— Despite the TV news cameras, a family court judge, and two teams of lawyers waiting for them to get on with their high-profile child custody battle, Tonya Craft and Joal Henke really needed to talk.
Craft, the former kindergarten teacher acquitted in May of molesting her own daughter and two other girls, had a lot she wanted to say to Henke, her ex-husband and a prosecution witness at her trial.
Henke had a lot on his mind, too: Craft’s lawsuit against him and his new wife; the custody fight costing both him and Craft a ton of money, and the effect everything was having on their daughter and son, 11-year-old Aiden and 8-year-old Cole.
“We worked it out because it was for the children. We were in a room by ourselves … we shed some tears. We talked about some things,” Craft said in New York on Monday during a joint appearance with Henke on TODAY. “We said a lot of things that needed to be out in the open.”
When the emotional meeting was over and they informed their lawyers that they had decided to share custody of their children, Craft and Henke stepped in front of the cameras and announced that going forward they would be — as Henke put it at the time — “one big happy family.”
Related: Female teacher acquitted of child molestation
Not only would Henke’s wife, Sarah, be welcome at Craft’s home in Tennessee; Craft’s current husband, David, would be greeted warmly at the Henke household just over the state line in Georgia.
But did the agreement mean that Joal Henke now believed that his ex-wife was falsely accused of molesting the girls? He sidestepped the question when TODAY’s Matt Lauer posed it on Monday.
“I’ve thought about that a lot, and Tonya and I had a lot of great conversation about it and discussion, and shed a lot of tears … We determined that from this point forward we are going to move forward for the best interest of our children,” Henke said.
Although Craft plans to go ahead with her lawsuit against the school district where she had worked, prosecutors, police officers, and the parents of the young accusers whom she believes were coached, she told Lauer that her lawyers will be dropping their action against Joal and Sarah Henke formally sometime this week. The suit is being dismissed “with prejudice” — which means she will not be able to revive it later, even if the custody agreement falls apart.
“That indicates a very strong trust level. It is not only being dismissed, but it will not be able to be refiled,” Craft said.
‘Healing and forgiveness’
Craft and Henke both described the private meeting that led up to their Nov. 19 custody agreement as an almost mystical moment where two parents just decided jointly that the well-being of their kids was more important than anything else.
“We have wonderful children … I think it was our determination to make sure they were healthy,” Henke said.
Craft agreed. “It was very unusual that day. It is almost like there was a physical heart transplant, without there being one,” she said. “There was an amount of healing and forgiveness that cannot be explained.”
Since the custody agreement was reached, Aiden and Cole have been splitting their time between both households. Their time with the Crafts is being increased at a measured pace, so that they can adjust to the many changes in their living situation.
Craft said she is pleased that the children are spending more time with both parents, and less time with psychiatrists, psychologists and the court-appointed guardian.
“I think they are learning to be healthy children without being in the therapist’s office every week,” Craft said.
But what about Aiden, who testified for the prosecution against her mother?
“Actually, with both the children, especially our daughter … it’s as if nothing has happened. It is normal, it is happy. It is healthy,” Craft said.
Although she never actually testified to any molestation, prosecutors contended that Aiden corroborated the at-times inconsistent testimony of two young girls who said Craft touched them inappropriately at her home.
The defense successfully argued to the jury that the girls turned the focus on Craft after they were caught touching each other, setting off a chain of events that eventually involved Craft’s ex-husband and others with an ax to grind against her.
Craft was acquitted in May of 22 felony counts that, had they been proven, could have sent to her prison for the rest of her life.
Craft has said that when the time is right for her and her family, she plans to enroll in law school with the goal of eventually helping other falsely accused people.