Wayne Weber's corner of the world is textbook suburbia, complete with a postage stamp of lawn and a one-story cottage that sits on a quiet side road branching off from downtown Chagrin Falls.
The short, dapper block is crowded by leaning trees and stitched overhead with telephone wires and power lines. On summer afternoons, neighborhood kids roam the lawns. Two years ago Weber's son, Andrew, was a happy part of the local pack.
The summer of 2008 offered Weber a rare unrestrained taste of fatherhood. Thanks to a court ruling, the boy's mother, Weber's former girlfriend, had been ordered to hand him over for summer vacation. During that time, the two were inseparable; instead of parking in front of the TV, father and son went out every day, visiting area parks and museums, or catching salamanders and splashing around in the water at a friend's lake house.
But as summer inched to a close, Weber was in need of cash. A house painter, he had spent the peak season with his son; when a job came up one weekend, he reluctantly accepted. Andrew's mother offered to take him for a couple days; he would be back with Dad the following week, she assured him.
As Weber packed up his son, the kid clutched the couch in the small family room and refused to go. "He just kept saying, 'I don't want to go with Mommy. I don't want to go with Mommy,'" Weber explains today, reliving the August afternoon as he's done daily since.
As the car's motor idled in the gravel driveway, Weber was hit with a sudden jab of sympathy for the woman he'd been handcuffed to for the past seven years, a relationship marked by fogbanks of accusation, nose-diving drug use, a pregnancy that was never supposed to happen, and the son that bound them together through it all.
"I knew how it felt to miss him because I had gone through that so much," he remembers. "I figured the mother was feeling the same way, missing him." Weber told the boy he had to go. He loaded Andrew into the van and watched it haul out of sight. He hasn't seen his son since.
Mary Ellen Fitzgerald swung into Wayne Weber's orbit in 2000, their paths converging despite different backgrounds. He was 38, a lifelong bachelor and an only child, the son of successful East Side parents who ran a food business. Well-read and articulate, Wayne took home degrees in political science and history from Cleveland State, but eventually set himself up as a real-state title researcher. Business boomed for a while, until the internet decimated his client base. Along the way, he'd hit rough spots with the law, racking up a list of citations for driving under the influence and marijuana possession. By the time he met the future mother of his son, he was trying to leave the wilder days behind.
Wayne first spotted Mary Ellen at a party. Raised in an Irish Catholic family in Lakewood, she had already weathered two failed marriages by her mid-forties and had three grown children. When the two began attending Indians games together, Mary Ellen was just crawling out from under a deep depression triggered by the unexpected death of a close friend. It wouldn't be the only tragedy the couple would shoulder early on: Wayne's mother died suddenly that November; a month later, a good friend of Wayne's committed suicide.
The couple made a good-looking pair, friends recall. Wayne was handsome, hanging onto boyish good looks even as he waded into middle age. With his deep brown hair swept back, glasses, and toothy smile, he could be mistaken for a sitcom dad. Mary Ellen could easily pass for a woman ten years her junior — beautiful, petite, and athletic, with dark features and a gravelly, smoke-cured voice.
Despite their handsome exterior, the two were a troubled mix. United by the Tribe and their recent losses, they also shared an interest in cocaine. They often used together, and the drug didn't help their relationship. Looking back, Wayne claims Mary Ellen could be stubborn and would fly into dark moods; they argued often, and he looked for opportunities to end things.
"I tried to break it up, and she gave me a lot of sad stories, and I was a sucker," he says. "So I was around for a little longer than I should have been."
Having children never entered the conversation. Doctors told Mary Ellen that complications from her last pregnancy had put her out of the running for motherhood; combined with her age, the unlikely seemed all but impossible, so they didn't use protection. Then in early 2001, an urgent phone call came in from Fitzgerald. She was pregnant.
"I didn't know what to think at first. I just sort of went blank," Wayne recalls. "She had told me she couldn't get pregnant. I offered to pay for an abortion, and she just flipped out. But I just didn't know what else to do."
For the religious Mary Ellen, the suggestion was not taken likely. She told Wayne she'd go through with the pregnancy no matter what — despite the high risk for complications and birth defects. Wayne needn't have a role in the child's life if he didn't want it, she added.
A healthy Andrew came crying into the world a month early on August 27, 2001, with both parents in the room. (The boy's name has been changed for this story to protect his identity.) Wayne ceremoniously snipped the umbilical cord. After a few days in the hospital, the baby left for his mother's home on the West Side. Wayne was living with his elderly father in Chagrin Falls.
The family arrangement was far from ideal. For one, Wayne wasn't a legal part of his son's life. At the hospital, he never signed the document that would put his name on the birth certificate — standard procedure when parents are not tied through marriage. Today, Wayne has suspicions; he alleges Mary Ellen and her sister — an employee at the hospital — conspired to keep his name off the document. Whether by plan or oversight, Andrew left the hospital fatherless in the eyes of the law.
At home, the situation took a dark turn. According to Wayne, cocaine flowed heavily following Andrew's arrival; stopping by the house to see his son, he would walk in on Mary Ellen cutting up lines. He admits he often sat down and joined in.
"I wasn't an angel either," he says today.
The situation was ripe with risk factors: back-loaded with unexpected deaths and old traumas, and facing an uncertain future, the mother and father tumbled into a pattern of drug abuse. It reached a point where they got along only when they were high. The sober stretches were marked by fights. Throughout, the baby was the serene, smiling center of the coke-fueled storm; family friends remember Andrew at the time as a sweet kid, his round face always stretched in a wide grin while the parents bickered on.
Finally, Mary Ellen reached her tipping point. She told Wayne she needed to get clean. The plan was to kick out to Houston and stay with family for a while. Andrew, nearing his second birthday, was going with her.
Wayne was ambivalent about living so far from his son, but he didn't know what else could break the destructive pattern.
"She said she wanted to go down there to get away from the drugs, and I thought that anything was better than what was going on here," he says. "It was a solution that would get her away from the friends and all that stuff. I figured she wouldn't be able to do drugs while living down there."
Thinking the two would be gone only for six months, Wayne helped pack up mother and child, and watched them steer south.
At that point Wayne could easily have cut loose; legally, nothing bound him to his son, and his deteriorating relationship with Mary Ellen gave him every incentive to be a no-show. But he never considered it, he says.
"I couldn't imagine someone being raised without knowing their father. How could I abandon someone like that?"
With his son off in another state, Weber set about getting his name legally inked on the boy's birth certificate. Every step, however, was gift-wrapped in red tape.
Establishing paternity in Cuyahoga County turned into a headfirst dive into a bureaucratic logjam. In 2003, after 11 months of running in place — the ignored phone calls, bad information, and general indifference — Weber tried his hand at neighboring Geauga, where he lived at the time. In three weeks, he was able to arrange the appropriate paternity tests and subsequent paperwork.
Later, a hardnosed judge didn't buy Weber's story that he'd given Fitzgerald cash for Andrew since birth; he saddled the father with arrears and a high monthly child-support payment, which Weber struggled to provide with his painting gigs. He was also shelling out for the pricy flights down to Houston to see Andrew. The six-month retreat had turned into a permanent stay.
When Weber visited, things did not go well. They continued to fight, and eventually Weber asked a Texas court to issue an order that would cement his visitation rights. In February 2006, the court rubberstamped an agreement granting him summers and occasional weekends with Andrew. Later that year, the boy trekked to Cleveland for his first summer with Dad.
The beaming baby that left Cleveland a couple years earlier returned to town a charming little boy — active and curious, his father's features starting to show in his small face.
Weber cleared his summer schedule to spend as much time with Andrew as possible. When they weren't out on daily excursions, the boy split his time playing in the neighborhood and attending an area day camp. The pair tagged along with Weber's friends to family events. Gina Amato, Weber's girlfriend at the time, became especially close to the boy.
A mother and grandmother, Amato says Andrew was sweet and playful, but he also showed signs that he was struggling with something more than the usual growing pains. He could be unsocial and reserved, as if he didn't know how to play with other children. At times he was also unruly and hard to control.
"[Andrew] would always go with me to my family functions, and he would play with other kids for a while, but then go off on his own. It was kind of bizarre," Amato recalls today. "I think there must have been some sort of disability." At the time, she speculated that he might suffer from a form of autism.
Whatever the problem, Weber didn't correct his son's behavior and was too lenient when the boy acted out of hand, Amato remembers.
"Andrew wasn't disciplined property," she says. "Wayne was the type of father where the kid got away with a lot because he didn't get to see him a lot." Most important to Weber, it seemed, was that father and son had fun together. And for that summer, they did.
That sunshine period would come to a quick end after the weekend Andrew went to visit his mother. Monday came and went, and Fitzgerald never reappeared.
"I just tried calling and calling. Finally, five days later she picked up and said Andrew didn't want to see me," Weber says. "And that was it."
It's one of the last days of summer, the start of the school year only a week away, and a small community park on the West Side is swarmed with mothers and children. The full sun barrels down, but the temperature hints at fall. Despite the chill, giggling kids cut through the rhythmic bursts of water shot from a fountain, their chatting mothers grouped nearby.
Mary Ellen Fitzgerald and Andrew sit under the shade of a nearby tree. Nearing his ninth birthday, the boy is friendly and kind, not one to clam up around strangers as he launches into a conversation about his love of Legos and his cat. He is described in recent court documents as fearful, stuttering, and nervous — a complete mismatch to the quick-witted, smiling kid here today.
He sports a close resemblance to his father, his face dusted with freckles and topped with a dark tuft of brown hair. As he plays with his Legos in the grass, his mother talks about what a good child he is; when Weber is casually mentioned, Andrew seems not to register a reaction.
In her mid-fifties, Fitzgerald is still attractive and dressed stylishly. She sports a tank top and shorts, and her tan face is half-hidden behind dark sunglasses.
As she talks, Fitzgerald tends to pinball about, flash-cutting from one topic to another. But when the conversation turns to Weber, she's concise and specific: She did what she had to do.
"I don't hate Wayne," she says. "He hates me."
Fitzgerald admits their relationship was rocky from the start, and she maintains he never wanted the baby — citing his abortion offer as proof. She says she had nothing to do with keeping Weber's name off the birth certificate; rather, he always knew he had to sign the documents but failed to do so. She also alleges he never gave the family any money.
Fitzgerald agrees that the two years following Andrew's birth were the drug-lined black hole Weber describes, but she goes further: Weber was physically abusive, frequently twisting her arm around her back and flinging her against the wall and floor. He did this in front of the frightened baby and also smacked him on occasion. She left Cleveland not only to get clean, but to escape the abusive relationship.
"I had to leave a bad situation that we were all caught up in, because I wasn't going to let my son live in that kind of lifestyle," she says. "I had to get away from his people and my people."
A longtime friend of Fitzgerald's, now living in Florida, backs up her account. "[Wayne] had potential," says the woman, who asked that she not be named. "He just wasn't a father. He'd go on binges and he'd be drunk, walking around with the baby in his hands or driving drunk with the baby. He didn't deserve to have him."
The woman also claims that Fitzgerald would talk about how Weber had been abusive to her and the baby, though she never saw the father act that way herself.
Sober since leaving town, Fitzgerald says her decision to move back to Cleveland during the summer of 2008 was not part of a plan to kidnap her son or violate the visitation agreement. She wanted Andrew to be close to his father so they could develop a relationship.
But when Andrew climbed into her car that August day two years ago, he refused to return to Chagrin Falls. Fitzgerald tried to force him back, but he became anxious and agitated when his father's name came up. The boy initially wouldn't say why he didn't want to see him.
"What could I do?" she says today. "Tie him up and drag him over there?"
Over time, Andrew told his mother that Weber had hit him, left him alone in the house, and drank and drove with the boy in the car throughout the summer. She immediately put the boy into counseling and decided to keep him away from his father despite the court order. She believed she had to wait six months before she could formally alter the visitation agreement.
Therapists had already diagnosed Andrew with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, but they now began to suspect more was at work in his little brain. She says they eventually diagnosed pervasive developmental disorder, a slight form of Asperger's syndrome. Counselors, she adds, also believe he suffers from post-traumatic stress associated with his father.
She insists she's not throwing around allegations just to keep Weber from his son; she would like Andrew to have a relationship with his father, but the boy's current mental state prohibits it unless Weber takes the time to understand what his son suffers from and what role he might have played. The seemingly stable boy bouncing around the park is the result of many hours of therapy, she explains, and the balance is fragile.
"You've got to work with this kid different than other kids. If his father could look at the full picture and maybe get a little counseling himself, and learn about the psychological issues that Andrew has — if he could do that, then yes, I'm all for it."
The courts have agreed to a similar scenario. In April, Weber and Fitzgerald entered into an agreement stipulating that the father seeks counseling; after some treatment, his counselor would meet with the boy's therapist — the first steps toward repairing the relationship. The agreement didn't pan out, and now the parents are heading back to court.
"I've had to do whatever I've had to do," Fitzgerald says. "Wayne is just trying to create more ugliness."
The office of the Children's Rights Council of Cleveland is tucked away on the first floor of a bare office building in Lakewood, an old stone and brick job tacked onto the end of a quiet residential street. From the two-room setup inside, its walls covered in photos of smiling kids and crayon drawings, Maryann Dybiec hunkers down behind her desk and wages an unlikely war.
Dybiec, a divorced mother of three, often finds herself defending fathers against a system that errs on the side of caution at the expense of justice, she says — an unpopular stance in juvenile court circles.
"I'm not a woman woman-hater," Dybiec says. "I'm just so frustrated about what these women can get away with."
As the council's executive director and chief advocate, Dybiec works with families hashing out custody and child-support arrangements. She's often front and center for nasty squabbles between parents — fights that leave shell-shocked kids reeling in their wake. In her mind, the courts do not help referee solutions for these differences as much as they perpetuate division.
Weber's case has taken on particular importance for Dybiec. The father first knocked on her door five years ago. As the court battles have dragged on, she's been at Weber's side. She calls it the worst custody situation she's ever seen, and she's had to quit on multiple occasions just to stave off depression for her own sake.
"This is one of the only cases where I haven't seen a supervised visitation," she explains. "[The court] is just doing everything they can to keep these two apart instead of trying to get them together to mend what should be mended."
To Dybiec, the case exemplifies a pattern of behavior endemic to the system. Mothers are often allowed to skirt court orders and withhold visitation from fathers without going through the appropriate steps. Often, the courts acquiesce to the behavior because of accusations of abuse — proven or not.
"The court is set up where there are certain policies and procedures that need to be followed. Most of the problem with juvenile court is nobody cares, and the mothers always get what they want," she says. "If you're alleging abuse, there's a bias that applies: 'OK, he's guilty until he's proven innocent, so we'll deny access.'"
According to Dybiec, when Fitzgerald became aware of her son's anxiety, she could have filed the appropriate paperwork right away and gone through the proper channels — not "kidnap the baby," as she puts it. Her failure to do so has dragged the situation out. Also, no court has ever found Fitzgerald in contempt. Instead, they've agreed to her version of events without giving Weber the opportunity to defend himself, Dybiec says. The court has sanctioned the long separation, and the father-son relationship is likely to suffer.
"The best parenting situation is always both parents," she adds.
Weber also believes he's been automatically assigned the villain's role by the court. He denies he was ever physically abusive with Fitzgerald and says he struck his son only once — two summers ago, when the boy was acting out of hand while they were driving in the car. "It made me sick to my stomach," he says. He claims her friends are lying when they corroborate her story, and that the allegations are part of her effort to manipulate the system in her favor.
Dybiec also questions Fitzgerald's allegations. She has spent time with Weber and Andrew; the boy never seemed afraid of his father. Weber's former girlfriend Gina Amato echoes this, adding that she never saw Weber abuse his son or drive drunk with him in the car. During their relationship, Amato claims, Weber never became violent.
While Amato was dating Weber during 2008, she would spend time with Andrew on his summer visits. She also struck up a friendship with Fitzgerald, and has continued to visit them in the years since. Amato says Fitzgerald is a good mother who loves her son. But she also badmouths Weber in front of the boy.
"She would say that [Weber] was no good, that he was mean, a loser, just stuff like that — all negative," Amato says. "You just don't do that."
Regardless of the accusations, in April, the court outlined the counseling agreement as a way to restore the relationship. Weber says he was willing to go, but quickly realized what he'd have to do to satisfy the counselors.
"I'm not perfect, but I've never hit her," he says. "But in therapy they wanted me to admit that I did and that I had caused my son's problems. But I didn't do that. I don't want to have to admit to something I didn't do. So you see my dilemma."
There was little progress anyway: Counselors for father and son were slow to contact one another; one day Weber went to a clinic for a supervised visit with Andrew, only to hear that the boy's counselor had decided to stop the interaction at the last minute. Discouraged, Weber stopped scheduling the pricey sessions. By the end of summer he resumed therapy, but he doesn't believe it will make a difference. It's hard to shake the role he's been assigned in the unfolding drama.
"I wish they'd at least try to listen to me," he says. "I shouldn't have to hire attorneys just to get my say. That's what is so frustrating."
Today, Wayne Weber lives alone in his Chagrin Falls home, shuffling from one painting job to another, trying to stay busy. Outside, the street still erupts occasionally with shouting neighborhood kids — a painful reminder for the father inside.
"It gets hard to watch them out there," he says, gazing out the front window. "It reminds me of my son."
The house is prepped and ready for Andrew's potential return. His bedroom sits just as he left it, a little shrine to future possibilities. The covers are neatly tucked into the bed, and abandoned toys are piled in the corner. Over the last two years, Weber has tried to stock the closet with new playthings — a kind of guessing game about what his son may be interested in today, as he matures away from the seven-year-old Dad last knew. Now there are Nerf guns, board games — even an expensive motorized model boat he had to drive an hour away to pick up.
Andrew is a conspicuous presence around the rest of the house too: His grin peeps out from picture frames all over the family room and kitchen. Elsewhere, court documents and legal filings are piled high, the chain-link of fine print now one of the few things connecting father and son.
At 48, Weber still looks young, only a vein or two of gray working through his brown hair. He's engaged and articulate, but when the topic turns to his son, his speech trails off into half-chewed phrases and long silences. A pained expression tightens his face.
He says he's been drug-free since Fitzgerald left for Houston, and he drinks only occasionally. Friends try to get him to socialize or go out on dates, but he says he's completely tied up with trying to get his son back.
"It's hard to think of anything else." And too hard to ever give up hope.
"Any father that gives up trying to be a father doesn't understand that being one transcends parental or institutional interference," he says. "Just because the other parent or a government entity interferes with your relationship, you are always that child's father. They won't forget it."
One of the only tangible connections he has to his son today is through Amato, who continues to see Fitzgerald and Andrew. Amato worries about Weber, who has lost both of his parents and spends most of his time alone.
"If you don't have your kids, what do you have? You really don't have anything," she says. "I think he's finally realized [the courts] believe her and they're not even giving him a chance."
In late spring, Weber drove by Fitzgerald's house, something he says he does from time to time. Usually, the drive-bys are fruitless, but on that particular day he spotted mother and son in the driveway. Weber rolled down the window, called out Andrew's name, waved, and told him he loved him. The boy smiled and waved back, he remembers.
Fitzgerald — and the court — remember differently. According to recent filings, the boy was frightened by the sight of his father that day and began stuttering uncontrollably afterward.
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