Christmas came early for the Montoya family this year. A huge green bag brimming with gifts courtesy of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office had just been delivered on a recent evening. For more than two years Albert Montoya has been battling, in and out of court, to gain custody of his children Eva, 7 and Ethan, 5. The auto technician and life-long Alhambra resident won full legal custody of his children last spring. This year the DA’s office selected Montoya and his family to receive their annual Christmas gift donation.
“It seems everybody on this Earth is used to the kids automatically being with the mom,” Montoya said. But in his case, the mother was in jail – and Montoya said he desperately wanted the opportunity to raise his children. “I kept fighting for them.”
This is not simply about a nasty legal battle, it’s also a love story. A little more than a year ago, Leticia Tamayo, a legal assistant, spotted Montoya at a birthday gathering in Alhambra. No words were exchanged, but two months later the two crossed paths again one night. A friendship blossomed, and Albert confided in Leticia about his troubles with his ex-girlfriend who had been in and out of jail, and his wish to have sole custody of his two children.
“You hear the stories of the guys that get up and leave and you never see them again. I’m not one of those people,” he said.
Montoya said his ex-girlfriend was another story. She had been in jail multiple times, the most recent time was last year for domestic violence against a current boyfriend at the time. Montoya filed for custody of his children.
The couple would exchange the children at the Alhambra Police Department. There, as police watched to ensure his ex-girlfriend did not violate a restraining order, he would notice other single parents exchanging children.
Despite knowing he was not alone, for Montoya, it was often a lonely struggle, despite a very supportive family that kept him going. The $1,000 he had to pay in child support was a challenge, and he almost lost his job due to eight court appearances advocating for custody and restraining orders on his ex-girlfriend. For him, and other mothers and fathers in the situation, he feels there is a need for greater explanation of the legal system.
Tamayo’s presence was a turning point for Montoya. She helped him navigate the legal system. A mother of one, she not only had the legal skills to help him, she knew about the difficulties: she had been in a troubled relationship for 12 years. In October, Montoya received the news that the DAs office issued a 3-year restraining order against the non-custodial parent for domestic violence in October 2011. A few weeks later, Montoya received the letter in the mail from the District Attorney's Office stating that he was nominated for their Christmas Gift donation since it was unusual for a father to fight for and taken on full responsibility of his children. In addition, Montoya was granted $2,000 in October from the Victim Crime Protection program to assist in relocating him and his children since a restraining order was issued against the mother of his children.
Montoya believes that fathers can be as nurturing as mothers. “I think that is unfair to the dad, they should give the father a chance,” Montoya said, as he watched his children unwrap toys. "I think people just don't think fathers have that motherly instinct, but I know a lot of great fathers out there."
Montoya advises anyone hoping to attain legal custody of their children to bring any information that documents the well-being of the children and illustrates stability, whether it’s a journal that documents daily activities, or school report cards, witnesses, medical records, pictures, receipts from daycares, etc. “Even if it is a box filled with stuff, bring it,” Montoya said, “and don’t let the judge cut you short.”
The most important advice Montoya believes is not to be afraid to ask questions in court. He encourages fathers to seek help from the court facilitators who are there to answer questions and provide the necessary forms free of charge. Montoya advises against having an attorney due to the costs and lack of personal conviction. “It’s not their kid that they are fighting for, so they are not going to express their feelings as much as you are,” he said. “If you want your kids, go up there and speak for yourself.”
When asked what residents could do to help single fathers in Alhambra, Montoya said anything to give them some recognition, from a breakfast event to a barbeque. He hopes to create his own website where he speaks out on the struggles he faced and how he overcame them, as well as offer help and advice to the public. He has provided his email address to answer questions and guide single fathers in the right direction (what forms are needed, how to go about the court system, materials to read, etc.) Please email him at: [email protected]