Drive-by Tasting: Rock N Taco

SCENE OF THE CRIME | Carne asada and carnitas tacos lacked punch, but still had more than the watery margaritas. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

One visit. One meal. One shot to get it right

Direct marketing works. But it can backfire, as it did with Rock N Taco.

After a long, hard week at work, I needed to unwind. As if the World Wide Web sensed my stress, an e-mail popped into my in-box: $2 margaritas at Rock N Taco for happy hour, it said. Free appetizers. I had my plans.

Problem was, when I arrived at the nearly deserted McKinney Avenue restaurant, there were no apps set out, no reminder from the waitress of the great happy hour prices on tequila drinks. In fact, she told me they were three dollars.

Strike one. But it’s only a buck, right? Might as well. I ordered one on the rocks.

Strike two.

When the margarita finally arrived, it had about as much punch let in it as a boxer in round 9. Flat and favorless, it was a watery waste of agave nectar. I ordered a second, frozen, to see if the volume provided by the ice improved things. It did, slightly. Now you couldn’t tell so much that the alcohol content tasted on par with the basement brunch at the local Baptist church. At least it left me free that evening to operate heavy machinery.

I still don’t know what the appetizers taste like at Rock N Taco, as they were never set out and I didn’t bother ordering any. I stuck with the “rock your own” taco plate.

Let’s discuss the name for a second, too: Taquerias are as common in Dallas as vowels at the end of names in the barrio. Adding the word “rock” to one doesn’t, alone, justify charging three bucks per. (The best tacos in town are from the little lady inside the Fiesta on Ross Avenue. One dollar and she smiles at you.) You wanna rock me? Rock me! That doesn’t happen here, despite the zebra-print upholstery, signature drink called a “pink thing” (please, guys — grow up) and TVs blaring sports from every peripheral angle.

The tacos are the style I prefer: Small and packed densely with protein. But the carne asada taco, while flavorful, was as tough as a calculus midterm; by contrast, the juicy carnitas seemed like they hadn’t been seasoned at all. Of course, you can add some salsa (the tomatillo version is actually quite delicious, with lots of heat) and some a la carte sides: I tried the sliced avocado (good, but how can you mess that up?) and a chile-lime corn relish that was gummy but engaging.

Service didn’t impress me. Not at all. The margaritas took forever to arrive, and my water remained un-refilled as if they were rationing it in deference to Japanese tsunami victims. The waitress made me tab out early because her shift was ending and spent most of her time chatting with the only other person in the place (not a customer, it seemed, but a friend). I skipped dessert as I didn’t have another hour to wait for it to arrive.

Overall impression: Lacks buzz, lacks service, lacks consistent flavor in the food. Some of the items might actually deserve props (that salsa!), only it would require a repeat visit to get them.

Recommended: No.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

Students building Equality at Eastfield College

BUILDING EQUALITY | When Philomena Aceto, right, realized that Eastfield College had no LGBT organization on campus, she and another student decided to start one themselves. Judith Dumont, left, signed on as the fledgling group’s faculty advisor.

Snow delays start of Eastfield College GSA, but organizers say first meeting will be rescheduled

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

MESQUITE — Eastfield College was the largest of the area’s community colleges without a Gay Straight Alliance, according to student Philomena Aceto. But now Aceto is working to change that.

Aceto — whose partner is longtime activist Dawn Meifert and who has her own history as an activist — began working on her degree at Eastfield last summer. She met Kris Fleskes, another student, and they realized there was no representation for the LGBT community on the more than 18,000-student campus.

Other area two-year colleges have GSAs and campus LGBT alliances. Last fall, P.R.I.S.M., which stands for Promoting Respect In Sexual Minorities, opened successfully at Navarro Community College in Corsicana. The GSA at Richland College, the largest Dallas County Community College, meets twice a month.

“Let’s start one,” Aceto urged Fleskes.

Any campus group must have a faculty advisor but faculty cannot start a group themselves. So Fleskes and Aceto met with two Eastfield staff members, Judith Dumont and Kristie Vowels.

Dumont, former director of Youth First Texas, is now the faculty advisor for the new group.

When she began working at Eastfield last summer, Dumont said, she tried to make her office the safe space on campus for the LGBT community and indicated that by putting an HRC sticker and “proud ally” stickers on her door.

She said she cheered when the two students approached her about starting the GSA.

Aceto said Vowels told her, “You are exactly what we’ve been praying for.”

The group’s first meeting has been postponed twice because of weather. Aceto said that’s just giving her more time to promote the club in classes and on campus.

“I’m out preaching it every day,” Aceto said. “This isn’t about being gay. It’s about equality.”

To emphasize that point, they’re calling their group Equality.

Aceto said she’s has been running up against some resistance and a lot of indifference in an area she called one of the most conservative in Dallas County.

“We’re curious how the campus will receive us,” Dumont said.

She attended advisor training and said there was no reaction when she announced the name of the group she would facilitate.

“I’m hoping everything will be OK,” she said.

But Dumont agreed that the campus was very conservative.

“There were raised eyebrows on campus when I didn’t change my name after I got married in November,” she said.

Aceto said she would like to bring some interesting speakers to campus and produce some creative programming.

“We want to go after bullying,” she said.

Dumont said the group was important as a safe space not just for students, but for faculty, staff and administrators as well.

She said she’s already planning to participate in National Day of Silence. Last year, Dumont organized that event among students who are active with Youth First Texas.

Eastfield College was closed on Wednesday, Feb. 9, the most recent launch date for Equality. Aceto said the group would reschedule over the next week.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 11, 2011.

—  John Wright

Vowels drops 31⁄2-year custody fight

Although courts finally ruled she had standing to bring custody suit, Vowels says continuing the fight would have harmed her daughter


Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

THE LAST WORD  |  Kristie Vowels, seated, watches through tears as her attorney, Michelle May O’Neil, standing left, adds her signature under Vowels’ to paperwork informing the court Vowels is dropping her lawsuit seeking joint custody of the daughter she shared with her former partner. Even though attorney Ashley Russell, standing right, had located a clause in the Texas Family Code that might have helped win, Vowels and her attorneys felt the price of victory would have been too great. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)
THE LAST WORD | Kristie Vowels, seated, watches through tears as her attorney, Michelle May O’Neil, standing left, adds her signature under Vowels’ to paperwork informing the court Vowels is dropping her lawsuit seeking joint custody of the daughter she shared with her former partner. Even though attorney Ashley Russell, standing right, had located a clause in the Texas Family Code that might have helped win, Vowels and her attorneys felt the price of victory would have been too great. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

Kristie Vowels vividly remembers the last day she saw her daughter Meghan. It was the morning of April 24, 2007.

“I took her to school that morning. She had on her khaki shorts, and her black t-shirt and her little black Crocs,” Vowels said.

Meghan was 3 years old then. And Vowels has spent the 3 ½ years since that day fighting for the right to see her daughter again — right up until Friday afternoon, Oct. 8.

That’s when Vowels signed the papers to drop her lawsuit seeking joint custody of her daughter.

“I’m doing this for Meghan,” Vowels said in an interview at her attorney’s office. “I’m doing this because I want to do what’s best for her. I love her enough not to be selfish.”

Vowels and her former partner, Tracy Scourfield, had lived together for several years, since December 1998, when they decided to have a child together.

Scourfield gave birth to their daughter on May 21, 2004, and the couple gave their baby girl both their last names — Scourfield-Vowels.

Vowels and Scourfield ended their relationship a little more than a year later, in August 2005, and Scourfield and Meghan moved out, into an apartment near Vowels’ home. For nearly two years, the two women shared custody of their daughter, with Meghan spending part of her time with Scourfield, and the rest with Vowels.

On Aug. 3, 2006, Scourfield had Meghan’s last name changed to Scourfield. And nine months later, she cut off contact between the little girl and Vowels.  Less than a month later, on May 23, 2007, Vowels filed suit seeking joint custody.

Less than a month after the suit was filed, 302nd Judicial District Court Associate Judge Christine Collie ruled in the case, saying that while Vowels had standing as a “person with substantial past contacts” to sue to adopt the child, she had no standing to sue for custody.

Judge Tena Callahan confirmed Collie’s rulings in November and then again in January 2008, and in April that year, Callahan signed the order, based on a motion by Scourfield, to dismiss the suit.

By the end of April, Vowels had appealed the ruling, but it took a little over a year for the appeals court to issue its decision, finally affirming the dismissal on Aug. 11, 2009. Vowels asked for a rehearing and an en banc review, and on Dec. 1, the appeals court handed down a new ruling, this time in Vowels favor, saying she did, in fact, have legal standing to sue for joint custody.

Scourfield’s motion for a rehearing was denied by the appeals court, as was her appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. And on July 26 this year, the appellate court issued the mandate to return the case to trial court.

Vowels was ready for the next stage of the battle. But she and her attorneys, Michelle May O’Neil and Ashley Russell, knew it would be a hard fight, thanks to legal precedent set in a 2000 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Troxel v. Granville.

In that case, a Washington couple were suing for visitation rights with their dead son’s children. But the Supreme Court ruled that a parent has the constitutional right to rear their children as they see fit, and that to abridge that right, the court had to find the parent unfit.

It is, O’Neil said, a very high standard to meet.

“It’s really hard to disprove the fitness of a parent. Look at Britney Spears and everything she went through, and she was never ruled unfit,” O’Neil said.

Still, there was a chance. In fact, Russell had found a clause in the Texas Family Code that might have even lowered the bar so that Vowels and her attorneys wouldn’t have to try to prove Scourfield unfit to win their case.

To gain standing to sue, Vowels and her attorneys had already proven that she had “actual care, control and possession” of her daughter — through the joint custody arrangement with Scourfield that lasted almost two years — within six months of the date she filed suit.

And then Russell found a clause in the code that said if a parent “relinquishes actual care, control or possession” of a child for six months, that overcomes the presumption of fitness. And the courts had already ruled that Scourfield had relinquished partial control to Vowels over the course of those two years.

It was the chink in Scourfield’s armor, and if Vowels and her attorneys could prevail, it would likely set precedent, O’Neil said.
But, the attorney added, “If we win, what would that look like?”

On Sept. 1, O’Neil met with Scourfield’s attorney to try and reach an agreement that would allow Vowels to see her daughter and end the court battle. After all, Vowels said, “For me, this was never about winning a court case. It was just about being able to see my daughter. That’s all I wanted, to see Meghan.”

But during the meeting with Scourfield’s attorney, O’Neil said, it became blisteringly clear that Scourfield would never settle.

“I tried everything to get him [Scourfield’s attorney] to make a settlement. I hoped that after 3½ years, she would soften some and agree to something. I used every persuasive argument I could think of,” O’Neil said. “But it became painfully obvious to me that no matter what her lawyer thought or said, or what I said or what Kris said, there was never, ever going to be a settlement offer.”

Vowels recalled that day and her conversation with O’Neil.

“Michelle and I walked outside after she met with Tracy’s lawyer and sat down, and I remember her telling me what took place. Then she said, ‘You know Kris, I don’t know if I can win this for you,’” Vowels said. “I was so taken aback. I said, ‘Yes, you can.’”

But O’Neil wasn’t swayed. “I asked her, if we do win, what will that look like? I really wanted her to think about that, about what it meant to keep fighting and what it would mean if we won,” she said.

“We could go through this horrible, protracted fight, and I knew that on every ruling from the judge that didn’t go her way, Tracy would appeal it, all the way to the Supreme Court. If we go through three or six or nine more years of court battles, even if we win everything, what does that really look like? Even if the court gives you custody, will Tracy support your relationship with Meghan? What will it do to Meghan?”

And that was what cemented Vowels’ decision. She and O’Neil set an appointment for later to make the final decision, but Vowels already knew what she had to do.

“I was OK that night. I was OK that next week. But not really,” Vowels said. “Grief was knocking on my heart, and it was knocking hard. I realized that I had been in some phase of grief for 3 ½ years. I hadn’t been living; I had just been functioning. I functioned at a high level, yes, but I had limited myself emotionally.”

O’Neil said Vowels had stayed positive throughout the fight, always putting up a brave front. But she knew the struggle was wearing on her client.

“Every hearing, every meeting, Kristi came to that courthouse thinking, ‘Today’s the day that I’ll get to see Meghan again.’ Every time, even when she knew that it wouldn’t actually happen, she came with that attitude. It was really affecting her ability to just live her life.”

And so Vowels decided to end the fight. With her attorneys standing behind her, as they had done for more than three years, Vowels signed her name with a shaking hand to the papers that would end the case.

It’s been a long, hard battle, but Vowels said she is ready now to move on with her life, even though she will always love her daughter and will always think of herself as Meghan’s mom.

For the two attorneys, who describe themselves as “two straight, white, Republican women with husbands and children,” this case has been life-changing.

“I had just been practicing maybe a year when Kristi came to us with this case,” Russell said. “I was just learning to navigate the family courts system and figure out where everything fit. Then this case came along and blew that all wide open. I realized that there were all these people, all these families and children who don’t fit into these neat little slots made for us by the law.

“This case really heightened the awareness for me that in reality, people are not all treated fairly under the law, and that is not right,” Russell added. “You can only do the best with what you have, but we all have to fight for what is right.”

O’Neil said that she already had an idea of the legal barriers that LGBT people face, thanks to her time as a young lawyer working in the Texas attorney general’s office.

“That was when the attorney general was defending the sodomy statute in the case that eventually went to the Supreme Court,” O’Neil said. “And as a Baylor Baptist bow-head girl, that was a real shock to my system, believe me! But through that, I got exposed to the prejudices so many people are subjected to, and I really learned compassion [LGBT people and the defendants in the case], even though I was defending the statute.

“That experience really broadened my horizons, and I have always since then made it my personal policy that I would never withhold my help from someone just because they were different from me,” O’Neil continued. “And I think it is sad that some [LGBT] people think that there aren’t any [non-gay] lawyers they can rely on. There are prejudiced people, and there are prejudiced attorneys. But that’s not us. It’s sad to think that people might judge us on our orientation.”

O’Neil said she has never had another case like Vowels, which has proven to her yet again that “a child can never have too many people to love them.”

“This case,” she said, “certainly has given us an opportunity to try and make a difference. I believe we have made a difference, and I hope that it will continue to get better for others at least in part because of what we have done.”

While Vowels said she will never close the book on her relationship with her daughter, it is time to start writing a new chapter in her own life.

“I really believe we all have a path to walk. What matters is how you choose to talk that path,” she said. “I could not have gotten through this without Michelle and Ashley, and I couldn’t have gotten through it without my faith in God. My faith is even stronger now, and I think I can be an even better Mom now. I believe that my love for Meghan is what will allow me to open my heart and my life to another child.

“What it all comes down to is that we have created change; we have created opportunities,” Vowels said. “I always say you have to be the change you want to see in the world. That’s what I am trying to do.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 15, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Vowels custody case returned to trial court for hearing

Supreme Court refuses to hear appeal; appellate court ruled that non-bio mother has standing to sue

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Kristie Vowels
Kristie Vowels

The Texas Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal by a lesbian mother seeking to block her former partner from seeing their daughter. The case now returns to District Judge Teena Callahan’s court for trial.

Kristie Vowels and Tracy Scourfield were partners for four years. Together they had a daughter, with Scourfield as the birth mother. After they split up, Vowels saw the child on a regular visitation schedule for about a year, but then Scourfield cut off contact between Vowels and the child.

Vowels sued for visitation rights based on Texas law that allows someone who provided six months of care, control and possession ending within the last 90 days to file for custody.

Callahan originally ruled that Vowels did not meet legal standing to sue. Michelle May O’Neil, Vowels attorney, said Callahan gave no reason for her ruling.
Vowels appealed that ruling. The appeals court initially sided with Scourfield but later reversed itself to side with Vowels.

The Supreme Court returned the case to the appeals court, which then returned the case to district court.

O’Neil explained that non-biological parents in custody and visitation cases have to meet what is called the Troxel standard, named after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a child custody case.

“The presumption is that parents act in the best interest of their children,” O’Neil said.

Vowels said her former partner is a good mother. But whether or not Vowels gains custody could revolve on whether she and her attorneys can show any flawed decision-making on the part of her former partner.

“The flaw is that she unilaterally ripped the child from someone the child called mom,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil said that the case is being cited around the state and will affect heterosexual stepparents, grandparents and other caregivers as well.
“It’s legally the same question,” O’Neil said.

Callahan is the same judge who later ruled in a same-sex divorce case last October that the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally denies equal protection to same-sex partners.

O’Neil said she knows the judge will approach the case without some of the prejudices others might have, but the ruling in the divorce case won’t change her approach to the Vowels trial.

Vowels said her commitment to her daughter is unwavering.

Although she has had no access to the child for the last three years, she said her daughter has a college account that she has continued to fund.

“That’s my daughter and I’m going to do what I can to fully support her,” Vowels said.

A hearing is scheduled for September. At that time a trial date could be set and O’Neil said she will ask for a temporary visitation order.

O’Neil said that Vowels and Scourfield had talked about completing adoption papers before they split up. She said that had the adoption been completed, this would have been a very different case.

Once an adoption is completed, there is no question of parental rights. The burden of proof would have been on the biological mother to show some cause to prevent the adoptive parent from seeing the child.

“Headline to parents out there,” O’Neil said, “Get the adoption done.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 6, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Lesbian mother wins first fight in custody battle

Judge’s ruling gives Debie Hackett standing to fight for visitation with son from previous relationship

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Dallas District Judge David Hanschen ruled in June that a non-biological mother could assert her right to pursue visitation with and access to a child she raised since birth.

Kim Ferris, the biological mother, argued that Texas law prohibits the non-biological parent from seeking the right of visitation.
She and former partner Debie Hackett decided together to conceive a child with donated sperm and raised and cared for the child together.

Hanschen’s ruling was one simple sentence.

“After reviewing the pleadings of counsel, relevant case law, and my own hearing notes, the court denies Kimberley Ferris’ plea to jurisdiction in the above referenced cause,” he wrote to the three attorneys involved.

The ruling did not grant visitation, but denied Ferris’ move to dismiss the case and allowed Hackett to continue her pursuit of parental rights.

Hackett said she knew Ferris for 10 years and they had been in a relationship since 2007. They discussed having children early in their relationship and decided Ferris would have a child first, based on her age, Hackett said.

Ferris conceived with sperm donated by Carlos Rojas, a gay man who both women had known for seven years.

The women’s relationship ended in November 2009. “When Oliver was 11 months old, she asked me to leave,” Hackett said. Hackett moved out of the house and said she gave Ferris 30 days “to come to her senses.” After the women broke up, Ferris filed to change the child’s name from Hackett-Ferris.

After reading a story in Dallas Voice in December about a court decision in favor of Kristie Vowels, a non-biological mother, Hackett retained legal counsel.

Attorney Jonathan Winacour, who represents Hackett, said Texas law gives a non-custodial parent that has cared for a child for at least six months just 90 days to file a motion.

Ferris and Rojas retained separate attorneys in the case, but neither returned calls from Dallas Voice.

Before the child’s birth, Ferris wrote that she wanted Hackett to have “all the rights and responsibilities available in the state of Texas as a parent.”

The hearing established that Hackett shared full duties as a parent. To prove her involvement, she produced records that showed she paid for clothing, food, diapers, development classes and health care.

Their pediatrician testified that she understood that Hackett had medical decision-making power.

Winocour emphasizes that this case is not about establishing same-sex marriage, but simply about what is best for the child.

In his arguments, Winocour made the case that the father is not a legal resident and is less likely to be able to maintain a residence within 100 miles. The father’s paternity was not established for a year and was not on the birth certificate until after Hackett and Ferris broke up.

Winocour said that waiting a year is grounds for establishing abandonment in Texas.

Hackett said she is not trying to prevent Rojas from participating in raising the child. She simply wants standard visitation rights. She said she is in the best position to provide health insurance and has a stable home and income to benefit her son.

“The three of us made a contract to bring a child into this world. I’m not going away. This is my son,” Hackett said.

On Wednesday, July 14, Winocour filed a motion seeking an order compelling mediation in advance of a hearing on temporary orders. All sides would be required to appear before a mediator.

If mediation were successful, Hanschen’s court would presumably instate those orders. If not, the case would return to his court for further hearing.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 16, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas