(The Root) — Within the span of three weeks, two public officials went above and beyond their immediate duties to help Chad Milner gain custody of his 9-month-old daughter.
An officer in a Virginia sheriff's department gave Milner (then 26, and a recent Morehouse College graduate) off-the-record advice about what he needed to do to prove that he shared an apartment with his dying fiancée, Timile Brown, and provided for her and their baby daughter, Cydney. At the time Brown, a 25-year-old graduate of Spelman College, was in the throes of an aggressive chemotherapy regimen to treat her stage 4 esophageal cancer. She and baby Cydney were in the care of Brown's mother — a woman with whom neither Brown nor Milner maintained a great relationship.
A few weeks later, in December 2011, Brown was dead, and Milner found himself in a county courthouse near his hometown of Baldwin, N.Y., on Long Island, filing an emergency motion that would allow Milner to retrieve his daughter from Brown's parents without their hindering him, as they had once before. He then received advice from a courthouse clerk, who was compelled to help Milner after listening to his story.
" 'You didn't hear us say this, but we'll do this for you,' " Milner recalled the clerk telling him as she made photocopies of his paperwork. He told The Root that there were "We Don't Make Photocopies" signs plastered throughout the office.
"I had gone five months without so much as seeing a picture of her," Milner wrote about his daughter on his blog, the Adventures of a Single Dad, where he shares stories about the custody battle and his experiences as a father.
That his daughter's grandparents initially assumed that Milner did not want custody of Cydney sheds light on a bleak perception of black fathers.
"One might think the term 'black fatherhood' an oxymoron. In their parenting role, African American men are viewed as verbs but not nouns; that is, it is frequently assumed that Black men father children but seldom are fathers," Roberta L. Coles and Charles Green write in their book The Myth of the Missing Black Father.
The fact that his daughter's grandparents did not allow Milner to take his daughter after his fiancée died speaks to the issue of fathers' rights — or, rather, its ambiguity. It's a topic that Rita Hill, an attorney who practices family law in Queens, N.Y., wanted to make abundantly clear to Milner.
"I wanted to make sure he didn't compromise his rights," said Hill, who agreed to give Milner free legal advice after hearing about his situation. "I wanted him to be aware that his custody rights were superior to those of the grandparents because he was the biological father," she explained. "His rights took priority."
Milner now has full custody of 2-year-old Cydney. The path he took to get her underscores Hill's urgency in counseling Milner about his rights, believing that the idea of fathers' rights is either shrouded in confusion, ignored or not respected by some. The phrase "Mommy's baby, Daddy's maybe" comes to mind.
The Fight Began at His Baby's Birth
The process began the day Cydney came into the world.
After giving birth, Brown kept experiencing persistent stomach pains, as she had during her pregnancy, and she insisted that doctors look into it. A slew of tests, X-rays and a biopsy discovered a tumor perched at the bottom of her esophagus and another in the upper portion of her stomach. Stage 4 cancer of this type usually plagues older people, like Robert Kardashian (the late patriarch of the Kardashian clan) and everyone's favorite neighbor, Mister Rogers — not a 25-year-old woman.
Brown's three-day maternity stay turned into a six-week stint because of the cancer discovery, and Milner moved into the hospital to care for his daughter. "He changed the baby's diapers in the nursery when they would bring the baby in the intensive care unit because Cydney was a preemie," says Cathy Mumford, Milner's mother.
The couple was told that she had a 20 percent chance of surviving; she began to receive treatment at a cancer center in Buffalo, N.Y. Daddy day care was in full swing. "Chad would get off of work, play with Cydney, feed her, change her diapers. He would be up at nights," says Kim Thompson, Brown's cousin, who lives in Buffalo. "Timile was going through the cancer and could hardly do anything at the time."
In a post on her Facebook page during that time, Brown wrote, "Feeling better today. A little more energy today. Mommy put Cydney to bed last night and was very proud. Bonding time!! This has usually been Daddy's job. And he's so good with her!"
"By mid-March [the cancer] had spread throughout her abdomen. By April the doctor said it was all over up to her neck," Milner said. Brown, who was 5 feet 5 inches, was down to 88 pounds.
In October they moved to Virginia to be near Brown's mother — Brown had began to repair that relationship — but that's when things went south, both with Brown's health and with Milner's ability to see his fiancée and daughter. Although the couple had initially planned to stay in an apartment about 30 minutes from Brown's mother, Brown began to stay with her mother much more frequently as she got sicker and was in and out of the hospital.
However, Milner said that a feeling began to gnaw away at him. He believed that a plan was being put into action to make it appear as if Brown did not have a fiancée or a partner in the picture. He was encouraged to visit Brown in the hospital for small periods of time and during specific hours, when "a lot of people weren't around," he said.
Brown became too sedated to communicate with Milner after a while, and he received updates about Brown's condition only from her mother. He allowed his daughter to stay in the house with Brown's mother with the hope that Cydney would give Brown "a reason to live."
The last time Milner saw Brown alive, he told her that he would take Cydney up to New York for a week after he had a dispute with her mother over his access to his fiancée and daughter.
"No, two weeks," she whispered.
In a blog post, Milner described how an eerie feeling came over him when she uttered those words. Milner wrote that he later found out that the doctors had told Brown that she only had a few weeks to live. He took it as a sign that Brown had signed off on his pending status as a single father and wanted him to take their daughter to New York indefinitely.
"Looking back, she knew she wasn't going to be around much longer," he wrote.
Taking His Case to Court
One week after Brown died, Milner was in that Long Island courthouse, getting his custody papers photocopied by the rule-bending courtroom clerk. A couple of months later, he went to a Virginia court to appear at a hearing because Cydney's parents had filed a motion to get custody. When the paternity results came back in March, Milner went back down to Virginia and got his daughter, but not before a judge questioned him about his preparedness for taking care of Cydney.
Do you have a crib? Would Cydney have a room? Are there day care services for when you went to work? These were among the questions the judge asked Milner before awarding him custody.
Milner said that the process opened his eyes to the novelty of his situation, since he was a guy who, according to some narratives about black fathers — particularly young black fathers — should have been doing the opposite. Mumford underscored this point when speaking about her son's experiences.
"When people think of African Americans, they don't think of generations of homes with the paternal aspect present. A lot of times, people don't recognize that we have that," she explained. "Chad grew up seeing men be responsible."
Milner said that the process prepared him for the rigors of parenthood in a special way. "It defined and solidified my bond with Cydney, and it made me realize I would go to hell and back for her," he said.
"I know it was hard for him, but a lot of times people experience situations like this where they don't get a gift out of it," Mumford explained. "After what he's been through with Timile's passing, he has a gift. He still has this life," Mumford said of her granddaughter. "He's her guy, and she's his girl."