and organizations, including personnel at the children’s school, regarding his concerns about the conduct of his x-wife, Ms. Masters, and her husband, David Masters. Of particular concern to him have been two specific matters; the first revolves around a picture he saw of Ms. Masters during a MDA charity drive which depicted Ms. Masters “behind bars” for a “jail and bail” fund raising event and the second revolves around an appearance the Masters made on a KOMO-TV talk show regarding their website and on-line lonely hearts club. Again, Mr. Bennett provided me with copies of much of this correspondence he has written. In addition to correspondence provided to me by Mr. Bennett, Ms. Masters has also provided me with numerous copies of correspondence received by her and by others as well as newspaper articles and other records. I have read all of the materials provided to me by both parties.
Mr. Bennett also spent a significant amount of our interview expressing his concerns about David Masters and repeatedly alleged that Mr. Masters was an unindicted co-defendant in many of Mr. Bennett’s criminal (or otherwise unscrupulous) activities who posed a serious danger to the children.
Mr. Bennett claims that it is the Masters who have prevented his children from having visitation with him. He further claims that he has changed and only wants to do what is in the children’s best interests.
My impressions of Mr. Bennett are mixed, but clearly I am concerned regarding his focus on an innocent fund-raising event involving Ms. Masters. I see nothing deviant about Ms. Masters participation in this event nor the “jail and bail” methods frequently used in such events by very reputable people.
Granted, the “jail and bail” method may appear somewhat insensitive to a person who is incarcerated; however, it is not, in my opinion, a justification for the letter-writing campaign undertaken by Mr. Bennett to attack and/or discredit the Masters. Likewise, the Masters may have been promoting their website on television to the extent of some “puffing”, but again, this does not, in my opinion, justify the letter-writing campaign undertaken by Mr. Bennett on that issue. In either case, neither is a justification to declare Ms. Masters an unfit or inappropriate parent nor is either a basis for finding the Masters household to be one which is detrimental to the Ben-Neth children. On the contrary, I view Mr. Bennett’s actions and reactions as far more harmful to the children’s emotional and psychological well-being than anything the Masters have allegedly done. I also view Mr. Bennett’s acts to have been extremely insensitive to the children’s affection for their mother.
While Mr. Bennett claims to have the children’s best interests at heart, it would seem that it is his own interest in perpetually harassing his x-wife or her spouse that is truly what is occurring.
Mr. Bennett also went to great lengths to convince me that “he has changed” and that he is in a healthy, long-term relationship with a person he described as being a very wonderful and stable woman.
Teresa Pavish-Paradiso, whom he characterized as his fiance’. Interestingly, although Mr. Bennett has called my office on numerous occassions since March 2002, he has failed to report to me that circumstances have drastically changed in the relationship with Ms. Pavish-Paradiso since our face-to-face meeting on March 27, 2002. Only six short weeks later, his “fiance'” filed on May 10, 2002, for a Domestic Violence Protective Order against Mr. Bennett which was granted on June 7, 2002 in Walla Walla Superior Court. I have been unable to obtain the specific details of the petition or court file as the clerk could not read it all to me due to the volume. I was able to ascertain, however, that this is a domestic violence petition and order. If the court in the Grays Harbor matter feels it necessary, I would be happy to request copies of that file which will be supplied to me at the rate of $2.00 for the first page and $1.00 for each page thereafter. I have placed calls to Ms. Pavish-Paradiso and to her attorney but have yet to receive a return call.
Ms. Masters was very cooperative but also very nervous during our interview. From what I have been able to gather, her life has obviously been filled with a multitude of tumultuous events because of her past relationship with Richard Bennett and now because of her realtionship with David Masters. She claims to be the victim of domestic violence at the hands of Mr. Bennett – a claim I tend to find credible based on all of the documents I have read and the interaction I have had individually with both Mr. Bennett and her desire to protect and do what is right for her children. She appears to understand the mistakes she made in the past where Mr. Bennett and his activities were involved. Regardless of how they have met and contrary to Mr. Bennett’s claims, her relationship with Mr. Masters appears to be a positive one from which she draws support and strength for herself and her children. She has raised two lovely children who are bright and appear to be healthy and well cared for. From what I can tell, she has done all that she is capable of doing to protect the children while at the same time trying not to disparage Mr. Bennett in front of the children, but I fear that she may be nearing the end of her patience and rightly so.
The most recent order addressing visitation in this case was issued in March 2002 and provides that the children may call their father collect at any time and if they want to arrange visits for him. The children have chosen not to exercise their right to make contact at this time.
In speaking with the children as well as when I spoke to Ms. Masters on a separate occassion, I was informed that when Mr. Bennett was first incarcerated the children wrote letters to him on their own accord.
However, after a few months, the children ran out of things to say to their father and, in essence, Ms. Masters helped the children compose their letters for the children by helping them come up with things to write.
According to the children, their mother was really the only reason they continued to write their father as they had nothing to say to him. It would not surprise me if Mr. Bennett does not believe this to be the case however.
Further, according to the children, they stopped going to see their father in prison because when they did visit he would only spend a few minutes with them then tell them to stay busy playing or doing something else while he visited with the adult who brought them.
The children felt he really wanted little or nothing to do with them during these visits and asked not to be forced to go anymore.
The children have few memories of their father and even fewer good memories of their father. Most of what they recall involves times when he and their mother would argue or when he was drinking or otherwise being abusive or making unfulfilled promises. They have tried to move forward with their lives but have not been able to because of Mr. Bennett’s constant attempts to communicate. The children were deeply emabarrassed during Mr. Bennett’s trial and the fact that many of their school mates were aware of what was being reported in the media about the allegations. Several of Mr. Bennett’s letters to the children have contained what the children perceive to be veiled threats which have frightened them. For instance, Mr. Bennett has made reference to taking care of Mr. Masters which the children and which I find to be a very questionable statement. Another example of the children’s basis for fear is that they are aware that Mr. Bennett kidnapped their half brother many years ago and held that child for a very long time when the child was quite young. The children are afraid he will do the same to them. The children are also aware of the restraining orders which prohibit Mr. Bennett from driving by their home or going to their schools but report that they think they have recognized him driving by while these orders are in place – again frightened that he pays no attention to court orders. The children have been told by their father that he has one or more friends with children in their school so he is keeping an eye on them – the children are once again frightened by this and feel they are being watched all the time. They feel like prisoners in their own school.
The children reported that they did not even know until fairly recently that their father had a brother.
With the help of their mother and other family members, they have come to know this uncle and like him very much. The children reported that their father used to make them return gifts they would receive from their paternal grandmother but that now that they have gotten to know this grandma, they truly cherish her and do not understand why their father was so mean.
The children reported that neither their mother nor their stepfather has made any comments to them about their father to discourage them from wanting to develop a relationship with Mr. Bennett. To the contrary, it was the children that reported that had it not been for Mr. Masters and their mother, they would have stopped corresponding with their father years ago. Both children were adamant that they have absolutely no desire to see Mr. Bennett, to write to him, or speak with him via telephone. They want that part of their lives behind them if at all possible. They have requested, individually, that they be allowed to change their last name to avoid having to explain to anymore people the source of their unusual name or the man to whom it is linked. I have chosen not to indicate in this report what the children would like their names changed to because, if the court grants their request, it may be their only means of breaking ties with and avoiding further unwanted contact from Mr. Bennett.
I took great care to interview the children individually first and then jointly and without either parent being present – even in the lobby – of my office at any time while I met with the children. These are bright children who express themselves clearly and succinctly. They have legitimate concerns and hopes.
Although they understand that if the court orders them to have contact with their father that they will be required to do so, they asked me to beg the court not to order them to have contact with Mr. Bennett. They want absolutely nothing to do with him.
I have no doubt that Mr. Bennett will be displeased with my recommendations and I fear that regardless of what this court orders with regard to the present action, Mr. Bennett will continue to substitute his own desires for those he characterizes as his children’s best interests and that these children will have little peace until they become adults and are able to act on their own behalf. And, while I make no assumptions regarding whether or not Mr. Masters has led a crime-free life, he has no felonious history and I can find no action he has taken to harm these children. Rather, it appears taht he has attempted to provide a stable loving home for the children of his former friend while also encouraging these children (until Mr. Bennett’s actions became so perverse) to maintain a loving relationship with their father. As far as Shelley Masters Is concerned, I fear that she will bear the scars of her relationship with Richard Bennett for the remainder of her life.
However, I also believe that she will continue to do all she can to encourage her children to maintain healthy relationships with the father’s extended family including half-siblings, uncle, and grandmother. I further believe she will continue to be the rock upon which her children can rely to provide love, support, encouragement, and guidance toward becoming productive, responsible adults.
Although I am certain that I could spend dozens of hours investigating the parties and their respective histories, I do not feel such time would be justified in that Mr. Bennett’s actions – both past and present – have made this case somewhat simple to process.
Certainly, if the court wishes me to conduct further investigation, I would gladly do so.
Another consideration, however, should be how my fees are going to be paid. It appears that Mr. Bennett has paid little if any child support. He is “self employed” these days and it would be difficult for the county to recover any judgment against him for guardian ad litem fees.
His last conviction alone left a judgement in excess of $90,000 restitution owed his victim – a judgement not likely to ever be satisfied.
Finally, under the statute, the court must make a determination of whether contact between the children and Mr. Bennett would be more detrimental to the children than non-contact would be. Based on what I have discovered thusfar, however I feel confident that, under the statute, it is in the children’s best interest to make the following recommendations:
1. That the Ben-Neth children be relieved of any further obligation to have contact whatsoever with their father, Richard Bennett. To that end, I recommend that all of Mr. Bennett’s visitation rights be suspended indefinitely until such time as each child is over the age of 18 years. In the interim, if either child wishes to have contact with Mr. Bennett, that child should have the option of initiating the contact by writing to a fixed address at which Mr. Bennett can retrieve mail in the future, i.e. a post office box.
2. That a permanent restraining order be entered prohibiting Richard Bennett from having any contact whatsoever, directly, indirectly, through third parties, via internet, letter, telephone or any other means with Sascha and Aaron Ben-Neth and that Mr. Bennett be restrained from coming within at least five hundred feet of the children at all times. This would include prohibiting Mr. Bennett from contacting the children’s schools, neighbors, relatives, or others regarding the children as well as attending school or community events in whcih the children participate. With regard to any restraint on communications between Mr. Bennett and the Masters, I make no recommendation as such would be beyond the scope of my duties as a guardian ad litem for the children.
3. That Ms. Masters be granted sole decision making authority and that she be designated as sole residential parent for the children.
4. That the children be allowed to change their last names and that Mr. Bennett not be entitled to know what the children’s new names are unless the children desire to tell him themselves at some future time.
5. That the guardian ad litem fees be paid by the county with judgement to be taken against the parties in proportions to be determined by the court; however, that if further investigation is required, that Mr. Bennett be required to post a bond sufficient to cover any and all GAL fees as the likelihood of recovery from him on any judgement for same may be fruitless.
Respectfully submitted this 18th day of June, 2002.
COTTON LAW OFFICES
JEAN A. COTTON, WSBA #23776
Guardian Ad Litem