Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press Tonya Craft speaks to one of her lawyers, Clancy Covert, left, before the start of a custody hearing between Craft and her ex-husband Joal Henke held in Judge Marie Williams' courtroom Tuesday.
Tonya Craft's five-week trial on child molestation charges dredged up sordid, intimate details about her and her ex-husband's private lives, but some witnesses testifying in the couple's custody case say all the nastiness has not affected their children.
During testimony Tuesday in a custody hearing, Kendra Svoboda, one of the children's teachers at Westview Elementary School, described the 10-year-old boy and 8-year-old girl as "very resilient."
"I think they are doing remarkably well considering the circumstances," Svoboda said.
Craft, a former North Georgia teacher, lost custody of her children and visitation with her daughter in June 2008 when she first was accused of inappropriately touching her daughter and two of her daughter's friends.
The custody dispute in Hamilton County Circuit Court between Craft, 37, and her ex-husband, Joal Henke, will last a minimum of four days, officials said. It will determine who will have primary custody of the couple's children after Craft was found not guilty in May in a Georgia state court on 22 counts of child molestation, aggravated child molestation and aggravated sexual battery.
Taking the stand Tuesday, several teachers at the children's current school and workers at Henke's church, Eastwood Church, described Joal and his wife, Sarah, as loving, supportive parents.
They said the children have good grades, excellent behavior and healthy social lives. And most of the witnesses who knew the children before 2008 said they appeared the same as they did when Craft had full custody.
"I see a family that's secure, very loving and very kind," said Laura Smith, director of the children's ministry at Eastwood Church.
In a $25 million federal lawsuit filed against her accusers, Craft claims her ex-husband, the entire Catoosa County government and child therapists conspired to bring a false case against her by manipulating the children who accused her.
But during nearly three hours of questioning Tuesday, Henke said he never instigated nor drove the criminal case to court.
While making the children available for interviews and court appearances and also responding to subpoenas himself, he never spoke with his children about the allegation against their mother, he testified in court.
"It wasn't mine to stop," he said. "This wasn't about me. I was concerned with anything that would be of danger to my children. I reacted with the best I knew to do at that time, which was cooperation."
As much as he hated it, when his children had questions or were upset about the case, he said he told them they had to talk with a professional therapist.
"We sheltered them from the news. We sheltered them from the media. We avoided that. They didn't see computers, television," he said.
Now, he said he wants Craft to be involved in the children's lives but doesn't want her to be more involved than he is.
"She's tenacious, intelligent," he testified. "When she sets her mind on something, she doesn't stop. She is very focused. I think both of our children can learn from that. I do think she loves the children."
Still, throughout the hearing Craft's attorneys asked repeated questions about Henke's attempts to deny Craft access to their children over the last two years. They said he wouldn't let Craft see her son on Mother's Day or birthdays, even though she had asked for those days under the terms of her supervised visitation.
The children spent those days with his current wife and her parents, Henke testified.
He testified that he didn't recall those specific days.
During the hearing, attorneys showed Facebook posts by Sarah Henke in which she says how thankful she was for the children and how sweet Craft's son was to make her pancakes on Mother's Day.
At times during Henke's cross-examination Tuesday, one of Craft's attorney's, Scott King, became so animated and aggressive, Circuit Court Judge Marie Williams told him he had to calm down.
"We are going to switch examiners if you can't keep it together," Williams told King.
King also grilled Sarah Henke, who's pregnant, about her practice of showering with Craft's daughter, a fact brought up during Craft's criminal trial.
Sarah Henke said she started showering with the 6-year-old because she didn't think the girl was getting clean enough when she bathed on her own, and it became a weekly ritual for the two. She stopped, she said, when a psychologist said they shouldn't shower together because of Craft's criminal case.
"I was doing nothing wrong," Sarah Henke said.
Testimony will continue today, but will be closed to the media so the judge and attorneys can review expert testimony about the medical and psychological records of Craft's two children.
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...