Tag: Child custody & free speech

Custody Rights and the Unvaccinated Parent

Whether an unvaccinated parent can lose their child custody rights is a painful topic these days given the talk of vaccine mandates around the world. The United States is not alone in countries where people have pointed positions on vaccine mandates. A court in Canada was recently left to make a painful decision about custody rights and an unvaccinated parent.

Custody Vaccination

A Shot of the Constitution

In the United States, making the COVID vaccine mandatory has become more of a constitutional issue than a public health one. The issue has become especially sharp in child custody cases. Parents have a fundamental right to raise their children, but there can be exceptions. Courts have had a difficult time threading the needle when parents disagree about vaccinations.

These issues are not just in the United States either. The Ontario Court of Justice recently had to decide whether a father’s decision to remain unvaccinated against COVID should deprive him of his parenting time.

In L.S. v. M.A.F., the mother sought an order that the father’s parenting time be supervised. Why? The mother claimed that due to the father’s significant anger management issues, she feared for the child’s safety if left alone with him.

The mother also said she trusted the paternal grandmother and the father’s sister to supervise the father’s parenting time. The father opposed and sought liberal and unsupervised parenting time with his child.

During cross examination, the father revealed that he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. He also had no intention to get vaccinated, claiming that it was contrary to his Rastafarian beliefs, for which the court notes he did not provide evidence.

He was nevertheless willing to take safety precautions during his parenting times, for example, wearing a mask. He also attested that the paternal grandmother is fully vaccinated and that he is comfortable with taking the child to her home.

Citing Justice Robert Spence in his decision in A.G. v. M.A., 2021 ONCJ 531, the court said that there were competing interests at stake: on the one hand, parenting time increased the child’s risk of infection for COVID-19, and on the other, the child is entitled to have a meaningful relationship with her father.

Florida Vaccination

I’ve written about the injection of vaccines into Florida child custody cases 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.

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.

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. The Chicago case, however, involves a parent’s refusal to vaccinate herself.

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

Getting to the Point

The court agreed with the mother that it is in the best interest of the child to have a meaningful relationship with her father.

But, after evaluating the evidence, the court concluded that it was necessary for the father’s parental time to be supervised by the paternal grandmother or his sister, both of whom are vaccinated and willing to supervise the father’s parenting time.

The father had very little parenting experience and knowledge of the child’s needs, which can be compensated by the experience of the paternal grandmother or his sister, said the court. The court also considered the father’s little control over his temper and becomes verbally abusive and threatening when angered, and the presence of a third party can ensure that the child is removed from any situation should the father lose control of his temper.

To reduce the risk of the child contracting COVID-19, the court-imposed restrictions upon the father’s parenting time, including that it shall be exercised either outdoors or in the paternal grandmother’s home and that both father and child shall always wear masks.

The court also ruled that should the father become fully vaccinated, the restrictions shall no longer apply, but if these restrictions are violated, the mother may suspend his in-person parenting time.

Canada’s Law Times article is here.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Child Testimony

The tumultuous marriage and ugly divorce of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, aka Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, has taken a turn for the worse, if that’s possible. Angelina is requesting to have their children testify against their father which raises the issue in family law cases of when children can be used as witnesses.

Child Testimony

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Jolie, who has sought to disqualify Judge John Ouderkirk from the divorce case, said in the filing Monday that he declined to hear evidence she says is relevant to the children’s safety and well-being before issuing a tentative ruling. The documents don’t elaborate on what that evidence may be.

“Judge Ouderkirk denied Ms. Jolie a fair trial, improperly excluding her evidence relevant to the children’s health, safety, and welfare, evidence critical to making her case,” according to the filing in California’s Second District Court of Appeal.

The actress also said the judge “has failed to adequately consider” a section of the California courts code, which says it is detrimental to the best interest of the child if custody is awarded to a person with a history of domestic violence. Her filing did not give details about what it was referring to, but her lawyers submitted a document under seal in March that purportedly offers additional information.

Jolie sought a divorce in 2016, days after a disagreement broke out on private flight ferrying the actors and their children from France to Los Angeles. Pitt was accused of being abusive toward his then-15-year-old son during the flight, but investigations by child welfare officials and the FBI were closed with no charges being filed against the actor. Jolie’s attorney said at the time that she sought a divorce “for the health of the family.”

Her new filing says the judge has “refused to hear the minor teenagers’ input as to their experiences, needs, or wishes as to their custody fate,” citing a California code that says a child 14 or over should be allowed to testify if they want to.

Three of Jolie and Pitt’s six children are teenagers, a 17-year-old, 16-year-old, and 14-year-old. The oldest is 19 and not subject to the custody decision. They also have 12-year-old twins.

Florida Child Testimony

The issue of putting your child on the stand to testify in a divorce or family law proceeding comes up a lot. I’ve written and spoken publicly about family law issues such as expert testimony and evidence before.

Florida courts take child testimony extremely seriously. The goal, in the minds of judges, is to prevent children from being too involved with or exposed to the stress of a divorce or custody proceeding to the extent possible.

In Florida, unless otherwise provided by law or another rule of procedure, children who are witnesses, potential witnesses, or related to a family law case, are prohibited from being deposed or brought to a deposition, from being subpoenaed to appear at any family law proceeding, or from attending any family law proceedings without prior order of the court based on good cause shown.

Accordingly, before being required to testify in court, a Florida judge must determine that a child’s testimony is both relevant and necessary to resolve the issues before the court.

Fight Club

In response to Jolie’s request to have their children testify, Pitt’s attorneys said, “Ouderkirk has conducted an extensive proceeding over the past six months in a thorough, fair manner and reached a tentative ruling and order after hearing from experts and percipient witnesses.”

Pitt’s filing said the judge found Jolie’s testimony “lacked credibility in many important areas, and the existing custody order between the parties must be modified, per Mr. Pitt’s request, in the best interests of the children.”

It says Jolie’s objections and further delays in reaching an arrangement would “work grave harm upon the children, who will be further denied permanence and stability.”

It’s not clear what the current custody arrangement is because the court seals most files. When the divorce process began, Pitt sought joint custody and Jolie sought primary physical custody — meaning the children would live more than half the time with her. But changes have been made that have not been made public.

Peter Harvey, a lawyer for Jolie who is close to the case but not directly involved, said the actress “supports joint custody” but the situation is complicated and he can’t go into detail because the court proceedings are under seal.

Divorce lawyers for both sides declined to comment on the new filings. Harvey told The Associated Press that Jolie’s family struggles have prompted her to take a more active role in changing the law’s approach to custody issues.

“Ms. Jolie has been working privately for four and a half years to both heal her family and to fight for improvements to the system to ensure that other families do not experience what hers has endured,” said Harvey, a former attorney general of New Jersey who has been working with Jolie on policy issues.

Jolie has sought to disqualify Ouderkirk, a private judge she and Pitt chose to maintain their privacy, arguing that he has an improper business relationship with one of Pitt’s attorneys.

She said in Monday’s filing that if the tentative custody decision is made final by Ouderkirk, she will appeal it. Jolie, 45, and Pitt, 57, were among Hollywood’s most prominent couples for 12 years. They had been married for two years when Jolie filed for divorce.

The couple was declared divorced in April 2019, after their lawyers asked for a judgment that allowed a married couple to be declared single while other issues remained, including finances and child custody.

The AP article is here.

 

 

Free Speech and Child Custody in Massachusetts

Free speech and child custody are in the news as people discover they can’t say a lot of things after their child custody battle ends. A recent Massachusetts appeals court just decided whether some typical child custody order restrictions violated free speech laws.

custody free speech

Chilling Speech

In a Massachusetts court, a Father filed a complaint for custody, support and parenting time, seeking custody of the parties’ child. The Mother counterclaimed and a temporary custody order was entered.

A few months later, the family judge entered its own temporary order relating to exchanges of the child, telephone calls and exchanging addresses. After the final hearing, the court ordered joint legal custody and nearly equal timesharing for both parents.

The order also contained numerous restrictions on both parents’ speech. Although the court’s order appears to have the best interest of the child at heart, prior restraints on speech are very serious constitutional violations.

The order restrained the parents from making any disparaging or negative comments of any type of nature whatsoever to one another by telephone, text or email or to any other third person, to include the child and/or disparaging comments relative to one another electronic social media. The order also prohibited the parents from discussing legal proceedings with the child.

Florida Child Custody and Speech Restrictions

I’ve written about free speech in family cases before. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children. 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, there have been cases in which a judge prohibited a parent from speaking Spanish to a child. 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. The Mother was also bipolar and convicted of two crimes.

The appeals 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.

Stirring the Constitutional Speech Beanpot

The appellate court in Massachusetts reversed the speech restrictions because a number of – fairly typical speech provisions for a child custody order – placed an impermissible restraint on the mother’s speech and interfered in her child rearing.

The court found the family judge failed to provide specific findings to justify a compelling State interest in placing restrictions on the mother, or to explain why the limitations were necessary to protect the compelling interest.

Prior restraints are “extraordinary remedies,” and are “permissible only where the harm expected from the unrestrained speech is grave, the likelihood of the harm occurring without the prior restraint in place is all but certain, and there are no alternative, less restrictive means to mitigate the harm.”

A prior restraint will not be upheld unless it is “justified by a compelling State interest to protect against a serious threat of harm,” and the limitation on speech is “no greater than is necessary to protect the compelling interest that is asserted as a justification for the restraint.”

Although the judge clearly was attempting to reduce future conflict between the parties in fashioning the judgment as he did, he failed to provide specific findings justifying the State’s interests in the restraints imposed; instead he simply stated that the orders were made in “the best interest of the … child,” which alone is not enough to justify a prior restraint on speech.

The Massachusetts appellate opinion is here.

 

The Grey Anatomy of Divorce and Social Media

Posting your kids’ photos on Facebook, Instagram and other social media is a fun and normal event for most parents. But posting those same pics after a divorce may not be so easy, as Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams and his former wife, Aryn Drake-Lee found out.

Greys anatomy

Dr. Avery to the Courtroom

Taking over three years after splitting, the Grey’s Anatomy star, 39, and his former wife, a real estate broker, 38, were deemed legally single by a Los Angeles County judge. The agreement was initially reached in September 2019.

The exes will share joint legal and physical custody of their 6-year old daughter and 5 year old son. However, their divorce is particularly interesting because they are required to first speak to each other before they can upload photos of their children on social media according to the court documents.

One of their bitterly contested issues in the news reports about their divorce centered around their two children. Aryn filed legal motions to stop the “Grey’s Anatomy” actor from posting images of their kids on social media.

Jesse had argued that it’s his First Amendment right to post photos of his own children online. But the Mother argued differently. Aryn believed that by his posting the children’s photos online, he left the door open for Jesse’s fans to become obsessive, or even try to harm the children, in order to get closer to the star actor.

The mother was also  concerned that their children are not public figures like their father, and have their own rights. In court documents, the Mother argued she didn’t care if he shares images of their kids with family and friends, it’s the random people that worry her.

Florida Divorce and Social Media

I’ve written about divorce, social media, and some of the constitutional issues involved when the court limits your ability to post online. The Grey’s Anatomy actor and the Mother’s dispute is typical: he is concerned about his 1st Amendment protections, and she is concerned about the online safety of their children.

Divorce courts have a lot of power to protect children, and that can involve restraints on free speech, such as your ability to post photos on social media. One of the areas where this occurs most often is in domestic violence cases. That’s because speech can be enjoined under our domestic violence laws.

Domestic violence injunctions prohibiting free speech are subject to constitutional challenge because they put the government’s weight behind that prohibition: a judge orders it, and the police enforce it.

In Florida, the term “domestic violence” has a very specific meaning, and it is more inclusive than most people realize. It means any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.

Domestic violence can also include cyberstalking. Cyberstalking is harassment via electronic communications. A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person and makes a credible threat to that person commits the offense of aggravated stalking, a felony of the third degree.

A credible threat means a verbal or nonverbal threat, or a combination of the two, including threats delivered by electronic communication or implied by a pattern of conduct, which places the person who is the target of the threat in reasonable fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family members or individuals closely associated with the person, and which is made with the apparent ability to carry out the threat to cause such harm.

“This is your starting line. How well you play? That’s up to you.”

In court documents filed in August, Aryn allegedly claimed that their kids are being “emotionally compromised” because of Jesse’s dating life, saying he has a “revolving door” of women. She asked the judge to hand down an order that required women to stay away from the kids until he dates them for six months.

Aryn also argued that Jesse has an unhealthy temper. The actor countered that claim, saying that his kids have never seen him angry, but they have witnessed Aryn be verbally abusive to him. He also said she once repeatedly slammed the front door on his leg during an argument.

In July, he filed court documents claiming that his estranged wife refused his request for more time with the kids and so he asked for a “court order for a joint physical custody parenting plan.”

Jesse reportedly has been ordered to pay his ex-wife $40,000 in child support every month, as well as over $100,000 in two upcoming spousal support payments. He first met Drake-Lee while working as a schoolteacher in New York. The pair wed in September 2012 after more than five years together. In April 2017, the actor filed for divorce.

Williams and Drake-Lee were granted joint legal custody of their two children in August 2017 and joint physical custody in March 2018. The agreement according to sources, stated that Williams and Drake-Lee must alternate custody of the children for major holidays.

“When you start spinning, the children start spinning, so even if you’re looking at them and you’re telling them everything is fine, they know it’s not fine because they can feel it’s not fine.”

Jesse is now dating Hit The Floor actress Taylour Paige. They were first linked in January 2019 after spending time together at the Sundance Film Festival. He previously dated SportsNews New York anchor Taylor Rocks, and also dated Minka Kelly for several months before calling it off in January.

The People article is here.

 

Caring is Creepy

In family law, after a relationship ends, caring can be creepy. But is creepy behavior stalking? One Florida man – a father’s former boyfriend when the father’s child was born – recently found out.

caring is creepy

Gone for Good

Santiago had a long-distance relationship with the child’s father, Leon. The relationship took place at the same time the father’s child, M.L., was born through a surrogate. But Santiago and the father never resided together with the child. Their relationship ended after M.L. was about one and a half years old.

But Santiago was not gone for good. Leon sensed Santiago was following them like a phantom limb. Leon filed a petition on behalf of his child to stop Santiago from allegedly stalking the child. The father argued Santiago was engaging in some creepy obsessive behavior, including:

  1. getting a tattoo of M.L.’s name on his body;
  2. posting images of M.L. on Facebook and Instagram, representing that M.L. was his son;
  3. mailing him packages; (iv) emailing the father to express his love for M.L.;
  4. contacting the surrogate for info on them;
  5. appearing outside their home; and
  6. driving by a restaurant the father and child were eating at and making eye contact with them.

The trial court entered a final judgment preventing Santiago from having any contact with M.L. and from posting any images or comments about M.L. on all social media.

Santiago appealed.

Florida Stalking Injunctions

I’ve written about family law injunctions before, especially when free speech is impacted. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children, and that can involve restraints on free speech, such as posting on social media. That’s because speech can be enjoined under our domestic violence laws.

Domestic violence injunctions prohibiting free speech are subject to constitutional challenge because they put the government’s weight behind that prohibition: a judge orders it, and the police enforce it.

In Florida, the term “domestic violence” has a very specific meaning, and it is more inclusive than most people realize. It means any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.

Domestic violence can also include cyberstalking. Cyberstalking is harassment via electronic communications. A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person and makes a credible threat to that person commits the offense of aggravated stalking, a felony of the third degree.

A credible threat means a verbal or nonverbal threat, or a combination of the two, including threats delivered by electronic communication or implied by a pattern of conduct, which places the person who is the target of the threat in reasonable fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family members or individuals closely associated with the person, and which is made with the apparent ability to carry out the threat to cause such harm.

New Slang

The appellate court held that Florida authorizes injunctions against stalking.

“Stalking” is when “[a] person . . . willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person.”

However, aside from finding that Santiago had engaged in “stalking-like” and “creepy” behavior, the trial court did not make any express findings with respect to any of the statutory elements for stalking.

For example, “follows” means to tail, shadow, or pursue someone. In Santiago’s case, the father established, at most, that Santiago had appeared outside the father and M.L.’s and ate at the same restaurants as the father and M.L., but Santiago was never asked to explain any of these occurrences. The court simply found Santiago’s conduct, was not an example of “following” and even if it was, it wasn’t willful and malicious.

Also, the child was “totally unaware” of Santiago’s conduct, there was no evidence that Santiago’s conduct had caused “substantial emotional distress” to the child so as to constitute “harassment.”

In the inverted world of stalking law, getting a tattoo of someone else’s child, emailing the father, mailing packages to that child, contacting the surrogate to gather intel, showing up uninvited outside the child’s home, showing up at the same restaurants at the same time, making eye contact with the child, and social media posts, didn’t amount to “harassing.”

The court found that Santiago’s online postings referenced the child, but didn’t constitute “cyberstalking” because Florida requires social media threats be directed to the individual — not by content, but by delivery.

Since social media posts are generally delivered to the world at large, Florida courts have interpreted a course of conduct directed at a specific person to exempt social media messages from qualifying as the type of conduct, and Santiago never delivered his social media posts to the child.

The court agreed Santiago’s conduct might have been “creepy”, but the to impose a permanent stalking injunction against Santiago, there must be evidence that Santiago “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly followed, harassed, or cyberstalked.”

The opinion is here.

 

You Can’t Post That: Free Speech and Child Custody

Free Speech and child custody becomes an issue every time someone posts photos of children on social media. Glowing grandparents should be especially careful. That’s because in the European Union, balancing freedom of speech and privacy has become much trickier after a Dutch court ordered a grandma to take down photos of her grandchildren.

Free Speech and Custody

European Union Speech Laws

In the Netherlands, a woman was asked by her daughter to take down pictures of her children from Facebook and Pinterest several times, but she did not respond. The daughter took this little family dispute to court, and asked a judge to stop her.

A judge in the province of Gelderland, in the eastern part of the country, decided that the grandmother was prohibited from posting photos on social media of her three grandchildren without the permission of her daughter, the children’s mother.

The District Court judge said grandma violated Europe’s sweeping internet privacy law, called the General Data Protection Regulation, or G.D.P.R. In the Netherlands, the G.D.P.R. dictates that posting pictures of minors under the age of 16 requires permission from their legal guardians.

The women, whose names were not provided in the court documents, fell out about a year ago and hadn’t been in regular contact, according to filings in the court case. After the children’s mother asked for the pictures to be deleted without the desired effect, she took the case to court.

Publishing the children’s pictures on social media would, according to the mother, seriously violate their privacy.

The Gelderland judge agreed that the grandmother did not have permission to post the pictures under General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation.

Those rules do not normally apply to the storage of personal data within personal circles such as family. However, in this case, the grandmother had made the photos public without the consent of the mother — who has legal authority over which data of her underage children may be stored and shared.’

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. 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. Currently, grandparents have little to no rights to visitation in Florida.

In Florida, there have been cases in which a judge prohibited a parent from speaking Spanish to a child. 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.

The appeals court reversed the restriction. Ordering a parent not to speak Spanish violates the freedom of speech and right to privacy.

Not unlike the new EU law, 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.

As the Windmill Turns

The Dutch court also held that by posting of photographs on social media, the grandmother made them available to a wider audience, the court’s ruling, published earlier this month, explained.

“On Facebook, it cannot be ruled out that placed photos could be distributed and that they may come into the hands of third parties”.

The judge ordered the grandmother must remove the pictures of her grandchildren from Facebook and Pinterest within ten days, the judge ruled. If she does not, she must pay a penalty of €50 ($55) per day that the photos are online, with a maximum penalty of €1,000 ($1,100).

The daughter had asked to impose a penalty of €250 ($275) per day if the photos remained. According to the mother’s statement, publishing the children’s pictures on social media can seriously violate their privacy.

GDPR is the European Union’s data privacy law, which came into effect in 2018. It gives people more control over their personal data and forces companies to make sure the way they collect, process and store data is safe.

The EU’s intention was to achieve a fundamental change in the way companies use data — with its central idea being that people are entitled “privacy by default.” Although EU countries seem to have taken their data protection obligations under the GDPR seriously, their efforts to balance data privacy and freedom of expression have been more uneven.

Many are concerned that the GDPR’s safeguards to protect the right to data privacy may compromise freedom of expression. As the practice of enforcing the GDPR by family members continues to unfolds, many are watching if the EU can balance privacy and freedom of expression.

The CNN article is here.

 

Child Custody and Speech Restrictions

Divorce can be stressful. Parents going through a high conflict child custody case often say and post things they come to regret. Children are the victims. In order to protect children, courts sometimes order speech restrictions in child custody cases, limiting what a parent can say, and removing posts from social media. That’s when the first amendment comes into play.

Custody Speech Restrictions

Boston Legal

Ronnie Shak and Masha M. Shak were married for about 15 months and had one child together. The mother filed for divorce when the child was one year old and then filed an emergency motion to remove the father from the marital home, citing his aggressive physical behavior, temper, threats, and substance abuse.

A Family Court judge ordered the father to leave the marital home, granted the mother sole custody of the child, and after the mother requested it, prohibited the father from posting disparaging remarks about her and the case on social media:

Neither party shall disparage the other — nor permit any third party to do so — especially when within hearing range of the child. Neither party shall post any comments, solicitations, references or other information regarding this litigation on social media.

The mother then moved for civil contempt alleging that the father violated the first orders by publishing numerous social media posts and commentary disparaging her and detailing the specifics of the divorce on social media. The Father argued this was an unfair prior restraint on his speech.

A second family judge, then modified the order stating:

Until the parties have no common children under the age of [fourteen] years old, neither party shall post on any social media or other Internet medium any disparagement of the other party when such disparagement consists of comments about the party’s morality, parenting of or ability to parent any minor children. Such disparagement specifically includes but is not limited to the following expressions: ‘cunt’, ‘bitch’, ‘whore’, ‘motherfucker’, and other pejoratives involving any gender. The Court acknowledges the impossibility of listing herein all of the opprobrious vitriol and their permutations within the human lexicon.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court granted direct appellate review.

Florida Child Custody and Speech Restrictions

I’ve written about divorce and speech issues before. How you speak to the other parent and the child, and what you post online, can have a big impact on your child custody case.

In fact, Florida Statutes expressly require a family court judge to consider how each parent protects their child from the ongoing litigation as demonstrated by not discussing the litigation with the child, not sharing documents or electronic media related to the litigation with the child, and refraining from disparaging comments about the other parent to the child.

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 interest in assuring the well-being of minor children.

In other words, the court performs a balancing act using the best interests of children, which can be a compelling state interest justifying a restraint of a parent’s right of free speech, as the measure.

Back in the Back Bay

The High Court held the second judge’s additional language still violated the First Amendment. The State has a compelling interest in protecting children from being exposed to disparagement between their parents.

However, as important as it is to protect a child from the emotional and psychological harm that might follow from one parent’s use of vulgar or disparaging words about the other, merely reciting that interest is not enough to satisfy the heavy burden of justifying a prior restraint.

Here, there was never a showing made linking communications by either parent to any grave, imminent harm to the child. As a toddler, the child was too young to be able to either read or to access social media. The concern about potential harm that could occur if the child were to discover the speech in the future is speculative and cannot justify a prior restraint.

The court did list remedies to deal with disparaging speech. For example, a couple can enter non-disparagement agreements voluntarily, a parent may have the option of seeking a harassment prevention order, or sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress or defamation.

Judges, who must determine the best interests of the child, can also make clear to the parties that their behavior, including any disparaging language, will be factored into any subsequent custody determinations.

The Reason article is here.

 

Emergency Child Custody and Good Coronavirus Info

For one Miami emergency room physician, who was told to decide between her job or her daughter, the coronavirus has been a nightmare. That’s because family judges are having to make emergency child custody decisions – sometimes against our first-responders. There’s also some good coronavirus information.

ER Custody

ER Court

The coronavirus is a global pandemic. State of emergencies have been declared around the country. Currently, there are over 800,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and roughly 47,00 deaths according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

In Miami, an ER doctor had to leave her 5 year old child indefinitely with a man she alleges repeatedly physically beat her during the marriage. Yet, a Miami judge granted the father’s motion to temporarily modify timesharing due to the mother’s heightened exposure to COVID-19 and award her equivalent makeup time when the emergency is lifted.

Due to the mother’s employment as an emergency room physician, this Court is concerned with her exposure to COVID-19 while exercising timesharing with the minor child.

In order to protect the best interests of the minor child, including but not limited to the minor child’s safety and welfare, the Court temporarily suspended her timesharing until further Order of Court. That means the father will exercise 100% timesharing.

The court also ordered that the mother is entitled to equivalent make up timesharing for each day lost as a result of this temporary suspension of timesharing, and to daily Skype, FaceTime, and/or telephonic communication with the minor child.

Florida Child Custody

I’ve written about child custody before – especially as it relates to spanking and punishment. 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 the mental and physical health of the parents. What about emergencies?

Florida courts have long recognized that there can be extraordinary circumstances, and trial courts have to enter emergency temporary orders modifying custody of a child. Sometimes the court has to do so without even giving prior notice to the other side.

However, such an order requires a true emergency situation, such as where a child is threatened with physical harm or is about to be improperly removed from the state.

But trial courts have to make every reasonable effort to allow both parties to be heard before issuing an emergency modification order. When prior notice isn’t possible, an opportunity to be heard should be made as soon thereafter as possible.

If an order doesn’t make such a showing they are consistently overturned unless there is evidence of a sufficient emergency.

The Good Doctor

Back in Miami, the ER doctor’s lawyers argued that if the Court’s ruling stands, the doctor would not be able to see her child until May 31st, when the Courts may reopen and leave this child for 60 consecutive days with the father without any access to the mother.

As the mother argued:

Is she to presume that she will not see her child for an unknown period beyond May 31st? How could this possibly be in the best interest of the minor child? Is it the stance of the Family Court that any medical professional who may come into contact with Covid-19 patients should have their timesharing suspended indefinitely?

An extraordinary writ was filed with the Third District Court of appeal, and temporarily, the doctor will continue to split custody time with her ex-husband after an appeals court ruled in favor of her motion to stay the order while the appellate court continues to decide on the judge’s initial order.

Good Coronavirus Information

While there is no game plan, here’s some information on when we can return to work:

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, recently predicted a gradual reopening of parts of the country, perhaps starting as soon as May 2020. However, that depends on the virus and mitigation efforts.
  • Reopening the economy will happen gradually, with ongoing monitoring for renewed outbreaks.
  • In the coming weeks, a drop in COVID-19 cases is expected across the US.
  • Once that happens, public health experts and national, state, and local leaders will likely give the go-ahead for employers across many industries to gradually reopen, and employees will return to work.

The NBC Miami article is here.

 

Free Speech and the Stark’s Divorce

Pity the Starks of the North. As if the Red Wedding wasn’t enough, now they filed for divorce. To keep things calm, the divorce court restrained them from harassing, abusing, or making disparaging remarks about the other in front of their children and employers. Then things went south.

Winter is Coming

After a five-year marriage, Pamela Stark filed for divorce from her husband, Joe Stark. She is an attorney (formerly a prosecutor) and filed her complaint pro se. He is a sergeant with the Memphis Police Department.

Pamela’s email to the town mayor claimed she was a victim of domestic violence by Joe and a victim of misconduct by the entire Police Department in the handling of her investigation.

She named her husband by name and rank and described her version of the physical altercation between them and the events that followed. Pam asked the mayor in an email to “look into this before it goes further.”

Pamela also wrote the following in a Facebook post:

I speak now as a recent victim of domestic violence at the hands of a Memphis Police Officer. I can attest to how wide the thin blue line can get . . . However it is even more devastating. Who do you turn to when those worn to serve and protect and enforce the law, don’t.

Joe asked the divorce court to order the Facebook post removed, arguing “that such dissemination of these allegations could cause immediate irreparable harm to his reputation and employment” because he and Pam have mutual friends on Facebook. The judge agreed.

Florida Divorce and Free Speech

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 interest in assuring the well-being of minor children.

In one Florida case, a judge prohibited a parent from speaking Spanish to a child. 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.”

In the Florida case, 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.

Chilling Speech

Joe testified that his co-workers at the police department saw Pam’s Facebook post, that they have many mutual friends on social media, and that a special prosecutor from another city was appointed to conduct an investigation regarding the alleged incident of domestic violence involving him and Pam.

The trial court ordered that the post be removed:

  • The Court: Ms. Stark, please stand. Are you going to comply with this Court’s orders?
  • Ms. Stark: No, I’m not.
  • The Court: All right. I’m making a finding that you are in direct contempt of court by willfully refusing to comply with this Court’s orders. You will be held held in custody until such time that you decide that you want to change your position and you apologize to this Court.

Pam at first refused to take down the post, but was jailed for four hours and then did. Pam appealed the contempt order. However, the divorce case in which the restraining order was entered was still pending.

Because she appealed from the contempt order, she was limited in her ability to raise issues, and when Pam took down the Facebook post, the contempt issue became moot.

The Reason 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.