Shawnna Hughes hoped to be divorced by Christmas.

She's not. There are decorations up at her small house in Spokane, Washington, and a blanket hangs over the front door for added insulation. As her two small boys play nearby, she curls her feet up under her tiny frame and speaks calmly about her predicament.

A 27-year-old mother of two, Hughes made up her mind in April of 2004 to divorce her husband, Carlos Hughes, 27. Since Washington is a no-fault divorce state, she thought it would be easy. That Carlos was serving the last weeks of a yearlong prison sentence on a domestic violence conviction should have made it easier still. Shawnna wanted to divorce Carlos before he was released from prison, and her attorney had assured her that obtaining a divorce wouldn't be a problem. It would be easy, even routine--and at first it was. The judge signed the order, and for four days around Halloween, Shawnna Hughes was a divorced woman and a single mother.

Things began to unravel the day after the divorce came through. The county prosecutor called Hughes' lawyer and told her that Shawnna's divorce was going to be revoked. The state was seeking to force Hughes back into her marriage with an abusive husband. The reason was shocking: Shawnna was pregnant and the Spokane prosecutor, according to Shawnna Hughes' lawyer, said that no woman in Spokane County is permitted to get divorced if she's pregnant. Not even an abused woman.

* * *

Shawnna Hughes' long hair is pulled back in a barrette the day I meet with her, and her bright eyes flit every few moments from her 16-year-old sister, who stands in the kitchen doorway, to her two sons who tumble over the carpet like puppies. Shawnna is very beautiful and also very pregnant. As we sit and talk under Christmas lights and family portraits, I find myself distracted by her tiny hands, which she rests atop her belly as she speaks. She is almost seven months along, she tells me, but her first two pregnancies were difficult, and she expects her third child will arrive before her due date.

Shawnna first became acquainted with Carlos Hughes in 1997. They met when she was working at Burger King and he was working at Kar-Brite car wash. He was a compact man with green eyes and dark hair. Shawnna learned he had two children from his previous relationship. Soon after the two met, they moved in together and eventually both found jobs at the same cafe. When they married in the winter of 1998, he was cooking in the back and she was serving lattes up front.

At the beginning, Shawnna tells me, her marriage was wonderful. But the honeymoon ended abruptly when Carlos started verbally abusing her. In her petition to obtain a restraining order, which she filed in April 2004, and which a judge approved shortly thereafter, Shawnna wrote, "He forbid me from having any contact with my friends and would say that I was a 'whore' like all of them." When she became pregnant with their first child, according to Shawnna's petition, he started physically abusing her. He strangled her, scratched her, and knocked her down. Carlos didn't seem to mind if there were witnesses. In fact, the very first time he physically abused her Shawnna wrote, "Carlos... yanked the rearview mirror from my car, and when I became upset by that, he began choking me while I was driving." Shawnna was four months pregnant at the time and her stepchildren were in the backseat.

After she had her first baby in 1999, things improved for a while. But when Shawnna got pregnant a second time in 2001, Carlos began to abuse her again. According to Shawnna's petition, a year after she gave birth to her second child, Carlos returned from a club and cornered her in the bathroom. He blocked her in, and when she tried to get around him, he threw her against the towel rack with enough force to break it. As Shawnna struggled to get back on her feet, he grabbed her head and smashed his forehead into her nose. Her youngest son, hearing the commotion, came toddling into the doorway. As Carlos swung around to pick up the child, Shawnna lunged out of the bathroom toward the phone. She almost made it. Carlos chased her down and snatched it from her hand. With their son in one arm, he forced her onto the ground and held her there with his knee pressed against her throat.

Finally, in April 2003, after Shawnna's older son found his father strangling his mother on the floor of their bedroom, Shawnna decided she had to end her marriage. Enough second chances. She kicked Carlos out, changed the locks, and pressed charges. Carlos eventually pleaded guilty to a domestic violence assault charge and was sentenced to one day in jail and 364 days of house arrest. When he was released from prison, he was monitored by the State for a time, and then in June he was sent back to Geiger Correctional Facility to finish the remainder of his sentence.

While Shawnna desperately wanted to divorce Carlos, getting a divorce while on public assistance is no easy task. Divorce is expensive and, with two kids to take care of, she didn't have any money. By April 2004, Shawnna's desperation for a divorce had increased. Carlos was due out of jail in a few weeks and she was terrified that he would come after her again.

Since April, Carlos has been in and out of trouble with the law for other reasons. When I met with Shawnna shortly before Christmas, Carlos Hughes was back in jail awaiting trial on a drug charge.

* * *

Terri Sloyer had been a lawyer for less than a year when Shawnna Hughes contacted her at the Center for Justice, an organization that provides pro-bono legal services. A 44-year-old self-described soccer mom, Sloyer has three children and didn't go to law school until she was 36, when she and her husband started a new life after he was laid off. Sloyer works dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans most days. There's an MLK Jr. "I Have a Dream" poster hanging in her office, along with the artwork of her children. Sitting at her desk, Sloyer smiles and says, "This is my dream job."

After meeting with Shawnna Hughes in April 2004, Sloyer quickly filed the paperwork for the divorce. She didn't expect any complications in Shawnna's case and after the divorce was granted Sloyer moved on to other clients. According to Sloyer, the day after the divorce was granted the county prosecutor called. Because Shawnna Hughes receives state assistance, the county has an interest in the child-support part of the proceeding. The state needs to be able to track down the father to collect payments. The prosecutor seemed agitated, Sloyer remembers, and told her that she intended to alert Judge Paul Bastine that Shawnna Hughes was pregnant. Sloyer had included a statement saying that Shawnna was pregnant when she filed the paperwork for Shawnna's divorce but the judge must have overlooked it, the prosecutor believed, otherwise he would not have granted the divorce at all. (The prosecutor did not return The Stranger's calls for comment.)

After the prosecutor informed Judge Bastine that Shawnna Hughes was pregnant, he gave the Center for Justice one week to come up with arguments for why he shouldn't revoke the divorce he had just granted Hughes.

To obtain a divorce in Washington State one needs a certificate of dissolution of the marriage. Once all the paperwork has been filed and the request for the certificate of dissolution has been issued, the spouse has 90 days to contest the dissolution. If the spouse doesn't complain, can't be found, or won't respond, the dissolution must be granted by default. The 90 days passed without a word from Carlos. "There was nothing that we could find in the statute that precluded Shawnna Hughes from getting divorced," Sloyer says. The Dissolution Act doesn't say anything about pregnancy. According to the law, a woman can get a divorce no matter what, even if she's pregnant.

However, in at least one courtroom in Spokane County, pregnant women are not allowed to get divorced because, according to the judge, Spokane County has a policy against children being born "in limbo." A child's paternity must be determined before a divorce can be granted. While one state law allows women to divorce at will, there is another law that prohibits the courts from leaving a child without a source of financial support.

Further complicating matters for Shawnna was the fact that the baby she is carrying wasn't Carlos' child. After her husband was sent to jail, Shawnna started dating a man named Chauncey. They had been friends for a long time, but they had become closer when Carlos went to jail. Chauncey and Shawnna quickly fell into a comfortable relationship, and a few months later she became pregnant by him. The judge knew it wasn't Carlos' child because that information was in the statement Sloyer had submitted. Nevertheless, the law presumes that any children born to Shawnna Hughes are Carlos Hughes' children until a separate court proceeding determines otherwise.

The Stranger has yet to obtain a copy of the court transcript, but according to people involved in the case Judge Bastine found that a pregnant woman couldn't get divorced because her child would be born out of wedlock. Bastine would not speak on the record about the case. According to people who were at the hearing, Bastine said that if Shawnna Hughes were permitted to divorce, her child would not have a father and her child would be left in financial and paternal limbo. According to Sloyer, one legal right on Shawnna's side was the standard of "significant infringement," which holds that the state can't significantly interfere with a woman's right to marry. However, the judge's opinion was that forcing Shawnna to stay married to her abusive husband until she had another man's child did not amount to a "significant infringement" under the law because Shawnna Hughes had gotten pregnant willingly.

Breean Beggs, the executive director of the Center for Justice, maintains that Judge Bastine definitely is not anti-woman--quite the contrary. "He has served on task forces and encouraged private attorneys to take on more pro bono cases for women who need access to lawyers but cannot afford them." According to Beggs, Bastine has been a champion of low-income people, especially women, in Spokane County. He has a reputation of fairness and sympathy for the state's poor. "There's only so much you can do as a judge, but Judge Bastine has done everything he can to help poor women."

After the arguments were made at the hearing, however, the judge's position remained unyielding and unsympathetic to Shawnna Hughes' request for a divorce. Four days after receiving her certificate of dissolution, which divorced her legally from her abusive husband, Judge Bastine revoked Shawnna's divorce. Carlos Hughes was her husband again.

* * *

I go to see Carlos in jail where he is being held before a trial on felony drug charges. After sitting in the waiting room with 10 other women, most of whom are toting small children, some of them still nursing, I am directed upstairs to a small visiting room. As I walk by the other visiting rooms, some of the doors are ajar and for a moment I think Carlos and I will be face to face with only air between us. My heart skips a beat. As a woman, it is somewhat nerve-racking to meet with a man who has admitted to beating his wife on at least one occasion. I open the door to the visiting room and notice with relief that a floor-to-ceiling panel of bulletproof glass separates us.

Carlos is standing on the other side waiting for me. He is small, and looks sad and powerless is his dark blue prison-issued jumpsuit. We sit down in the chairs provided, and I explain to him why I am there. He listens attentively and then looks down and shakes his head. He denies the incident in the car ever happened. He prefers not to comment on the incident in the bathroom. When I start to press further he stands up.

"I don't want this visit," he says.

I tell him this is his chance to tell his side of the story.

"I want to talk to Shawnna first," he says.

I thank him for seeing me, knowing full well that his wife's no-contact order prohibits him from talking to Shawnna at all. He turns to the door on his side and starts knocking. I find my way back to the lobby, past the women and children in the waiting room, and head back out into the frigid Spokane air.

* * *

After the divorce was overturned, Sloyer and the Center for Justice realized they had stumbled upon a substantive civil rights case. What had seemed like a routine divorce was now a much larger battle.

Although the postponement of divorces for pregnant women has been happening all over the state for years--and Seattle-based Northwest Women's Law Center says the numbers have increased recently--it had never been challenged in court until now. How could it have taken so long for it to come to light that women can be denied divorces, or have divorces overturned, if they're pregnant? After all, the implications of such a policy are obvious and scary. First, the fact that a woman is pregnant shouldn't prevent her from escaping from a dangerous relationship as quickly as possible. More chilling is that abusive husbands who want to prevent their victims from divorcing them have an incentive to get them pregnant.

The reason this situation continues to exist may be the Uniform Parentage Act (UPA), adopted in 1975. Although another law, the state's Dissolution Act, prevents the state from infringing on anyone's right to divorce (and remarry), the UPA, which governs parenting, puts pregnant women seeking divorces at a disadvantage. It mandates that paternity must be established after a baby is born, often within two years of divorce, or else the presumed mother and father at the time of birth forever forfeit the right to name another legal father. This works for and against Shawnna Hughes. It works for her, in Sloyer's opinion, because under the law Carlos is the presumed father and this upends Bastine's claim that the child is "in limbo." Even the UPA itself states that "a child born to parents who are not married to each other has the same rights under the law as a child born to parents who are married to each other."

But the UPA could work against her as well because it is possible that unless she goes to court within a certain time frame, she could be forced to stay attached to Carlos through the child after the divorce--even though the child is not his.

Greg Seims, director of United Fathers, Inc., a fathers' rights group, agrees with this analysis. "Even though there's domestic violence, staying married until the baby is born is the best option," says Seims. His point is that if she doesn't formally deestablish paternity after the birth, this man will have the right to reenter the life of the child until the child is 18 years old. Seims notes, "He could be the scum of the earth but he'll always have the rights to this child."

Despite these twists in the law, Shawnna Hughes' should still be able to get divorced now. It's her right under the law. The Dissolution Act plainly states that as long as Carlos didn't contest the divorce within 90 days--which he didn't--the court has to grant her divorce.

One simple solution might be allowing the paternity of the child to be determined before the baby is born. Either way, it is Shawnna Hughes' right to divorce when she wants--regardless of a pregnancy--before or after the birth.

"There is no distinction in Washington law between children that are born in marriage and children that are born outside of marriage," says Lisa Stone of Northwest Women's Law Center. "If the judges think that they are preventing illegitimate children, it is nonsensical, and a Victorian remnant. People laugh when they hear about these cases because they think it's all happening in Grant County. But it's not."

* * *

Shawnna sits on her couch, her skin glowing under the warm Christmas lights. She makes a face, rubbing a spot on her belly and then looks at me, smiling.

"She's a stinker," Shawnna says. "She's always kicking me."

I nod, wondering what it must be like to be pregnant. We talk a little more, and I finally muster up the courage to tell her that I've been to see Carlos earlier in the day. Her face instantly freezes.

"Did you tell him that we're not divorced?" she asks.

I shake my head no, and then what Shawnna just said sinks in.

"He doesn't know that you're still married?" I ask her.

"No," she says, "he doesn't. And I don't want him to know."

Unlike Judge Bastine, Shawnna feels that being forced to stay married to Carlos Hughes until after her baby is born is a "significant infringement." The lights of her Christmas tree twinkle. She shoos her boys upstairs to play and laughs about the toys strewn all over the floor. Raising two kids while pregnant and being involved in a lawsuit makes tidying up a low priority. Nevertheless, with Carlos almost out of her life for good (she hopes), she has managed to make her house warm and inviting. She tells me she wants to have a home where her children will not feel afraid.

"I just can't wait for us to be divorced so that he won't be the father anymore," she tells me.

That's not the case, of course. After reminding her that I'm not a lawyer, I explain to Shawnna that she might have to go back to court to make that legal. Under the law, Carlos Hughes will be her third child's father too, legally if not biologically. Shawnna winces. No one had told her that.

With the kids upstairs and the living room temporarily quiet, an exhausted look comes over Shawnna's face. She just wants this to be over.

So, one assumes, does Judge Bastine. He's supposed to retire next month but if the court of appeals, after hearing from Shawnna's lawyers, sends her case back to Judge Bastine, his retirement may have to wait. A delay in Bastine's retirement date somehow seems less inconvenient than the delay of Shawnna Hughes' divorce. If her appeal is delayed too long her baby will be born--the legitimate child of an abused mother, forced by the state to remain married to the man who abused her.

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