Daily life for Samantha Lankford has become a mix of anguish and anxiety, anguish because a slew of court decisions in New Hampshire and, more recently, Tarrant County has separated the mother from her only child for the past year, and anxiety because the local family who currently have custody of her boy have sought numerous criminal charges (some successfully) and an ongoing protective order against Samantha. The 35-year-old reasonably fears that appearing at one of Tarrant County’s family courtrooms will result in her arrest.
Following the death of her ex-husband Adam Lankford early last year due to an apparent drug overdose, based on information from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, Samantha lost access to her only child, Oliver (not his real name). Just days after Adam’s death, Katherine Kalpakis, Adam’s biological mother, successfully petitioned New Hampshire probate court Judge Patricia Quigley to grant the grandmother temporary guardianship over Oliver, according to family court documents. The move shocked Samantha, who was in Texas at the time and unaware of Kalpakis’ legal maneuvering. Judge Quigley did not respond to requests for comment.
What followed has been a protracted and ongoing legal battle that Samantha said is an example of how some families can exploit local guardianship laws and Texas’ family court system. Kalpakis’ lawyer, Donna Smiedt, responded to my request for comment with a brief statement.
“Other than stating that Mrs. Kalpakis has been awarded legal custody of the child, the subject of this suit, in accordance with the law of both the states of New Hampshire and Texas, we respectfully decline to comment on this pending case,” she wrote in an email.
While guardianship controversies are commonly reported in the news, most of those cases deal with elderly individuals who are deemed to be incapacitated and in need of a court-designated guardian to make decisions in the best interest of the compromised individual, who then becomes a ward of the state. Texas’ guardianship laws also allow for guardians to be appointed to minors through probate courts, which are tasked with handling property and estate disputes.
The Weekly has published numerous stories about guardianship cases over the years. In a 2016 editorial (“Guardianship Gulag,” April 2016), we noted that “few newspapers have published more stories on probate courts and guardianship cases gone wrong than yours truly. Tarrant County’s probate courts, led by Judges Pat Ferchill and Steven King, hear difficult cases, for sure, but the Fort Worth Weekly has spotlighted numerous instances in which people have been stripped of their rights and removed from their homes with little justification.”
One of the most egregious abuses of Texas’ guardianship laws that we reported dealt with Dorothy Luck (“Grabbing the Purse,” Sep. 2013). The then-85-year-old was widowed and without children or close relatives when we wrote about her plight.
“The people stripping away her wealth aren’t con artists, muggers, or thieves, although the end result looks the same,” we wrote.
“They” were a judge and several court-appointed lawyers involved in a probate system that deemed Luck to be mentally incapacitated and unable to handle her affairs.
Two years ago, we continued, they took control of her money and her life. She’s been writhing in the court system ever since, trying to regain control of her bank account, which has become at least $500,000 lighter since the court took over.
Ronda Haynes, a Tarrant County lawyer with more than two decades of experience representing clients in probate and guardianship cases, said Texas’ guardianship laws are not perfect, but many state legislative reforms made several years ago have largely ended the “horror stories” of family members or outside groups stripping the rights from someone who was still mentally fit.
“There was a push to try and minimize guardianships,” Haynes said. “It was a very abused system. Now, we try to do things using less restrictive alternative means like powers of attorney and family care.”
In a 2019 report, the Texas Office of Court Administration found that around $5 billion in assets were under court or guardian control in Texas that year and the majority of counties lacked the resources to monitor cases sufficiently. A review of 29,606 guardianship files found 41% were “out of compliance,” the report found.
Haynes said the vast majority of guardianship cases seen in Tarrant County involve adults. Without commenting specifically on Samantha’s ordeal, Haynes said that the majority of county judges with whom she has worked are very “pro-parent.” They believe that “a child should be raised by their parents” whenever possible.
“I’m a true Tyler girl,” said Samantha early into the first of several interviews that we conducted together.
She traces her roots to her grandfather, who moved from Arkansas as a young adult and built a successful construction business in his adopted East Texas home.
“In Tyler, you have your old folks who have been here for generations,” she continued. “Now, there’s a large population of new people.”
Samantha and Adam attended Robert E. Lee High School around the same time in the early 2000s. During Samantha’s sophomore year, she met Adam’s sister. The two became close friends.
“I didn’t hang out with Adam at the time,” Samantha said of her high school years.
Several years passed. Samantha stayed in Tyler and took courses at Tyler Junior College as Adam studied chemistry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Samantha was 24 when Adam visited from college and, through the mutual connection of Adam’s sister, began dating him.
“We immediately fell in love,” she recalled. “He was smart. I loved him.”
Samantha said Adam asked her to return to San Antonio with him. He eventually convinced her to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio and major in Spanish.
“I didn’t struggle academically like I thought I would,” she recalled. Adam “found something within me.”
In 2008 and shortly after moving to San Antonio with Adam, the two broke up. Samantha decided to stay in San Antonio. The split led her to drink excessively, she acknowledged. Looking back, she recognizes the signs of depression.
“I didn’t know what alcoholism was,” she said. “It was to help with my sadness. I struggled but went through recovery.”
Samantha moved back to Tyler in 2009, and the two were “back together on and off” over the following years, she said. Shortly after, Adam graduated from dental school and moved to New Hampshire.
Samantha said the move was intended to help Adam find a fresh start away from his old friends, whom Samantha said were bad influences.
Samantha said Adam asked her to move with him to New Hampshire.
“I said on one condition,” she recalled. “You do no drugs and no alcohol. I can visit, but I’m not going to stay.”
She said as long as he promised those two things, she would visit.
Samantha said the reunion, which turned into a relocation, was a “joyous” time. The couple had found a clean slate and a renewed love of each other. By mid-2013, Samantha was pregnant. The couple married in Meredith, New Hampshire, that year and bought a house. Those steps were allegedly important to Adam’s mother, Samantha said.
“Appearances were important to” Kalpakis, Samantha claims.
Oliver was born in early 2014. By the end of that year, Samantha had decided that things were “not going to work.” Adam was drinking heavily, she alleges, and was no longer showing the emotional support and affection that he had two years earlier.
“I came to Texas to do some thinking,” she said.
The two agreed to separate legally, and the mediated divorce that they agreed on was finalized in late spring 2015.
“I assumed [Oliver] would come with me [to Tyler] and things would otherwise remain the same,” she recalled.
Samantha said she did not see the parenting plan until just before she was supposed to sign the documents. She alleges her lawyer urged her to sign them without going over the particulars. The agreement reads that Oliver “shall reside solely” with Adam, according to the final divorce decree that was signed by New Hampshire Family Court Judge Susan Carbon.
“I was so depressed and cried for months,” she said. “My son was never supposed to be with Adam and, therefore, never with” Kalpakis.
Under the parenting plan, which Samantha unsuccessfully tried to amend in 2019, Oliver visited Tyler to see his mother on agreed-upon times throughout the year. Alternating Thanksgiving and Christmas visits were part of the final plan that acknowledged that Adam and Samantha were both fit to co-parent Oliver.
In the months leading to Adam’s death, Samantha believes her ex-husband’s behavior and complexion began to change, although she wasn’t sure why at the time. During Oliver’s Thanksgiving break in Tyler in 2019, Samantha said her son asked her, “What if Daddy dies?” The mother alleges the question was prompted by Adam’s drug-related behavior at home in New Hampshire.
On Jan. 7, 2020, Samantha received an email from Kalpakis’ lawyer. Attached was a petition for guardianship of Oliver. The document described Adam as “deceased.”
Three days after Adam’s death, Kalpakis filed a petition for guardianship with New Hampshire’s Ninth Circuit Probate Court which reads, “Petitioner [Kalpakis] requests that she be appointed as guardian of the minor child, [Oliver], and that minor child reside primarily with her and his grandfather … because it is not in the minor child’s best interest to have extended periods of unsupervised time with his mother, Samantha Lankford. Upon information and belief, the minor child’s mother, Samantha, is not capable of caring for her son due to her (1) mental health issues, (2) prior arrests and out of state warrants, (3) her drug and alcohol use, and (4) past inappropriate phone conversations with her minor child. [Oliver’s] mother is unfit to care for her son.”
Samantha denies having any diagnosed mental health illnesses or being on any medications other than Adderall at the time. The stress of the ongoing legal battles occasionally left the estranged mother feeling depressed, she said. At various times in her life, she said, she has been prescribed Xanax (for short bouts of anxiety) and Adderall to treat her Attention Deficit Disorder. She maintains that she was not on any type of prescription medication at the time of Adam’s death.
As for prior arrests, the single mother said that throughout her life she has received two tickets for public intoxication, including one from when she was a teenager. During one of our interviews, Samantha also shared a September 2019 stalking order. Signed by Judge Carbon but later dismissed following Adam’s death, the order says, “Ms. Lankford has communicated excessively with [Adam] and in those communications is often vile, insulting, and generally derogatory, and that she has admitted the same.”
The order required that Samantha communicate with her ex-husband no more than once a day and only in regard to parenting in a manner that is “respectful and succinct,” the order said.
Samantha maintains that her repeated attempted contacts grew out of frustrations with what she alleges were Adam’s sparse communications about Oliver. She also said that she has never used illegal drugs and, while she has had drinking problems in the past, has been sober since 2016. She provided copies of recent drug tests that described “negative” results for the presence of illegal substances. The accusations of inappropriate phone calls are also baseless, she added.
Kalpakis’ temporary order seeking guardianship of Oliver was signed just days after Adam’s death by Ninth Circuit Court Judge Quigley.
“The temporary guardian [Kalpakis] is specifically authorized to remove the minor from the State of NH in order to have the child reside with his grandmother” in Fort Worth, Quigley wrote in the order. “The request that the mother not be allowed visits for six months is denied. Any visits with the child’s mother shall be supervised and in accordance with the final parenting plan.”
Samantha received a “notice of decision” by mail a few days later that stated she had until Jan. 17 to file a “motion for reconsideration,” which allows one or both parties to argue that a judge should rescind a previous decision. Samantha replied, and a second court date to revisit Kalpakis’ guardianship status over Oliver was set for late January at the Ninth Circuit Court in Nashua, New Hampshire. Samantha attended telephonically while her lawyer represented her in person.
The final order, signed in early February by Judge Quigley, stated that New Hampshire was no longer an appropriate jurisdiction to determine child custody because the child now resided in Fort Worth with Kalpakis and that Samantha was two hours away in Tyler. The order sustained Kalpakis’ temporary guardianship over Oliver.
On March 19, 2020, Kalpakis was appointed temporary sole managing conservator and Samantha was appointed temporary possessory conservator of Oliver, according to Tarrant County court documents. Child exchanges for Oliver were ordered to occur in West Fort Worth at Flight Deck, an indoor trampoline park. Samantha said Kalpakis failed to comply with the March order that allowed Samantha to regularly call and visit her son. When Samantha brought her mother along for the first exchange in March, Kalpakis allegedly used that move to say that Samantha had violated the order. Subsequent phone calls and Skype conversations between Oliver and his mother were cut by Kalpakis, Samantha claims, meaning that the mother was left with no means of speaking to her only child.
Samantha spent the summer of 2020 researching her case and preparing her next move.
Five months later, a judge representing Tyler’s Smith County signed a warrant of arrest for Samantha for the charge of forgery (a misdemeanor) for allegedly falsely signing a document that sought details on the size of Oliver’s estate, which Samantha believes to be well over $1 million. The mother said that the allegedly forged document does not exist. She claims she was owed knowledge of the size of Adam’s estate by virtue of being the mother of Adam’s only living heir and sought that information.
In October 2020, Samantha told Kalpakis about her intentions to drive to Fort Worth from Tyler and pick up Oliver. The mother was growing frustrated with what she said was Kalpakis’ refusal to allow her to see her child. Soon after, Kalpakis filed for a protective order that accused Samantha of planning to abduct him.
“How can I abduct my child if he has already been kidnapped?” Samantha said.
Weeks later, the protective order was signed by Judge Judith Wells with the 325th District Court. The document states that Samantha is “prohibited from going to or near the residences, child-care facilities, or schools [Oliver] normally attends or in which [Oliver] normally resides. Samantha is prohibited from removing [Oliver] from the possession of” Kalpakis.
Without an affidavit from Kalpakis’ lawyer, the judge wrote that Samantha “has committed a felony offense involving family violence against the applicant or a member of the applicant’s household, regardless of whether [Samantha] has been charged with or convicted of the offense.”
A family court spokesperson said Judge Wells “cannot ethically comment on” Samantha’s protective order.
“What family violence?” Samantha said. “Show the court where [I] have committed any family violence. I haven’t seen my son in over a year.”
On Jan. 7, 2021, Samantha’s lawyer filed a “Motion to Vacate Protective Order” through the 360th District Court.
“The protective order finds that family violence occurred, despite having no indication of family violence in the affidavit attached to the application,” Samantha’s attorney noted. “This protective order was used as gamesmanship in an obvious goal to completely prohibit the mother’s contact with her son. It is an unfair use of a legal tool available to true victims of family violence.”
After numerous legal delays, Samantha said her legal team is preparing to set a court date to vacate the protective order. The most frustrating part of the entire ordeal, the mother continued, is that Kalpakis has not been charged with kidnapping Oliver.
More than 3 million children — around 4% of all U.S. children — are being raised by a non-parent relative, most commonly a grandparent, according to a 2018 article in Maine Law Review.
“Guardianship laws were developed in colonial law to serve orphaned children and oversee their property,” the law journal reads. “These laws fall under probate law — laws about the transfer of property upon a person’s death. Today, however, very few children are orphaned, and guardianships are rarely needed to ensure appropriate management of a child’s property. Instead, the laws are most commonly used as a way to address a child’s need for care when a living parent in crisis cannot provide care at least for a time. However, most states have not revised their guardianship statutes to reflect contemporary uses.”
Local lawyer Haynes said guardianship cases where one grandparent is seeking sole custody of a child who has a living parent are rare, especially when the remaining parent is not incarcerated or experiencing drug-related problems.
“We usually see guardianship cases involving the elderly,” she said. “One family member was the one taking care of Mom or Dad, and the other child was largely absent, either because they had work and couldn’t be home or lived across the country. You have a lot of situations where Mom or Dad might feel like one child deserves more money over the other. It’s not necessary because they love one more than the other but because one child helped them out more in life.”
The child who is partly left out of the inheritance often feels left out, she continued.
“Then they step in and contest and fight,” she said. “There are also extreme cases where there is financial abuse. You have one child who has always lived off of Mom or Dad, and they take over as guardian and are spending Mom’s money. Typically, I represent someone who finds out that a sibling has been financially abusing Mom or Dad. We file for guardianship to protect the rest of the financial estate and to have the power of attorney removed.”
Guardianship cases have and remain controversial even as the need for protecting certain minors, the incapacitated, or the elderly remains a societal imperative in some cases, she said.
Samantha said she is seeking new legal counsel who can navigate the complicated civil and criminal matters that will, one day, result in her reunification with her boy. In the meantime, she continues to study law as a means of protecting other parents from abuses of guardianship law and family courts.
“Everything on my bucket list has been checked off,” Samantha said of the past several years. After graduating from the University of Texas in 2018, the single mother went on to pursue a master’s degree through an online learning program. Samantha is now preparing to take the LSAT and to pursue a career in law.
“My goal is to one day [remove corrupt] judges out of the courts,” she said, “and to prosecute white-collar crimes on the behalf of the government.”
Samantha is currently serving a two-year term as the Democratic Party’s precinct chair of Smith County’s 27th district.
“I haven’t seen [Oliver] in over a year, which is the longest we have ever gone apart,” she said. “I haven’t [been allowed to speak] to him since October. I miss him so much. He looks exactly like his dad. I don’t even know what to expect when and if I ever do see him. He must be so big. He was 5 and has now turned 7.”
While many Texas judges openly state the importance of “parents’ rights” in juvenile and family court matters, one longstanding practice may explain why Samantha has not seen her son in over a year.
Once a guardianship order is signed by one state, Haynes said, courts in other states do not question that decision. Tarrant County’s family courts are working off the assumption that the New Hampshire order was in the best interest of the child.
“The burden, unfortunately” Hayes said, “is on [Samantha] to show that there is no further need for a guardianship.”