Category: Child Custody

Child Custody and Timesharing Problems, and Good News on Coronavirus

The need to quarantine has not stopped child custody and timesharing problems from surfacing. In fact, it aggravates these problems as parents grapple with sharing custody and protecting themselves and their children. The Supreme Court of Texas recently resolved one issue, and there is even more good news about the coronavirus.

Child Custody Problems

Solving Child Custody Problems is Big in Texas

The coronavirus outbreak has caused urgent disputes among divorced and separated parents over exchanging the children during school closures. This forces attorneys to file emergency motions.

Many parents following their agreements about exchanging their children during and after spring break discovered a problem: this year school never re-started after spring break, so when do you return the children?

I have been working remotely during the coronavirus crisis, and resolving these problems daily. I have also been fielding a lot of calls from clients and potential clients asking about whether they were going to get their children back from the other parent, and whether they should exchange the children as agreed and ordered.

Many states handle things differently. Recently, the Texas Supreme Court weighed in. The Texas Supreme Court settled the issue of when to exchange when there is no start to school after spring break in an emergency order of the pandemic, ruling:

“For purposes of determining a person’s right to possession of and access to a child under a court-ordered possession schedule, the original published school schedule shall control in all instances. Possession and access shall not be affected by the school’s closure that arises from an epidemic or pandemic, including what is commonly referred to as the COVID19 pandemic.”

Justice Debra Lehrmann said the court agreed on the solution during a teleconference to relieve a source of stress during the outbreak.

Florida Child Custody Problems

I’ve been involved in resolving and have written about child custody problems in Florida before. Here are a few tips for parents to lower or prevent your divorce or separation from ruining your holidays or draining your bank account:

Look at the timesharing schedule in your agreement or final judgment. Become familiar with exchanging children on specific holidays, dates and the times the kids are supposed to be with you, or the other parent.

Make your plans in advance and send a nicely worded confirmation email of the exchange schedule to the other parent to avoid disagreements early on.

Be flexible. Fighting during a time of great stress will only make matters worse, while fostering relationships with extended family is considered in the children’s best interest.

A little pre-planning and communication can save you a lot of emotional and financial expense. This is a national emergency and our children are exposed to the stress from those around them. Don’t make things worse. With that said, there is also . . .

Good News on Coronavirus

There is always good news, even during a pandemic.

  • The IRS has announced that the April 15, 2020 deadline for filing and payment of your individual income taxes has been extended to July 15, 2020.
  • Strangely, your second quarter estimated income tax payments are still due on June 15, 2020.
  • The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed. The last Senate version of the bill I read had a small business loan program allowing maximum loan amounts calculated as the lesser of the product of average total monthly payments by the applicant for payroll, mortgage payments, rent payments, and payments on any other debt obligations incurred during the 1 year period before the date on which the loan is made, or $10,000,000.
  • SCIENCE Magazine released an article it published on May 30, 1919 after the Spanish Flu pandemic about lessons learned. Very interesting reading throughout.
  • A potential universal flu vaccine has passed an important set of clinical trials.
  • A patient has been declared ‘cured’ of HIV – and it’s not even the first time, with no trace of infection in his blood 30 months after undergoing a specialized type of stem cell therapy.

The Supreme Court of Texas order is here.

 

Covid-19, Child Custody, and Good News on Coronavirus

Parenting is tough enough when you’re in quarantine. But for parents who are divorced and shuttle their kids between two households as part of a child custody arrangement, deciding how to proceed with quarantines related to the coronavirus can be even more challenging.

Child custody covid-19

A Virus Among Us

“Today” recently profiled parents in Florida about how they are coping. Rachelle Dunlevy, a mom of two from Indialantic, Florida, says since her ex-husband lives nearby, they have agreed to stick with their current custody schedule, for now. Megan O’Connor, whose daughter is about to turn three, has been divorced for almost a year, and says she and her ex-husband are doing the same.

“My ex is a public health professional, so he is aware of social distancing, but also of the importance of our daughter having access to both of her parents during such a fragile time. Currently, we are both in town so we are maintaining our current schedule. We’ve decided to do that because we view ourselves as a family unit — though we are no longer together romantically, our daughter is intrinsically a part of each parent.”

But what do parents do when there’s conflict over whether or not to pause a custody arrangement during the pandemic? When it comes to making decisions about coronavirus and custody, communication is key.

The first and foremost concern should be the health of your family. It is important to communicate respectfully and be cooperative with any schedule changes, even if it results in less parenting time for you and more parenting time for the other parent.

Understand that you and your co-parent may have different views about how to approach this pandemic and neither of you may be wrong or right, so it’s important to be calm. Your child is also navigating a pandemic and a change in their everyday routine and you do not want to add to their stress and anxiety — a united front between the parents is best.

The number one priority should always be the well-being of the children and the coronavirus doesn’t care about courts and agreement.

Florida Child Custody

I’ve written about child custody issues before. In Florida, the prevailing standard for determining “custody” is a concept call shared parental responsibility, or sole parental responsibility.

Generally, shared parental responsibility is a relationship ordered by a court in which both parents retain their full parental rights and responsibilities. Under shared parental responsibility, parents are required to confer with each other and jointly make major decisions affecting the welfare of their child.

In Florida, shared parental responsibility is the preferred relationship between parents when a marriage or a relationship ends. In fact, courts are instructed to order parents to share parental responsibility of a child unless it would be detrimental to the child.

At the trial, the test applied is the best interests of the child. Determining the best interests of a child is no longer entirely subjective. Instead, the decision is based on an evaluation of certain factors affecting the welfare and interests of the child and the circumstances of the child’s family.

Good News About Coronavirus

As new cases of SARS CoV-2 (aka Covid-19) Coronavirus are confirmed throughout the world and millions of people are being put into quarantine, there is some good news too.

Most people with COVID-19 recover. Estimates now suggest that 99% of people infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 will recover and some people have no symptoms at all.

Children seem to be infected less often and have milder disease. According to the CDC, the vast majority of infections so far have afflicted adults. And when kids are infected, they tend to have milder disease.

The number of new cases is falling where the outbreak began. During his speech declaring the new coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, the director-general of the WHO pointed out that “China and the Republic of Korea have significantly declining epidemics.” That’s a good thing and suggests that efforts to contain the spread of this infection can be successful.

We have the internet! We can practice social distancing and preserve our professional and social connections.

This a good test run for much more serious and deadly outbreaks such as the Spanish Flu and the Ebola virus. Our response to future pandemics should improve because of what we are doing now.

The coronavirus epidemic is a global problem for those infected and those trying to avoid it. But amid all the doom and gloom, there are some positive stories, positive messages and reasons to remain hopeful.

The Today article is here.

 

Child Custody and a New College Cheating Scandal

Want to lose custody of your child? You might think a post on how to lose custody may be irrelevant. You would be wrong. As it turns out, some parents are trying to lose custody of their children on purpose, as part of the new child custody and college cheating scandal.

custody college scandal

Really Desperate Housewives

Felicity Huffman, who played Lynette Scavo on Desperate Housewives, pled guilty to fraud charges in the college exam cheating scandal, for paying $15,000 to an organization that helped her daughter cheat on the SATs.

Not unlike the Felicity Huffman fraud, this new scheme involves families giving up custody of their children to relatives or friends. Their children are then filing for financial independence, opening the door to financial aid they couldn’t get while in their parents’ custody.

The University of Illinois started investigating after high school counselors from “fairly wealthy neighborhoods” had called to inquire about low-income orientation programs they were unfamiliar.

The university dug deeper and found a pattern of students entering into a legal guardianship, though they were still supported by their parents.

The scheme bears similarity to tactics adopted by Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the nation’s largest college admissions scandal. In Singer’s scheme, rich families secured advantages normally dedicated to students in need.

For instance, Singer would instruct clients to have their children diagnosed with disabilities. As a result, they got more time to take the ACT and SAT, college admissions tests, which could translate to higher scores.

Florida Child Custody and College

It is easy to see why a parent could be tempted into giving up child custody for free college tuition. College is expensive, and is getting more expensive. The main reasons for tuition inflation include a surge in demand, a lack of state funding, a need for more faculty members and money to pay them, and ballooning student services. Some states require parents to support their children while in college.

I have written about parents having to support their children into adulthood before. In Florida, the duty to provide support for a child is based upon the child’s incapacity and the child’s need of protection and care.

A parent’s legal duty to support his child usually ends at the age of majority – 18. But a parent will still owe a duty of support to an adult child in extraordinary circumstances, such as when the child suffers severe physical or mental incapacitation.

Recently, Florida’s child support statute was changed to require all judgments awarding child support to include a provision stating that child support will terminate on the child’s 18th birthday unless the court finds otherwise, or it is otherwise agreed to.

To extend support beyond age 18, there must be a child who is dependent due to mental or physical incapacity that began prior to age 18; or the child has reached 18, is still living at home, attending high school, and reasonably expects to graduate high school before age 19.

Florida law does not follow other states in finding that college is a “necessary education” requiring child support. In Florida, a parent’s duty to pay an adult child’s college expenses is moral rather than legal.

When parents in a divorce agree to educate their child after the child reaches 18, the agreement may be enforced. However, the obligation is not viewed as child support in Florida, but a contractual duty arising from the marital settlement agreement.

Not a Full House

Facing a maximum of 40 years in prison, actress Lori Loughlin of Full House, is accused of paying $500,000 to have her daughters billed as recruits for the University of Southern California crew team, even though neither of them participates in the sport.

Since the Loughlin fraud was exposed, more people are taking notice. Recently, the University of Illinois identified three students who had used guardianship to gain extra financial aid and potentially 11 students in the coming academic year.

It’s still unclear how widespread the pattern might be, and ProPublica reported it had found more than 40 similar cases where students may have benefited from the model.

While the practice might be legal, it will likely be seen by many as rich families taking advantage of resources clearly aimed at the less well-off. It also comes at a time when college costs continue to rise and more students take out loans, both private and public, to finance their education.

It’s also unclear how much money these students might have been able to secure. The maximum yearly amount for a federal Pell Grant is roughly $6,200, which students need not pay back.

There is no shortage of targets. The University of Illinois offers a program that promises free tuition for four years to in-state families earning $61,000 or less. There is also the Illinois Promise, which covers tuition, fees, room and board, and other costs.

The Pro Publica article is here.

 

Western Women in Arabia and Child Custody

An American mother just lost custody of her daughter because a Saudi judge ruled she was too Western to raise the child. Her own parents now worry they will lose both grand-daughter and daughter. An interesting case about Western Women in Arabia dealing with child custody is bubbling up in Arabia.

western woman arabia custody

Thicker than Oil

Bethany, a 32-year-old student and yoga teacher, moved to Saudi Arabia to teach at a university in 2011. She recently divorced her Saudi husband, and sought custody of their four-year-old daughter. Recently, the Saudi court concluded that she would not be a good parent.

The judge ruled in his denial of the mother’s custody of her daughter:

“The mother is new to Islam, is a foreigner in this country, and continues to definitively embrace the customs and traditions of her upbringing. We must avoid exposing (the child) to these customs and traditions, especially at this early age.”

In statements submitted to the court, counsel for the ex-husband used her social media postings as evidence of an allegedly un-Islamic lifestyle.

In translated court documents, a summary of accusations against her includes the fact that she had gone to US festival Burning Man, which is characterized as “the world’s strangest festival” where attendees “appear in crazy clothes and stay awake all night dancing and surrounded by people wearing only shoes made of fur, or drinking drugs (sic) or cold drinks.”

According to the judge’s notes, counsel for her ex-husband also accused her of maintaining social media channels “full of nudity, intermingling of the two sexes and a lot of things and actions contrary to our religion and customs and traditions.”

In court, Bethany countered that her ex-husband was actually the unfit parent, alleging that he was verbally abusive and used drugs. “There was drug use and that became an issue,” her mother told CNN. Her ex-husband has denied the accusations, and did not respond to requests for comment from CNN.

Florida Child Custody

I’ve written about child custody issues before. In Florida, the prevailing standard for determining “custody” is a concept call shared parental responsibility, or sole parental responsibility.

Generally, shared parental responsibility is a relationship ordered by a court in which both parents retain their full parental rights and responsibilities. Under shared parental responsibility, parents are required to confer with each other and jointly make major decisions affecting the welfare of their child.

In Florida, shared parental responsibility is the preferred relationship between parents when a marriage or a relationship ends. In fact, courts are instructed to order parents to share parental responsibility of a child unless it would be detrimental to the child.

At the trial, the test applied is the best interests of the child. Determining the best interests of a child is no longer entirely subjective. Instead, the decision is based on an evaluation of certain factors affecting the welfare and interests of the child and the circumstances of the child’s family.

While social media evidence can be useful in determining some of the factors in the statute, being “new to Islam” and “embracing the customs and traditions” of a parent’s upbringing are not factors a court in Florida would consider unless harm to the child can be shown.

Oil Well that Ends Well?

The judge ultimately granted custody of Zaina to her Saudi grandmother, who lives with Zaina’s father.

“The fact that the father is residing with his mother is likely a temporary situation. Knowing that it is in men’s nature not to stay at home and not to honor/fulfill parental role themselves.”

Bethany was given until this Sunday to appeal the judge’s custody ruling, and for now, the child remains with her. But her parents tell CNN that there is a warrant out for her arrest after she missed a child visitation from her ex-husband– a visitation her parents say she didn’t know about.

They also say that Bethany has been banned from leaving Saudi Arabia for the next 10 years, though they were not able to provide further detail on the reason.

She wants to have the rights to go and come. She used to have that right says Bethany’s father. He says a judge also warned his daughter not to talk to the media.

Shifting Sands

Saudi Arabia has taken tentative steps towards the emancipation of women in recent years.

In 2012 Saudi women were allowed to compete at the Olympic Games for the first time. In 2015, women were allowed to vote in local elections for the first time. And recently, after a sustained campaign, women were allowed to drive.

At the end of this month, women will be allowed to hold a passport without needing permission of a male “guardian.” Nevertheless, the controversial guardianship system remains largely intact.

“A woman, from birth to death, must have a male guardian. The idea is that they are not capable and that men know better.”

Women still need a male guardian’s permission before having elective surgery, for example. And critically for Bethany, by Saudi law, a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man’s.

“Speaking generally, the U.S. Department of State and our embassies and consulates abroad have no greater responsibility than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas. US citizens abroad are subject to local laws,” the official added.

Bethany is now racing to collect all the necessary documents to appeal the custody ruling before the window closes this Sunday.

The CNN article is here.

 

Measles, Vaccines, and Child Custody

August means school has started in Florida. There is also currently a measles outbreak going on in Florida, and many parents are not vaccinating their children.The recent death of Rotem Amitai, an airline flight attendant who contracted the killer disease on a flight, means the issue of measles, vaccines, and child custody is spreading again.

Getting to the Point

Measles starts like a common cold, with runny nose, cough, red eyes and fever. Often there is a characteristic rash. But measles is not always mild; it can cause pneumonia and encephalitis (a brain infection), both of which can be permanently disabling or even deadly.

From January 1 to August 8, 2019, 1,182 individual cases of measles have been confirmed in 30 U.S. states. This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.

The most at risk are children who have not yet been fully vaccinated. Two measles cases are in Florida already: one in Broward and the other in Pinellas County.

The reason children are most at risk is simple: Increasing numbers of parents are not vaccinating their children. It wasn’t always this way. Some state’s records show that during the 2004-05 school year, vaccination rates for kindergartners in one county were above 91%. During the 2017-18 school year, the same county had an immunization rate of 76.5%.That puts their children at risk, and the rest of us too.

Florida Child Custody

In Florida, the prevailing standard for determining “custody” is a concept call shared parental responsibility, or sole parental responsibility. Generally, shared parental responsibility is a relationship ordered by a court in which both parents retain their full parental rights and responsibilities.

Under shared parental responsibility, parents are required to confer with each other and jointly make major decisions affecting the welfare of their child. In Florida, shared parental responsibility is the preferred relationship between parents when a marriage or a relationship ends. In fact, courts are instructed to order parents to share parental responsibility of a child unless it would be detrimental to the child.

Issues relating to a child’s physical health and medical treatment, including the decision to vaccinate, are major decisions affecting the welfare of a child. When parents cannot agree, the dispute is resolved in court.

At the trial, the test applied is the best interests of the child. Determining the best interests of a child is no longer entirely subjective. Instead, the decision is based on an evaluation of certain factors affecting the welfare and interests of the child and the circumstances of the child’s family.

Florida Vaccinations and Child Custody

My article on the relationship between vaccinations and child custody in Florida has been cited before. In Florida, a court can carve out an exception to shared parental responsibility, giving one parent “ultimate authority” to make decisions, such as the responsibility for deciding on vaccinations.

There are at least two cases in Florida dealing with the decision to vaccinate and custody, and they conflict! In one case, a Florida court heard the conflicting positions on immunization and decided that it would be in the child’s best interest to allow the anti-vaccination Mother to make the ultimate decision regarding the child’s immunization.

Ten years later, a different Florida court heard conflicting testimony, and decided it was in the child’s best interest to award the pro-vaccination Father ultimate responsibility to make decisions regarding the minor child’s vaccinations.

The decision to vaccinate raises interesting family law issues. It is important to know what your rights and responsibilities are in Florida.

A Dose of Reality

We’ve gotten so used to being disease free. People forget measles was a killer disease which took the lives children. Since the risk of catching measles dropped after it was eliminated twenty years ago, we have begun to think we can’t catch it, or that the vaccines which have protected us are worse than the disease.

Parents’ decisions not to vaccinate their children, because of various reasons, harms society’s immunization against these diseases. It can potentially harm weaker populations.

Although there is no express case law determining custody on the decision to vaccinate, with the school year underway in Florida, the outbreak of measles in two Florida counties now, the decision to get the recommended vaccines may impact your child custody case.

The Ynet news article is here.

 

Banning Sex While Separated

Are you looking to dive back into the dating pool while you are going through a divorce or child custody battle? If so, did you know there are bills which would ban sex while separated and even from having sex at home until all legal proceedings are finalized? This post considers the hot topic of dating during the divorce and child custody process.

Banning Sex While Separated

Prudish Pilgrims

One measure, first proposed in Massachusetts, would make it illegal for parents in going through a divorce to engage in a dating or sexual relationship with anyone within the marital home. The Massachusetts measure, which was first proposed a few years ago and has not passed yet, seems highly improbable of ever passing.

The Bill provides:

“In divorce, separation, or 209A proceedings involving children and a marital home, the party remaining in the home shall not conduct a dating or sexual relationship within the home until a divorce is final and all financial and custody issues are resolved, unless the express permission is granted by the courts.”

It is a big question whether a bill like the Massachusetts proposal could ever pass a state legislature.

Florida & Sex While Separated

I’ve written about child custody issues before, including how spanking can impact custody. First, Florida does not use the term “custody” anymore, we have the parenting plan concept. For purposes of establishing a parenting plan, the best interest of the child is the primary consideration.

The best interests of the child are determined by evaluating all of the factors affecting the welfare and interests of the particular minor child and the circumstances of that family, including evidence of the demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to upon the needs of the child as opposed to the needs or desires of the parent.

Additionally, courts are supposed to consider the length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity and the moral fitness of the parents.

Banning Sex for Sox Fans

While some couples use separation as an opportunity to decide whether or not they can salvage their marriage, others are left simply waiting until they can finalize their divorce.  Separated couples want a defined set of rules regarding dating and sex after separation. The Massachusetts bill, were it to pass, could have implications many have not thought of.

Many people would be surprised to know that adultery is a crime in Florida. Whoever lives in an open state of adultery may be guilty of a crime in Florida. Where either of the parties living in an open state of adultery is married, both parties shall be deemed to be guilty of the offense provided for in this section. A criminal record of adultery could be problematic.

Having sex during the separation does not automatically prohibit you from receiving support or alimony, however, evidence of it may be a factor a court looks to in modifying or terminating alimony based on the existence of a supportive relationship.

Sexual relations during separation may affect custody when and if it impacts the children.  A family court judge has to consider what is in the children’s best interests when determining custody.  Whether or not this affects the children’s best interest depends on the surrounding circumstances. Divorce and child custody proceedings are an emotional process. Moving on with someone new too quickly may make it harder to resolve the case.

The Massachusetts bill is here.

 

Alabama Getaway: Custody Rights of Rapists

Thousands of pregnancies occur as a result of rape. Surprisingly, states are split over giving a father custody of a child conceived as a result of his act of rape. That is because parenting is a fundamental constitutional right. With Alabama’s strict new anti-abortion law, and other states looking to pass bills restricting abortion, the custody rights of rapists may be back in court.

Rape and Custody

Southern Man

According to the Washington Post, a young woman came to Family Services in Alabama last year saying she had been raped by her step-uncle. The rape crisis advocate heard the victim say something that “killed me, shocked me”:

The step-uncle, who was getting out of jail after a drug conviction, wanted to be a part of their child’s life. And in Alabama, the alleged rapist could get custody.

Incredibly, Alabama is one of two states with no statute terminating parental rights for a person found to have conceived the child by rape or incest, a fact that has gained fresh relevance since its lawmakers adopted the nation’s strictest abortion ban last month in May.

That new Alabama statute even outlaws the procedure for victims of sexual assault and jails doctors who perform it, except in cases of serious risk to the woman’s health.

Sweet Home Florida

I’ve written about the phenomenon of a rapist trying to get custody before, and it is actually a national problem.

Statistics, like the number children conceived as a result of sexual battery, are sobering. Each year, there are approximately 32,000 pregnancies resulting from rape, according to a 1996 study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Congress got involved. The Rape Survivor Child Custody Act (the “RSCCA”) was made into law as part of the bipartisan Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act.

The RSCCA authorizes the U.S. Attorney General to make grants to states that pass legislation terminating the parental rights of men who father children through rape.

Many states adopted laws terminating parental rights in rape cases after Congress passed the RSCCA, granting additional funding to help sexual assault victims in states that allow courts to end parental rights when there is “clear and convincing evidence” that a child was conceived by rape.

However, some states require a rape conviction to terminate parental rights. But activists argue that the conviction standard is too high. The statistics they cite to are highly contested, but they argue three out of four rapes go unreported and less than 1% of all rapes lead to criminal convictions with incarceration.

Florida has been a part of this national trend. The child’s best interest is the guiding principle in establishing a parenting plan and for ordering a timesharing schedule in Florida.

Under Florida law, if a court determines by clear and convincing evidence that a child was conceived as a result of an act of sexual battery, the court must presume that termination of the father’s parental rights is in the best interest of the child if the child was conceived as a result of the unlawful sexual battery.

The action to terminate the parental rights of the rapist under the Florida Statute may be filed at any time and generally doesn’t require proof of a proof of a guilty plea or conviction in a criminal proceeding.

They Call Alabama the Crimson Tide

While the Alabama abortion law has been challenged, abortion rights activists fear it could reduce access to the procedure, forcing rape victims to bear children and possibly even have to co-parent with their attackers.

Last month, Alabama lawmakers considered a bill that addressed ending parental rights in cases of rape that result in conception, but the legislature removed that language, limiting the law to cases in which people sexually assault their children.

Some anti-abortion activists have been at the forefront of efforts to pass stronger laws. Rebecca Kiessling, an antiabortion family attorney who was conceived by rape, said the laws protect women who choose to keep their pregnancies. “Maybe they wouldn’t abort or give the child up for adoption if they knew they were protected,” she said. But laws terminating parental rights in rape cases have raised controversy.

Ned Holstein, board chair for the National Parents Organization, which advocates for shared parenting after divorce, said that allowing family courts to sever parental rights based on rape accusations is “an open invitation to fraud.”

The chair of National Parents Organization argues that even if a person is convicted of rape:

“there is merit on both sides of this issue, and we have no position on it, either way.”

For those who do raise their children conceived by rape, it’s not unheard of for the men to seek involvement in their lives. Analyn Megison, a former Florida attorney who was allegedly raped by a man she knew, fought him for years for custody of her daughter, who is now 14.

“When my case was going on, Florida had no legal protection in place a rapist father was better than no father at all.”

Eventually, the man stopped pursuing the case, after the judge said he wanted a “full evidentiary hearing about how the child was conceived,” she said.

The Washington Post article is here.

 

Custody and Vegans Don’t Pair Well

Child custody and religion often conflict. But can a family court judge ban a parent from feeding their child “fish, meat, or poultry” without the other parent’s consent? What if it is in the child’s best interest to eat vegetarian? A New York court had to answer that question, and the decision may leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Custody and Vegetarians

Nobu, Katz’s Deli & Carbone? Fuhgeddaboudit

In a New York custody case, the parents, who were represented by counsel, agreed to jointly determine all major matters with respect to their child, including “religious choices.”

The parenting coordinator on the case recommended that each parent be free to feed their child as he or she chooses during his or her parenting time, and that neither party shall feed or permit any other person to feed fish, meat or poultry to the child without the other party’s consent.

In their parenting agreement, however, the 24-page agreement did not otherwise mention the child’s religious upbringing and makes no reference at all to dietary requirements.

Although the parenting coordinator found that the child’s diet was a day-to-day choice within the discretion of each party, the trial court explicitly determined that the child’s diet was a religious choice, and dictated the child’s diet by effectively prohibiting the parties from feeding her meat, poultry or fish.

Florida Custody and Vegetarians

I’ve written about child custody issues before, in fact, I have an article on the intersection of religion and custody, especially when that intersection relates to harm to the child.

Knowing whether the dietary impasse between the parents is about the child’s health or religion is an important distinction. The New York dietary ban sounds very much like a religious dispute between the two parents. New York, like Florida, is a melting pot of religions and ethnic backgrounds where kosher, halal and a number of other religious dietary restrictions are common.

Of course, New York is facing another issue involving children and religion: vaccinations. With the recent outbreak of vaccine preventable diseases, such as the New York measles outbreak, lawmakers in New York voted last week to end religious exemptions for immunizations.

Usually, religion is used by the objecting parent as a defense to vaccinating children. In the New York case, the dispute was what to feed the child. Whenever a court decides custody, or issues relating to the child’s upbringing, the sine qua non is the best interests of the child. But, deciding the religious upbringing of a child puts the court in a tough position.

There is nothing in our custody statute allowing a court to consider religion as a factor in custody, and a court’s choosing one parent’s religious beliefs over another’s, probably violates the Constitution. So, unless there is actual harm being done to the child by the religious upbringing, it would seem that deciding the child’s faith is out of bounds for a judge.

Ironically, that may not be the rule all over Florida. Different appellate courts in Florida have slightly different takes on the issue, and the question of whether a trial court can consider a parent’s religious beliefs as a factor in determining custody has been allowed.

Custody and the Big Apple

The New York appellate court found the family judge abused its discretion with the ban on feeding certain foods. To the extent mother promised the father, in contemplation of marriage, that she would raise any children they had as vegetarians, the promise is not binding.

The court felt this was particularly in view of the parenting agreement, which omits any such understanding. Nor was there any support in the trial record for a finding that a vegetarian diet is in the child’s best interests.

Recall that in Florida, whenever a family judge has to decide custody, or issues relating to the child’s upbringing, the sine qua non is the best interests of the child. The Mother’s argument that she should have been granted final decision-making authority with respect to the child was improperly raised for the first time in her reply brief.

In any event, the appellate court found that the record does not support her contention that the totality of the circumstance warrants modification in the child’s best interests.

The New York Court of Appeals declined to hear the case. The opinion is here.

 

Child Abduction and an Old Fish

The U.S. Supreme Court does not typically hear child custody cases, but just agreed to hear an international child abduction case. A baby brought here from Italy by her Mother after her marriage collapsed has to return the baby to Italy. Incredibly, the decision may rest on how smelly a five-week-old, unrefrigerated dead fish is.

Child Custody

That’s Amore

The father, Taglieri is an Italian, and the Mother, Monasky, is an American. They met in Illinois. Taglieri, who was already an M.D., was studying for his Ph.D. and worked with Monasky, who already had a Ph.D.

They married in Illinois in 2011 and two years later, moved to Italy to pursue their careers in Milan, where they each found work. Their marriage had problems, including physical abuse.

In June 2014, Taglieri took a job at a hospital three hours from Milan. Monasky stayed in Milan, where she worked at a different hospital. Monasky had a difficult pregnancy, which, when combined with the long-distance separation, strained the relationship further. To make matters worse, she didn’t speak Italian or have a valid driver’s license, increasing her dependence.

During this time, the two argued but also jointly applied for Italian and American passports for their daughter. Two weeks later, Monasky left for the United States, taking their eight-week-old with her.

Taglieri filed an action in Italian court to terminate Monasky’s parental rights, which was granted. Then he filed a petition in Ohio seeking A.M.T.’s return under the Hague Convention.

International Child Abduction

I have written – and spoke earlier this year – on international custody and child abduction cases under The Hague Convention.

The Convention’s mission is basic: to return children “to the State of their habitual residence” to require any custody disputes to be resolved in that country, and to discourage parents from taking matters into their own hands by abducting a child.

The key inquiry in many Hague Convention cases, and the dispositive inquiry in the Taglieri case, goes to the country of the child’s habitual residence. Habitual residence marks the place where a person customarily lives.

Many people don’t realize it, but the Hague Convention does not actually define the key term ‘habitual residence.’ There are a couple of ways to determine it. The primary way looks to the place where the child has become “acclimatized.” The back-up inquiry for young children too young to become acclimatized looks to where the parents intend their child to live.

When the order hits your eye like a dead fish…

The issue for the appellate court was how they should review the trial judge’s ruling that Italy is the habitual residence of the baby girl.

The trial judge in this case gave a lot of weight to the fact that the parents agreed to move to Italy for their careers and lived as a family before A.M.T.’s birth; they both secured full-time jobs in Italy, and the Mother pursued recognition of her academic credentials by Italian officials.

On the other hand, the mother argued she expressed a desire to divorce and return to the United States; she contacted divorce lawyers and international moving companies and they jointly applied for the baby’s passport, so she could travel to the United States.

Faced with these facts the trial judge can rule in either direction, and after fairly considering all of the evidence, the trial judge found that Italy was A.M.T.’s habitual residence. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided:

We leave this work to the district court unless the fact findings “strike us as wrong with the force of a five-week-old, unrefrigerated dead fish.”

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider how appellate courts review a trial judge’s ruling on habitual residence. Is it reviewed under de novo standard, under a deferential version of de novo review, or under clear-error review?

Another question being considered is whether a subjective agreement between an infant ‘s parents is necessary to establish habitual residence when the infant is too young to acclimate.

The opinion is here.

 

An Erie Child Custody and Free Speech Case

A Pennsylvania family court gave a mother sole custody of her 14 and 11-year old daughters, but prohibited her from discussing their Father’s inappropriate statements which he made to the mother’s 17-year old stepdaughter. This post examines if a court in a child custody case can prohibit free speech.

free speech custody

Talking Parents

A Mother and Father were married but separated. The parties lived together with the children from their marriage and with Mother’s daughter from a previous relationship. In January 2017, the Father made statements of a sexual nature to the 17-year old daughter.

The exact substance of Father’s statements are unknown, but the Mother testified that he told her he “had a crush on her,” that he “wanted to date her,” and that he and Mother “hadn’t had sex for so many months.” The father’s statements caused the parties’ separation.

The Mother testified that she told her daughter “some . . . but not all” of Father’s statements to her eldest daughter because the daughter was becoming agitated and withdrawn and “was really needing some answers.”

The Mother requested that the daughter not have any further contact with Father unless it occurs in a “controlled environment. Conversely, she testified the younger daughter remains oblivious to Father’s statements and wants to continue spending time with him.

The Father testified that he had made an effort to cooperate with Mother’s requests and convince her that he does not pose a threat to the Children. He reported that he attended counseling with his pastor for the last fifteen months, but that he would be willing to seek treatment from a new counselor as well.

Florida Free Speech and Child Custody

I’ve written about free speech in family cases before. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children in custody cases. Florida courts have to balance a parent’s right of free expression against the state’s parens patriae interest in assuring the well-being of minor children.

In Florida, a judge prohibited a parent from speaking Spanish to a child in one case. A mother went from primary caregiver to only supervised visits – under the nose of a time-sharing supervisor. The trial judge also allowed her daily telephone calls with her daughter, supervised by the Father.

The Mother was Venezuelan, and because the Father did not speak Spanish, the court ordered: “Under no circumstances shall the Mother speak Spanish to the child.”

The judge was concerned about the Mother’s comments, after the Mother “whisked” the child away from the time-sharing supervisor in an earlier incident and had a “private” conversation with her in a public bathroom. She was also bipolar and convicted of two crimes.

An appellate court reversed the restriction. Ordering a parent not to speak Spanish violates the freedom of speech and right to privacy. Florida law tries to balance the burden placed on the right of free expression essential to the furtherance of the state’s interests in promoting the best interests of children.

In other words, in that balancing act, the best interests of children can be a compelling state interest justifying a restraint of a parent’s right of free speech.

An Erie Case

On October 25, 2018, the family judge in Erie, Pennsylvania ordered that Father would exercise unsupervised partial physical custody of the youngest daughter and that Mother:

“shall not relay, or cause to have relayed, any information to the daughter regarding the facts and circumstances of Father’s inappropriate communications with her half-sister absent Father’s consent or further order of court.”

The Mother argued that the provision in the court’s order prohibiting her from informing her daughter of Father’s statements was improper, because it violated her first Amendment rights, prevented her from protecting the child from abuse, and made her responsible should the sister inform the daughter of Father’s statements.

The Mother asserts that a court may restrict a parent’s speech only when it is causing or will cause harm to a child’s welfare. She maintains that informing her daughter of Father’s statements may actually protect her from future abuse.

The appellate court ruled that the trial court’s determination that it would be in the child’s best interest to prohibit Mother from informing her of Father’s statements was not supported in the record.

While the court found that learning of Father’s statements would be harmful to the child, the court based this conclusion solely on the fact that the older sister does not want to see Father and attends counseling.

The court heard no testimony from the child’s counselor, or from any other individual qualified to give an opinion on if, when, or how, the child should learn of these statements, or what harm she might experience as a result. Therefore, the court’s conclusion in this regard was speculative.

The appellate opinion is here.