Donald J Harris on Family Court and Daughter Kamala

Source: The List, 8/12/2020: “The untold story of Kamala Harris’ childhood”.

Vice-Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris (D-California), has been described as being a “historic pick” for running mate Joe Biden. While not an accomplishment, it is also notable that Mrs. Harris and her sister were the subjects of a contentious custody battle as a child.  I can only speculate that experiences with justice, fairness and how the legal system/government operates were, in part, impressed on Mrs. Harris at a young age due to her parent’s divorce and the involvement of the courts.  As a result of this court order, it appears that Mrs. Harris was raised primarily by a single mother with limited involvement of her father who never stopped trying to show his love, and be a part of her life.

This article is NOT to say or imply anything negative about Mrs. Harris’ family or her parents but to stress that the actions of family court, judges and it’s professionals, do have a lasting impact on children. That Kamala’s parents divorced in 1972 demonstrates that complaints about family court, and it’s treatment of litigants (parents) have a history spanning over 50 years. It also shows that anyone can be impacted, and even traumatized, by injustice in the family court system. There are widespread problems, and dysfunction, in the family court system that affect people of all ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, geographic regions and religious backgrounds. Both fathers and mothers are impacted, in different ways.

According to memoirs, Donald J. Harris, father of Mrs. Kamala Harris, was involved in family court litigation with his ex-wife that resulted in separation from his two daughters and caused stress on their relationship. Mr. Harris comments that he feels the family court decision was motivated by gender and racial bias. Despite the challenges, Mr. Harris worked to be a part of his daughter’s lives the best could, and never gave up on his love for them.

Harris writes in an essay Reflections of a Jamaican Father, “This early phase of interaction with my children came to an abrupt halt in 1972 when, after a hard-fought custody battle in the family court of Oakland, California, the context of the relationship was placed within arbitrary limits imposed by a court-ordered divorce settlement based on the false assumption by the State of California that fathers cannot handle parenting (especially in the case of this father, “a neegroe from da eyelans” was the Yankee stereotype, who might just end up eating his children for breakfast!). 

Nevertheless, I persisted, never giving up on my love for my children or reneging on my responsibilities as their father…”

Donald J. Harris and Shyamala Gopalan met and fell in love while participating in the Civil Rights Movement. They were married for 7 years and had two children together. After the divorce in 1972, Kamala and her sister Maya were placed in the sole custody of their mother who raised both girls as a single parent. Kamala wrote in her memoir “The Truths We Hold” that she and her sister would visit their father dad “on weekends and spend summers with him in Palo Alto.” She also traveled to India and Jamaica to visit family on both sides.

Mr. Harris was born in Jamaica and later became a naturalized American citizen. He is a former economics professor and an economic consultant to the Jamaican government.  Mother, Shyamala Gopalan, is an Indian immigrant who worked as a cancer researcher. She passed away in 2009.

Mr. Harris’ essay also raises an important issue that is often overlooked in family court – that children not only form relationships with parents but also form relationships and develop an identity by participating in the cultural and spiritual background of their respective parents. Again, not saying this is true with the Harris family, just making an observation and reflecting on some of my experiences in family court. For children to feel a part of their culture, they need to have frequent or ongoing contact with it’s traditions, norms and practices. Family court orders that limit or eliminate parental contact also take a child out of their culture, and can cause a loss of identity. When judges make decisions they need to consider cultural factors and take care that children are not estranged from their cultural heritage as a result of their rulings.

In the essay, Mr. Harris shares family history and stories. He writes, “As a child growing up in Jamaica, I often heard it said, by my parents and family friends: “memba whe yu cum fram”. To this day, I continue to retain the deep social awareness and strong sense of identity which that grassroots Jamaican philosophy fed in me.  As a father, I naturally sought to develop the same sensibility in my two daughters…” Mr. Harris comments that he now enjoys a closer relationship with his children.

For More Reading:

The List: The untold story of Kamala Harris’ childhood

About Emily Court

It takes "Just Us" To Fight Injustice in Family Court. I blog to raise awareness about problems existing in the family court system, and use my own story as a personal example of how the systemic failures in family court, and the Guardian ad Litem Program, affect families, in an effort to encourage needed reform. Written by a survivor of domestic violence and homelessness working to create a better life for her children, in a stable home free of violence. In her efforts to rebuild her life, she has not only encountered harassment and intimidation from her alleged abuser but faced systematic failures in family court that have empowered her alleged abuser and put her children at risk. She has spent over a decade trapped in family court until her children finally aged out of the system. Through writing and blogging, FCI is working to raise awareness about domestic violence, and the urgent need for family court reform. She is currently working on a memoir titled "'Til Prayers Are Answered".
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