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Casualties of a Custody War

Who am I? That's a question I haven't asked myself for quite some time. Many things, (mostly bad), have happened in my life. There are so many that it would take me two whole lifetimes to type about it....

Of all the bad things that happened to me, I think that finding out that the one girl I thought I loved said that it was all out of pity. Everything; the one night that we shared at ClubXtreme and all the love I thought we shared was all one big freaking joke...

Enough on that mistake, lets move on to the other torture in my life. Eight years ago my parents got a divorce and my father threw us out of the house. That act forced us to move up here, because we had no other place to go. Even now, 8 years later, he is still harassing us through court case after court case. There are more stories like the two that I've just type but I don't have the time or the sanity to go on. Thus ends this chapter in my life of endless torment.

--- Excerpts from a February essay by Nathan Grieco, a junior at Norwin High School

What's best for the child?
Court ruling, hostile divorce add up to torment

  19980610scottfamilyM.jpg (31141 bytes)
Karen Scott with her sons Justin Grieco, left, and Patrick Grieco in their North Huntingdon home. (Steve Mellon / Post-Gazette)

On the morning of Feb. 27, about two weeks after Nathan Grieco wrote those words, Karen Scott of North Huntingdon walked into her 16-year-old son's room to make sure he was getting ready for school.

Instead, she found him kneeling on the floor by his bed, a leather belt around his neck, blood spilling from his mouth. He was dead.

The coroner's office said there was insufficient evidence of either a suicide or an accident, and that the manner of Nathan Grieco's death "could not be determined."

It wasn't a news story in Westmoreland County. The community newspaper treated it delicately with a routine $5-a-line obituary; only Nathan's age would have caught a reader's attention.

But two weeks after he died, his mother decided to go public with her son's story, testifying before a House committee in Harrisburg. And shortly after that, news of Nathan's death began circulating in legal and child advocacy circles across the country.

Today, a Web page based in Austin, Texas, is dedicated to him. Another Web site operated by the American Bar Association has been buzzing with inquiries about his case. And several children's rights groups are organizing a memorial service for Nathan on June 7 at New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

His story has attracted attention not so much for how he died, but how he lived. Nathan Grieco was on the front lines of a vicious custody battle between his parents that resulted in an unusual and perhaps unprecedented court order aimed at him, his mother and his brothers, Justin, 14, and Patrick, 12.

Since 1993, the Grieco boys had resisted visiting their father, Louis Grieco, who they said had abused them and their mother; Grieco refused to be interviewed for this story, but in court papers, he contended that Scott had brainwashed their sons into hating him.

Early last year, the conflict prompted a Westmoreland County judge to take drastic action.

It was called "threat therapy."

Common Pleas Judge John J. Driscoll directed Nathan and his brothers not only to visit their father, but to be in a positive frame of mind and be respectful and obedient toward him.

If they didn't behave on those visits, former district attorney Driscoll ruled, their mother could go to jail.

A questionable expert

The kind of criminal contempt sanction that Driscoll levied - threatening to jail a parent for a child's behavior while the child is out of the parent's control - is highly unusual, according to national experts in family law.

Driscoll's "threat therapy" ruling, which remains in effect, is all the more controversial because it seems to rely on recommendations by Dr. Richard Gardner, a prominent expert witness whose unorthodox ideas about treating children in child custody cases are popular with some lawyers, but have been questioned by many mainstream mental health professionals.

Elsewhere in the nation, there have been isolated cases of judges jailing adolescent children for contempt because they refused to visit a parent, "but I've never heard of `threat therapy' being applied in this way," said Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center for Children and the Law.

Threatening to jail the mother may be constitutionally questionable, said Jeff Atkinson, a family law expert at DePaul University. "You can only be punished for wrongdoing you committed, not for something someone else did, under constitutional notions of due process and fundamental fairness," Atkinson said.

It's not clear how much this "threat therapy" contributed to the pressures that Nathan was feeling when he hanged himself.

The ruling was in effect for one year, during which the boys saw their father every month and for a two-week summer vacation; there is no evidence that their tense relationship improved during that time. At year's end, Karen Scott's attorney petitioned the court to rescind the threat therapy order, a request that was denied. A month later, Nathan was dead.

His friends insist that he wasn't suicidal, but the essay he wrote in high school shortly before he died was anguished, citing both the girlfriend's rejection and his father's "harassing us through court case after court case."

On the night he died, Nathan Grieco searched his mother's desk for a copy of the court order, Karen Scott said. She found it on a kitchen counter the next morning.

While the exact circumstances of Nathan's death may never be known, his case raises questions about the way courts balance children's interests with parental rights.

When deciding such thorny cases, judges in most states rely on one overriding legal standard: "the best interest of the child." It's a standard that is supposed to take precedence over all other considerations, including parental rights.

But it's not always easy to know what the best interests of children are when their mother and father are at war.

Most judges still subscribe to the notion that contact with both parents is usually the best solution, except in the most extreme cases. In Pennsylvania, judges may stop visits only if a parent "suffers from mental or moral deficiencies that pose a grave threat to the child."

But what about cases where the child seems to be traumatized by such visits? Or what about cases where the child simply refuses to see a parent? Are forced visits with that parent in the best interest of that child?

A suburban tragedy

It seems like an unlikely setting for an American tragedy.

In this sprawling North Huntingdon subdivision of $200,000-plus homes, little boys on minibikes dart in and out of driveways, and the lush green lawns are worn away in places from pickup baseball games.

19980605karenscott.jpg (28129 bytes)  
Karen Scott (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Karen Scott and her current husband, Alvin, live in a pink and gray brick house with gaily colored flags flapping from a pole in the front yard.

In the concrete in front of the neatly kept home, there are three boys' handprints, and three names - Nathan, Justin and Patrick - commemorating the date the driveway was poured for their new house.

Yet it was also on this driveway that a physical altercation occurred between Karen Scott and Louis Grieco in 1993, resulting in Grieco's arrest on aggravated assault charges. He later won an acquittal.

It was there, too, that in 1993 armed sheriff's deputies hauled the boys, screaming and kicking, into a county van to take them to supervised visits with their father.

And finally, in late February, it was in an upstairs bedroom of the house that Nathan's life ended.

Inside, family photographs line the walls, portraying three dark-eyed, dark-haired, inseparable boys: Patrick, the youngest, with a sweet round face; Justin, the handsomest, always with a scowl, the one described by one psychologist as "in charge" of the other children; and Nathan, the oldest, the most elusive, a cipher peering out behind thick glasses, unreadable.

"Nathan talked to everyone, but hung out with no one," said Beth Updegraff, 17, of North Huntingdon, who attended Norwin High School and the local Mormon church with him.

Updegraff said that while she knew Nathan from school, they weren't "fast friends." But she remembers that he "really liked his job at Teddy's (Restaurant). That's one thing he did talk about. Nathan was a vo-tech student who only spent a half day in school, so that kept him out of the loop, too."

An "attention deficit disorder child" who was taking medication, Nathan was also socially and physically awkward and not particularly popular in school.

"Nathan was different than most kids. People are judgmental about looks. They don't always see your character," Updegraff said.

Even though Nathan struggled with depression, particularly in the last year of his life, he got good grades in school, his mother said, and was both excited and anxious about the $175-a-week job he had at Teddy's Restaurant in Irwin after school - excited about the money, anxious about the possibility he might be fired if court-ordered visits to his father meant he would miss work.

Certainly, of the three boys, Nathan's relationship with his father was the most complicated. As the oldest, he was the only one who could really remember when Louis Grieco had lived at home. In court documents, psychologists described him as wanting a relationship with his father, but being fearful of him, too, scared of Grieco's temper.

The other two boys were less equivocal: They wanted little to do with Louis Grieco, and Nathan expressed guilt and confusion for feeling different from his brothers.

Slight of build, possessed of little athletic coordination, he felt unable to please a father who set great stock in such skills, his brothers say.

"He pushed Nathan harder than any of us. He was always on him," Justin said of his father.

When Nathan failed to perform well at basketball, he once told the court, his father yelled at him in front of his friends, calling him "an embarrassment to the game"; Grieco, according to court documents, denied doing that, saying he had merely told his son that if he wasn't interested in playing basketball, he didn't have to.

Whatever the case, Nathan is described in court records as suffering "severe, chronic anxiety manifestations due to the custody dispute these parties have been embroiled in since 1989."

The root of the trouble

Actually, the conflict ignited many years before that.

Louis Grieco, a Fresno, Calif., native, and Karen Smith, of Monroeville, met in 1978, at the California military base where they both worked. He was an operating room technician; she was an Army nurse who had never been out of Allegheny County until she joined the military.

"He was nice to me," Scott says today.

They married in 1978. She worked to put him through college, and he then joined the Navy, eventually becoming a pilot.

In 1981, Nathan was born, in Fresno, followed by Justin in 1983 and Patrick in 1985. Scott says frictions between the couple began to escalate when the children were born; in 1989, they divorced, in Corpus Christi, Texas, after Scott contended that Grieco had been unfaithful to her, and Grieco told her he wanted his freedom. The grounds were "irreconcilable differences."

With some bitterness, she said he didn't even wait through the 60-day period for the divorce to become final before notifying his superiors, who evicted Karen Scott from their Navy housing with two weeks' notice. She moved back to Monroeville, to a home next to her parents.

Despite the bitter feelings between Scott and Grieco, visits between the father and his children went smoothly for the first few years after the divorce. When he wasn't stationed at sea, Grieco would fly up to see them. Scott was working as an operating room nurse at the Veterans Affairs Department Medical Center in Oakland.

When her ex-husband visited, she would stay with her parents so he could use her house. She loaned Grieco her car.

But then, in 1991, Karen met Alvin Scott, a medical technologist at the hospital, and after a brief long-distance courtship while Scott was stationed in North Carolina, they decided to get married.

In January 1992, standing in the kitchen of her home in Monroeville, she and Scott told Grieco about their impending marriage.

"He shook our hands and said congratulations," Scott said.

Then, after handing her an alimony check, Grieco walked out the door and went back to Virginia, where he was stationed, and had the bank stop payment on the check.

Then he filed petitions to vacate their 1989 divorce decree.

Delaying a marriage

To this day, Scott said, she is mystified by her ex-husband's response, which threw a major wrench into her wedding plans.

"He claimed I was after all kinds of extra money," Scott said. "But if he had just let us get married, he wouldn't have had to pay any more spousal support. I just couldn't understand why he wanted to hold us up. He held us hostage, actually."

While Grieco has refused to be interviewed about his side of the story, he did speak at length with Dr. Richard Gardner, whom he later hired as an expert witness during the legal dispute. Gardner described Grieco's version of events in a report filed with the court in 1996.

Grieco, Gardner said, told him he began having trouble visiting his boys after he stopped alimony payments to his ex-wife in 1992.

Grieco was a Navy pilot, and after his June 1992 return from a six-month deployment in the Mediterranean, he told Gardner there was a "significant difference" in the boys. They said their mother wanted them to address Alvin Scott as "Daddy," and that Louis Grieco was not their "real" dad, only their "biological" dad.

At that point, Gardner said, Grieco "became very concerned and believed that his wife wanted to replace him in the children's lives with her new boyfriend." On two occasions, Grieco said, he drove 700 miles from his home in Illinois, only to be told by Karen Scott that the boys were unavailable for visits; she cited a misunderstanding about the date in one case and a work-schedule conflict in the other.

In court records, Grieco described himself as a doting father who had played an important role in his children's lives.

The boys, who were 8, 6 and 4 when the wrangling began between their parents, told their mother a different story, she said.

Karen Scott said they talked about how Grieco had become short-tempered, constantly criticizing her and Alvin; how Grieco refused to allow them to go on school trips or games on weekends he visited; how he would take them to cheap motels and videotape them, asking them repeatedly about their mother's activities.

Manipulated or abused?

It's hard to know exactly whom to blame for the deteriorating relationship between Grieco and his sons.

Sometimes their grievances seemed questionable. In court records, for instance, the boys once said their father's offer to rent video games for them was a "bribe"; another time, they complained that he shouted when he told them to brush their teeth.

But they also said Grieco, in one argument, threw Nathan onto the floor, where he hit his head; and that another time, he called Justin, 9, who had bedwetting problems, "Piss Pot Pete" in front of his friends (Grieco countered in court papers that he said it in the middle of the night while they were staying in a motel).

Were the boys recoiling from their father's conduct, or was Scott manipulating them? Was Grieco's behavior to blame, or was she encouraging them to distance themselves from a man she disliked?

Or was it some of both?

In October 1992, a Texas judge threw out Grieco's request to reopen his divorce petition. With that matter settled, Karen and Alvin Scott married, and settled into a new home with the boys in a North Huntingdon subdivision called Altman Farms.

But the legal dispute between Grieco and his ex-wife was far from over. In Westmoreland County, Grieco began filing court petitions, all with the same theme: Scott was preventing him from seeing his children.

The tensions between Karen Scott and Louis Grieco built throughout 1993, until one October day, when all of the bitterness between them exploded in Scott's driveway.

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