Material Change Examined in Nashville, Tennessee Parenting Plan Modification: Hoppe v. Hoppe

July 19, 2021 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother and Father, the parents of two children, divorced after nine years of marriage.

Mother continuously—and falsely—accused Father of sexually abusing the children throughout the divorce and its aftermath. This resulted in five investigations, all of which determined the allegations to be unfounded. It also required the children to undergo at least three forensic interviews and multiple medical examinations. Finally, it caused Father’s parenting time to be severely restricted and supervised.

Mother completed a court-ordered mental-health examination that revealed she needed treatment to address her repeated, evidence-free claims of abuse against Father.

The trial court eventually approved their agreed parenting plan designating Father as the primary residential parent and awarding equal, unsupervised parenting time for both parents. Mother was warned that repeated, unfounded allegations of abuse could cause a finding that she was alienating the children. Mother also had to continue her mental-health treatment.

Three months after the divorce was final, Mother made another abuse allegation that, after another investigation, turned out to be false.

After Father petitioned to modify the parenting plan, the trial court severely restricted Mother’s visitation.

By the time of trial almost a year later, Father requested an indefinite supervision requirement on Mother’s visitation. He presented testimony from a forensic psychologist who opined that Mother’s conduct was harming the children.

Mother’s treating psychiatrist testified that Mother has an “impulse control issue” and that treating her is challenging because “you can’t make [her] believe something she doesn’t believe.” But her psychiatrist said her behavior had improved, and she was “beginning to see that she needs to refrain [from] speaking to the children about their father.” The psychiatrist opined that Mother was not a danger to the children.

Finally, Mother testified that she still believed Father sexually abused the children, but she understood she could not discuss those beliefs with the children.

Crediting the treating psychiatrist’s testimony about Mother’s improvement, the trial court found Father failed to prove a material change of circumstances existed and, therefore, his petition to modify was denied.

Father appealed.

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

Modifying a parenting plan in Tennessee is a two-step process. First, there must be a material change in circumstances. Second, it must be in the child’s best interest to modify the parenting plan.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-301 allows Tennessee courts to require supervision or prohibit parenting time if it finds that unrestricted visitation is likely to endanger the child’s physical or emotional health.

Because Father was the primary residential parent and only sought to impose supervision on Mother’s parenting time, the material change standard applicable here is the “very low” threshold required by Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-101(a)(2)(C).

Second, the Court found sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s finding that a material change that existed when the petition was filed no longer existed at the time of trial:

Father filed his Petition to Modify Parenting Plan in November 2018 and obtained a temporary restriction of Mother’s visitation in January 2019. Because of procedural delays, the final hearing was not held until January 2020, 14 months after Father filed his Petition. To be clear, the evidence established that a material change in circumstance existed in November 2018 and remained for a period of time thereafter. Getting Mother’s attention and compliance with the Parenting Plan required the trial court to take stern action, including suspending and restricting Mother’s parenting time. Nevertheless, and significantly, the trial court found the evidence no longer showed a reasonable need for the supervision as of January 2020. Stated another way, the court concluded that a material change in circumstance no longer existed as of January 2020.

Finding that the evidence did not preponderate against the trial court’s finding that the evidence did not establish a material change at the time of trial, the trial court’s decision to reinstate Mother’s unsupervised visitation and dismiss Father’s petition to modify the parenting plan was affirmed.

K.O.’s Comment: (1) This holding is similar to that of In re Maya M., a dependency and neglect case where the Court held the petition must be dismissed if the dependency and neglect conditions that existed when the petition was filed no longer exist at the time of the adjudicatory hearing.

(2) In Keisling, the Court explained how allegations of sexual abuse by one parent against the other can have grave consequences:

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 allowing any abuse to continue are grave. However, mistakenly concluding that a parent has abused his 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. In addition, determining whether abuse has occurred can be enormously difficult; there is frequently a paucity of physical evidence, and the alleged child victim may be unable to accurately relate pertinent events. Finally, even investigating the accusation is delicate; the suggestibility of the alleged victim is almost invariably an issue, and heavy-handed or repetitive interrogation or physical examination can itself inflict long-lasting trauma on a child.

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[A]ny concern about reporting allegations of child sexual abuse must be balanced with the awareness that false accusations of such abuse can be a reprehensible tool against an ex-spouse, remarkable for its brutal effectiveness.

Hoppe v. Hoppe (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, July 2, 2021). If you found this helpful, please share it using the buttons below.

Material Change Examined in Nashville, Tennessee Parenting Plan Modification: Hoppe v. Hoppe was last modified: July 19th, 2021 by K.O. Herston

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