Corporal Punishment Leads to Change of Custody in Centerville, Tennessee: Bradley v. Bradley

November 9, 2023 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: When Mother and Father divorced, their agreed parenting plan provided for Father to have 148 days of parenting time with Child.

Mother married Stepfather, and they have a seventeen-month-old son.

Three years later, Father petitioned to change the parenting plan because Stepfather whipped Child with a belt for small infractions, like drinking a soda. This caused significant emotional distress for Child because she could not understand why she was being disciplined. When Father contacted Mother about this, he learned that she was aware of Stepfather’s actions.

The whippings stopped after the court issued a restraining order, but Child complained that Stepfather still walked around with a belt in his hand.

Father also learned that Mother planned to move to a new school district. Father objected to changing schools while Child was in emotional distress.

Stepfather testified he believed strong discipline—including corporal punishment—was an essential child-rearing tool. He claimed he always disciplined out of love, not anger, because he wanted the children to learn there were consequences for bad behavior. He claimed he never whipped the children until they agreed they deserved it.

While Child’s relationship with Stepfather improved after the restraining order, the therapist attributed Child’s increased comfort at Mother’s home directly to the court’s restriction on corporal punishment. Child was nervous about what would happen after the court case ended.

The trial court found a material change had occurred since the entry of the previous parenting plan and that Child developed significant emotional issues because of the use and threatened use of corporal punishment in Mother’s home. Further, Mother did not grasp the severity of Child’s emotional turmoil as shown by her decision to move to a new school district during this upheaval. The trial court found it in Child’s best interests to change the primary residential parent to Father.

Mother appealed.

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

Tennessee courts apply a two-step analysis for requests to modify a permanent parenting plan. The threshold issue is whether a material change in circumstances has occurred since the court adopted the current parenting plan. Not every change is a material change; the change must be “significant” before it will be considered material. If a material change has occurred, the court must then determine whether changing the parenting plan is in the child’s best interest by examining the statutory best-interest factors.

The Court found no abuse of discretion by the trial court:

Stepfather admitted he used a belt to discipline Child on multiple occasions. Mother condoned Stepfather’s actions. And Child began to withdraw. She developed anxiety and depression. She cried for no reason. Father noticed these changes. Mother did not. And when Father voiced his concerns, Mother failed to respond. Child’s therapist explained that her emotional issues resulted from the use and threatened use of corporal punishment in Mother’s home. He recommended continued therapy to address her emotional and mental health issues. The court expressly found this testimony credible. We find no basis to disturb these findings on appeal.

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The court did not find that the use of corporal punishment, by itself, was a material change. Rather, the court focused on the profound impact this punishment had on Child and Mother’s failure to grasp the severity of the situation. While the court recognized the recent improvements in Child’s condition, it did not credit Mother’s claim that the problem had been remedied. As Child’s therapist explained, she is still in need of therapy.

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The evidence does not preponderate against the finding of a material change in circumstances sufficient to modify custody. Stepfather’s behavior had a profound and dramatic impact on Child. Mother failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. Child needs continuing therapy to address her emotional and mental health issues. The proof showed that these changes have affected Child’s well-being in a meaningful way.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

K.O.’s Comment: Thomas v. Miller is another case where the trial court found corporal punishment by a parent’s paramour adversely affected the child and contributed to a material change of circumstances.

Source: Bradley v. Bradley (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, October 27, 2023).

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Corporal Punishment Leads to Change of Custody in Centerville, Tennessee: Bradley v. Bradley was last modified: November 5th, 2023 by K.O. Herston

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