Supervised Visitation Affirmed in Morristown, Tennessee Divorce: Potts v. Potts

Facts: After Child was born, Mother became seriously ill with postpartum depression and developed a serious eating disorder. Despite extensive treatment, eventually a feeding tube was inserted to ensure Mother’s sufficient nutrition. Mother was diagnosed with clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anorexia.

Mother and Father divorced after five years of marriage. Father came to believe Mother posed a risk to Child. Grandmother testified she saw Child stick her fingers down her throat to gag herself, suggesting Child had observed her mother perform the action.

Tennessee supervised visitationThe trial court’s own expert recommended minimal supervised visitation for Mother, stating that her mental health issues are likely to significantly affect her functional capacity “across a number of important life dimensions.”

When the trial court granted the divorce, it reserved the issue of Mother’s parenting schedule.

Over one year later, the proof showed Mother had regularly exercised her supervised visitation, that an affectionate bond existed between Mother and Child, that Mother made significant progress regarding her mental health issues, and that her medication had been decreased.

Despite this significant improvement, the trial court ruled that it was in Child’s best interest for supervised visitation to continue “because of Child’s age and stage of development and the severity and seriousness of the illnesses experienced by [Mother].”

Mother appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Tennessee courts have repeatedly recognized that custody and visitation arrangements should interfere with the parent-child relationship as little as possible, but the courts may restrict, suspend, or terminate visitation rights upon the presentation of clear and definite evidence that permitting continued visitation will jeopardize the child physically, emotionally, or morally.

Supervised visitation is normally intended to continue only if there is a reasonable need for it. It should be modified or ended when the allegations that necessitated the supervision are determined to be without credible evidence or the parent has demonstrated a clear ability to control the propensities that necessitated the supervision.

After reviewing the record, the Court concluded there was no reversible error in continuing Mother’s supervised visitation:

The record reveals that the trial court conducted a thoughtful and thorough and unbiased assessment of the relevant facts of this case . . . . Despite [the previous testimony of the trial court’s own expert], the court recognized that the psychologist did not have the benefit of re-interviewing [Mother] after her recent period of stability, and that she had made significant progress since his evaluation. . . .

Trial courts are in a better position to observe the witnesses and assess their credibility; therefore, trial courts enjoy broad discretion in formulating parenting plans. . . . Appellate courts should not overturn the trial court’s decision merely because reasonable minds could reach a different conclusion. Based upon our review of the record, we hold that the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s findings of fact, and we find no error in the court’s parenting plan determination. We recognize, however, that supervision of a parent’s visitation with his or her child is a significant intrusion on the parent-child relationship, is not to be undertaken lightly or without reasonable basis, and a court should seek to end the supervision as soon as it is no longer needed.

The trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

K.O.’s Comment: This isn’t an issue of credibility. To limit a noncustodial parent’s visitation, e.g., to require supervision, Tennessee courts must make a specific finding, based on definite, nonspeculative evidence, that unrestricted visitation would harm the child. Then the court must determine the least restrictive visitation available and, in doing so, must make specific findings, based on definite, nonspeculative evidence, that any less restrictive visitation would be harmful to the child. Did the trial court perform that analysis here? If so, I don’t see it in the appellate opinion.

Potts v. Potts (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, February 8, 2018).

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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