DENTON COUNTY, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – A North Texas father has won a unique child custody case that could set a precedent for future legal battles.
Chris Clay’s and Arli Jackson Wilkes’ daughter was born in 2014.
When their relationship ended two years later, he says they focused on being good parents.
“We co-parented well and we respected each other’s space.”
Both had moved onto other relationships when Wilkes was tragically killed in a car crash.
Clay said soon after he experienced another shock, when Wilkes’ fiancé and her parents both filed for joint custody of the then 3-year-old girl.
“It was a rollercoaster ride,” said Clay. “I was in court immediately for being a dad.”
A Denton County judge dismissed the grandparents’ case, but granted the fiancé visitation rights.
Clay’s attorney Holly Draper says while state law makes it difficult for family members to file for custody, it’s much easier for non-relatives.
“Boyfriend, roommate, nanny – it could be anyone,” she told CBS 11. “If they were living in the home and relatively minimally involved in the care of the child, they’re in the door.”
The fiancé had lived with Wilkes for about ten months, spending half that time with the little girl.
Clay says he’d met the man just once.
“That was the scary thing about this case for me as a parent,” said Draper. “This was something [Clay] had absolutely no control over. The other parent of his child chose to have a relationship with someone that he didn’t know and… all of the sudden this man was in his life.”
The judge ordered Clay to hand his daughter over for visits with the fiancé.
“It was frightening because he didn’t have to tell me anything,” said Clay. “And my daughter didn’t understand it either. She didn’t understand why is this guy here and her mom’s not here.”
After losing his appeal last fall, the case went to the Texas Supreme Court.
Attorneys presented their arguments in March. The decision came down in late June.
All nine justices agreed the Denton County judge had violated Clay’s constitutional rights as a fit parent.
“It shows that we were right from the beginning,” said Clay. Draper hopes the win will help protect other fit parents who find themselves in similar situations. “It will definitely have a huge impact on family law cases going forward.”
While it’s a victory for Clay, he says the fight cost his family almost everything else: their savings, their home equity and the chance to have more children.
“We want to.” Clay said, wiping away tears. “My daughter wants us to. We just can’t. We can’t afford it.”
It’s a painful loss for this father and his family.
“We could’ve given my daughter a much better future if we didn’t have to go into those courtroom doors and go through this experience.”
The family has set up a GoFundMe account to help cover the legal bills.
CBS11 reached out to the fiancé, but he did not want to comment on the situation.
Read the Justices’ full opinion here: