Facts: Mother and Father, the parents of one child, never married. Mother has one child from a previous marriage.
While Father was at work one day, Mother moved out of Father’s home and took their child. Mother refused to let Father see the child.
A few days later, Mother went into septic shock and was hospitalized for the next two months. During the time Mother was hospitalized, the child stayed with the maternal grandparents, who refused Father’s requests to visit or speak with the child.
Father petitioned for — and received — immediate temporary custody of his child.
Three months after being released from the hospital, Mother petitioned for custody, alleging that Father is unfit to care for their child because of his history of drug use.
After a trial, the trial court found both parents to be fit parents; however, stability and continuity was found to favor Father. The trial court designated Father as the primary residential parent and granted Mother visitation.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
In determining the child’s best interest, Tennessee courts must consider the factors set forth in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106(a). The relevancy and weight to be given each factor depends on the unique facts of each case. In this case, two of those factors were of particular significance:
- the importance of continuity in the child’s life and the length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment, and
- the child’s interaction and interrelationships with siblings, other relatives and step-relatives, and mentors, as well as the child’s involvement with the child’s physical surroundings, school, or other significant activities.
Continuity in the child’s life. The Court determined the evidence supports the trial court’s conclusion that this factor favors Father:
Continuity in the child’s life is an important factor for consideration. . . . [T]he child has lived with Father almost his entire life and has continued living with Father through the course of the proceedings in this case. It would likely disrupt the child’s life if he were removed from Father and placed in a different home and environment. We hold that the importance of continuity in the child’s life favors Father.
Child’s relationship with sibling. Separating siblings is a drastic remedy. While there is a presumption against separating siblings, this presumption is rebuttable and must give way to other considerations in appropriate circumstances. The facts in a particular case may require that siblings be separated. The preference for keeping siblings together is simply one factor for the court to consider in determining the child’s best interest. It is not a controlling factor.
When courts are required to separate siblings, they should minimize the potentially harmful effects of the separation by including liberal visitation rights and other provisions enabling the siblings to continue their relationship with each other.
The Court reasoned:
In regard to separating the child from his half-brother, the trial court encouraged the parties to work together so that the child could have time with his half-brother. When making its ruling, the court asked that Father be liberal in allowing the child to spend time with his half-brother. It is clear that the trial court took the appropriate steps in crafting a visitation schedule which would facilitate a relationship between the child and his half-brother. The trial court’s ruling appropriately minimizes the potential harmful effects of separating the child from his half-brother. After weighing all of the relevant factors, there is sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption against separating siblings.
Taking everything into consideration, the Court concluded:
The parents both seem to have a strong relationship with the child. When Mother was unable to care for the child, Father bore the parenting responsibilities, strengthened his relationship with the child, and provided stability for the child. Father has made it clear that he is willing and able to fulfill his parental responsibilities and provide for the child. He also has shown that he intends to facilitate a relationship between the child and Mother and his half-brother. Furthermore, the record demonstrates that Mother has had some history of hindering the child’s relationship with Father. As discussed above, awarding custody to Father will facilitate continuity and stability for the child.
Thus, the Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that it is at the child’s best interest for Father to have custody.
K.O.’s Comment: Mother made a big mistake by refusing to let Father see his child. Similarly, the maternal grandparents blundered by refusing Father’s requests to speak with and visit his child. These early actions ended up hurting Mother. Such behavior is almost always a terrible idea. Avoid it except in the most extreme circumstances when it is necessary to protect the child’s safety. Even then, seek prompt relief from the court. Mother and her parents acted as if they were judges empowered to prohibit Father from parenting his child. I bet they wish they could go back in time and make different decisions. Others should learn from their mistakes.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.