Tag: divorce and custody

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Child Custody and Punishment

Years of research has shown that spanking children is ineffective and may be harmful. The American Academy of Pediatrics just announced a new policy that parents not spank, hit or slap their children. With all the new research out there, people are discovery that there is a connection between child custody and punishment.

custody and punishment

New Corporal Punishment Policy

The new AAP policy against spanking reflects decades of critical new research on the effects of corporal punishment and because parents and educators put enormous trust in pediatricians for discipline advice.

When your pediatrician says not to spank, there is a very good chance that parents will listen. The other good news is that it is becoming unacceptable to use corporal punishment.

Some hospitals have a “no hit zone” policy that do not allow hitting of any kind, including parents spanking children. City leaders in Stoughton, Wisconsin made their whole cities into “no hit zones” – similar to no smoking zones.

Florida Custody and Punishment

I’ve written about child custody and punishment before. 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 domestic violence, child abuse, child abandonment, or child neglect.

Historically, parents have always had a right to discipline their child in a ‘reasonable manner.’ So, our laws recognize that corporal discipline of a child by a parent for disciplinary purposes does not in itself constitute abuse when it does not result in harm to the child.

Harm, by the way, does not mean just bruises or welts for instance. Harm also means that the discipline is likely to result in physical injury, mental injury, or emotional injury. Even if you don’t physically harm a child, your actions could be criminal.

Florida’s parental privilege to use corporal discipline does not give absolute immunity either. Your run-of-the-mill spanking may be protected from charges of child abuse, but punching your child, pushing him onto the floor and kicking him is not.

Keep in mind that lawyers, guardians and judges are watching you, and you don’t want your punishment methods to become an issue in your custody case. While there are some limited privileges for discipline, there are major risks to your custody case, and most importantly, to your children.

Spanking Doesn’t Work

There are practical reasons to stop spanking besides custody. The main one is that it does not work. Numerous studies show that spanking does not make children better behaved in the long run, and in fact makes their behavior worse.

Spanking also teaches children that it is acceptable to use physical force to get what you want. It is thus no surprise that the more children are spanked, the more aggressive or to engage in delinquent behaviors like stealing they may be.

Millions of parents have raised well-adjusted children without spanking. Nothing is perfect, but telling children clearly what you expect from them and then praising them when they do it is the best approach to discipline.

The CNN article is here.