Friday, February 8, 2013

Truth or Consequences

In re MA, 2012 VT 103 (mem.).

We have said it before, family law, particularly where a child is involved, is often the most depressing field of law with few winners and multiple losers. 

Today’s case is of a piece. 

Mother and Father split up in 2007, and the family court awarded Mother sole physical custody of the child, MA.  Father had visitation rights every other weekend and holidays.  Shortly thereafter, Father began seeing someone else.

Not long after the divorce became final, Mother reported Father and his partner for abusing MA.  DCF investigated and found no basis for a claim and closed the matter.  

Soon, Mother filed another claim, against Father’s partner.  Again DCF investigated, found no evidence of the claim, and closed the file. 

This continued again and again over the next three years.  In total Mother made over 27 separate reports to DCF about either Father’s or Father’s partner’s alleged abuse of MA.  In each and every case, DCF found no substantiating evidence and closed the file.  On one occasion, DCF made a preliminary finding of potential abuse, but they quickly rescinded this finding and closed that file as well.

Mother did not limit her reporting to DCF.  In all, she reported Father or Father’s partner to DCF, various doctors, and other professionals over 66 times during the three-year period. 

Eventually, the complaints raised the concerns of DCF who filed a Child-in Need of Care or Support (CHINS) petition with the family court.  A hearing was held, and the evidence showed that Mother’s constant reporting was having a negative effect on MA and on MA’s relationship with his Father and that the actions were putting MA at risk.

Based on two expert witnesses, who testified that they had found no evidence of abuse but substantial evidence that someone was coaching MA to report against his Father and Father’s partner, the trial court issued a decision that Mother’s false reporting was putting MA at risk.  The trial court ruled that the State had established that MA lacked the “care necessary for his well-being.” 

The present appeal followed.  Mother appears to have raised only one argument, namely that the evidence of false reporting was insufficient as a matter of law to establish that MA lacked the care necessary for his well-being and that his welfare was at stake.

The SCOV is not buying this argument.  The SCOV starts by noting that reporting abuse is encouraged.  It also accepts the fact that multiple abuse reports are not necessarily a basis for a CHINS determination—particularly if the reporting parent shows some awareness and ability to stop false reporting.  But the facts here demonstrate a deep-seated commitment to reporting and coaching MA to make such reports.  They have necessarily involved hundreds of hours focusing MA and making him recount every event until he has done so in a manner that fits Mother’s view of what likely happened.

This is enough to trigger a CHINS petition and to support the trial court’s determination.  The depth of Mother’s commitment (some might say pathology) along with the large amount of time that MA has had to commit to these inquiries, give rise to conclusions made by the trial court. 

This leads the SCOV to affirm that the trial court was within both the law and reason to conclude that Mother’s actions had given rise to a CHINS situation. 

End of story.

The decision does not make clear what the next steps in this case likely are.  We can suspect that the decision will pave the way to a custody transfer or potentially a termination proceeding.  At the very least, DCF will, for the foreseeable future, be overseeing Mother’s parenting activities and likely granting MA more time with Father.

Whatever the result, it looks like everyone loses this round.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this post. I found it very informative and helpful. It is always good to know of any law updates in the family court system. Family court can be especially difficult because of all the emotions that are involved. I found this out when my wife filed for divorce. I was left feeling alone and helpless until a friend recommended Marshall Davis Brown JR. He was amazing and really helped me out.