Facts: Mother and Father were never married. They lived together, had a child, and separated when Child was 3.5 years old. After what the Court described as a “highly contentious” trial lasting seven days, Mother was named the primary residential parent. Because of a history of substance abuse, Father’s parenting time was to be supervised until Father demonstrated two years of sobriety. Shortly thereafter, Mother filed a motion to suspend Father’s visitation because Child claimed Father had sexually abused him. A lengthy investigation ensued in which the trial court appointed a guardian ad litem and Child was examined by numerous professionals, including a court-appointed expert. After hearing much proof, much of which is painstakingly detailed in the Court’s lengthy opinion, the trial court found by clear and convincing evidence that Father had not sexually abused Child. The trial court’s expert observed that while Father tried to encourage Child to have a positive relationship with Mother, Mother’s goal appeared to be to end Child’s relationship with Father. The trial court found Father and his witnesses to be credible while Mother and her witnesses were not. The trial court named Father as Child’s primary residential parent, gave him sole decision-making authority, and established Mother’s visitation. Mother appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
A decision on a request for modification of a parenting plan or a change of custody requires a two-step analysis. A party petitioning to change an existing custody order must prove both (1) that a material change of circumstances has occurred and (2) that a change of custody or residential schedule is in the child’s best interest. Only after a threshold finding that a material change of circumstances has occurred is the court permitted to go on to make a fresh determination of the best interest of the child.
Although there are no bright line rules as to whether a material change in circumstances has occurred after the initial custody determination, there are several relevant considerations: (1) whether a change has occurred after the entry of the order sought to be modified; (2) whether a change was not known or reasonably anticipated when the order was entered; and (3) whether a change is one that affects the child’s well-being in a meaningful way.
Accusations of child sexual abuse by one parent against the other parent presents one of the most difficult issues faced by a trial court. Suspicion of such abuse must be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, for the consequences to the child of allowing any abuse to continue are grave. However, mistakenly concluding that a parent has abused a child, when in fact there has been no abuse, has serious consequences as well, including the almost-certain destruction of the parent-child relationship and disgrace to the accused parent.
After reviewing the voluminous record, the Court of Appeals concluded:
[The court’s expert] concluded that the alleged abuse had not occurred, and he warned that reinforcement of a false narrative of abuse might lead the five year old child to find his ultimate identity as an abuse victim. . . .
[Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,] Mother refused, nonetheless, to retreat from her belief that abuse had occurred . . . .
In sum, the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s findings that Father was not guilty of sexual abuse and that Mother’s repeated accusations of abuse were largely fueled by her desire that Father be removed from the child’s life. . . .
[T]he court found ample evidence that Mother was not willing to allow [Child] to enjoy a close relationship with Father, while Father was prepared to encourage and foster a positive relationship between Mother and Child. The evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s conclusion.
The Court further commented on Mother’s “absolute determination to alienate the child from Father, regardless of the evidence” and her “irrational attachment to her belief about Father’s guilt.”
Accordingly, the Court affirmed the decision to change custody and sole decision-making authority to Father.
K.O.’s Comment: A footnote reveals that Mother employed and discharged “at least seven different attorneys” during the trial court proceedings. Wow.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.