Articles Posted in Child Custody

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Benjamin N. Neese, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

            When analyzing custody, the issue of who has rights to custody of a minor is commonly focused on the biological parents of the child.  In the eyes of the law, under the right circumstances, biological parents may be disfavored in congruence to “third party” individuals who assert rights to custody.  Some of the most common third-party custody claims are, unsurprisingly, asserted from either the paternal or maternal grandparents.  North Carolina and much of the south, is known for having strong family ties and deep communal roots where grandparents often play a large role in raising not only their children, but their children’s children.  These relationships are often supplemental to the relationships between biological parents and their children, but in some situations grandparents end up being the de facto “mommy” and “daddy” to the minor children.  Where biological parents display continued behavior of either unwillingness or inability to effectively parent their children, grandparents step in and seek legal intervention for the sake of the children.

When it comes to the law, courts have a duty to put the best interest of the children above all others.  Under the Constitution of the United States, the biological parents of a minor have a protected interest in the custody, care, and control of their children.  This is an incredibly high bar to overcome for third-party individuals seeking to assert custodial rights in opposition to those possessed by biological parents.  The law provides for a vague and widely discretionary test for resolving custody disputes of this kind.  While the interest of the children are intended to be promoted above all others, biological parents maintain an almost equally powerful interest that will more often than not prevail over that of third-party individuals unless it can be shown that the parents are unfit or have engaged in some “conduct inconsistent with their protected status.”  Courts do not provide a bright line test in determining what conduct constitutes a violation, but some examples are behavior that leads to neglect of the children, abandonment of the children, and at times, the voluntary surrender of custody of the children.  This behavior must have a negative impact on the child or constitute a substantial risk of such impact.

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By: Leesa M. Poag, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

In a typical child custody case, the mother and father of a child are seeking the intervention of the court to settle their dispute over who should be granted custody of their child.  Though this is the situation most often facing family law attorneys throughout the Triad, the cases become more complex when one of the parties seeking custody of a child is not a biological parent of that child.

This is the situation that the North Carolina Supreme Court had to address in 2003 in the case of Owenby v. Young.  In 1989, Fred and Priscilla Young were married, and two children were born thereafter.  Four years after marrying, Fred and Priscilla divorced.  Upon their separation, the former spouses executed a separation agreement that granted Ms. Young primary custody of the minor children, and secondary custody to Mr. Young.

For seven years, the parties acted and shared custody of the children under this agreement.  However, in April of 2000, tragedy struck when Ms. Young was killed in a plane crash.  At this time, the minor children were 10 and 11 years old.  Following Ms. Young’s death, Mr. Young moved the children in with him and began to exercise sole custody of the children.

But this arrangement would not last long.  After the children had lived with their father for a few weeks, Ms. Young’s mother, Priscilla Owenby, filed a complaint with the court seeking custody of the children on both a permanent and ex parte basis.  An order was entered by the court that same day granting temporary custody of the children to Ms. Owenby.  Mr. Young then filed an answer to Ms. Owenby’s complaint and a counterclaim for custody of the children.  The case came on for hearing in the trial court in December of 2000.

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By: Jennifer A. Crissman, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

            As contentious custody cases in the Piedmont progress, it is likely that a parent may be called “unfit.” In a legal context, this word has a specific meaning, and drastic consequences should the court find a parent unfit. In this second installment on standing to apply for custody, we will examine how a parent’s rights are affected when there is an allegation of “unfitness.”

The case of Raynor v. Odom is instructive when trying to determine whether a parent is “unfit.” Raynor v. Odom, 478 S.E.2d 655 (N.C. App. 1996). Raynor was decided several years after Petersen and discusses what analysis the Court should undertake when determining unfitness. The Raynor court held that although there is no specific list of findings that determines a parent is unfit, the court must look at the totality of the circumstances in determining whether a parent can care for the needs of their child.

The minor child in the Raynor case was removed from Plaintiff Mother’s care and temporarily placed with Intervenor Foster. When Foster gained temporary custody, she took the minor child to have a pre-school assessment. At the assessment, it was discovered that the child had an articulation disorder, and was not as advanced or matured as many of the child’s contemporaries.  This fact was supported by the preschool screening report, an articulation evaluation, and a language therapy initial treatment plan. The trial court found that the child’s lack of development was a result of Plaintiff Mother not providing motivation, opportunity, or encouragement for the child’s normal and healthy development.

The trial court went on to catalog facts that demonstrated Plaintiff Mother’s unfitness to care for her child, including:

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By: Jennifer A. Crissman, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

            If you have been involved with a highly contentious custody case in the Triad, you know that family members will start coming out of the woodwork to ask for custody of the minor children. This phenomenon is even more prevalent when the parents are not adequately caring for their children. This multi-part series will examine who can have standing to apply for custody of the minor children under North Carolina law, and the analysis the Court must follow. In part one of our series, we will examine the Constitutional Rights of the biological parents, which is the bedrock for all subsequent analysis by the Court.

The seminal North Carolina case on parents’ constitutional rights is Petersen v. Rogers, 445 S.E.2d 901 (N.C. 1994). At the outset, the Petersen court recognizes that the right to conceive and raise one’s children is an essential basic civil right which is far more precious than property rights. The Court then discusses in depth both the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions regarding parental rights to custody, as well as North Carolina case law.

With regard to U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the Petersen Court notes that the integrity of the family unit has been recognized as a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has held “It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents…”. Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944). This right has been protected both by the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as under the Ninth Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Dear Carolyn,

I have been reading the horrid stories about children being left in hot cars.  I also have been troubled by my next door neighbor leaving her seven-year-old son alone this summer while she goes to work.  I have seen this mother lock the door when she leaves in the morning with the child apparently inside.  I do think the seven-year-old has a cell phone.  I don’t like this situation for the seven-year-old who just finished first grade. Is there anything I can do?

Danger Lurking Next Door

Dear Danger,

Ohhhhhh! It is a crime for someone to leave a child under eight years of age unattended.  Further, a child under age eight cannot be left locked up, as this is also a crime.  Children under eight years of age must be left with a supervisor of suitable age and discretion.   The parent can and will be prosecuted.  The placement in the law of this statute is interesting as it is presented as a “fire protection” for little children.  However, I do believe that leaving an unattended child under eight in a car would be a crime under this statute as well. (North Carolina General Statutes 14-318.)

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Dear Carolyn,

I know I should have kept my mouth shut during the divorce, but I didn’t. My daughter-in-law ended up with custody (not that it wasn’t somewhat justified), but now she is taking it out on us and won’t let my husband and I see our own grandchildren.  We worked hard and saved all of our lives, and now we have time and enough money for trips to the beach, mountains, even Disney World, and would love to take our grandchildren, but we aren’t even allowed to take them out for ice cream.  As grandparents do we have any rights?

Carolyn Answers….

You are in luck! The judge can help you, in his or her discretion.  The glitter of Disney with your grandchildren may very well be in your future.

North Carolina General Statute 50-13.5(j) covers the rights of custody and visitation of grandparents. You will need to file a motion (a written request to the court filed with the clerk of court) if you cannot obtain the visitation with your grandchildren from one of the parents. Continue reading →

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Dear Carolyn,

I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old, and I am separated from their Father.  I am filing for custody and divorce.  I hear I am going to have to go to mediation with the Father, and I really don’t want to see him. I am not exactly afraid of him, but it sure is unpleasant being around him.  Do I have to go to mediation, really?


Dear Curious,

You are likely going to have to go to a court ordered session of mediation to see if you can settle custody and visitation of your children with their Father.  Hopefully, the mediation process will end with a settlement and improve the situation with the children’s Father.  Do not worry as you will not

Mediation was added by the legislature to the custody statutes with five aspirational goals: (1) reducing acrimony; (2) developing custody solutions in the best interests of children; (3) providing parents with informed choices; (4) providing a structured, confidential and cooperative facility for discussion of co-parenting; and (5) reducing litigation and litigation of custody cases.

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Leesa M. Poag, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

Recently, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has taken steps to hold medical professionals accountable when they become involved in legal proceedings.  Family law attorneys in North Carolina are familiar with the process of a custody evaluation performed by a licensed psychologist.  The Court of Appeals recently held that these licensed psychologists can be disciplined by their licensing board if their performance of the evaluation negatively affects clients, or even attorneys involved in a case.

Dr. Annette Baker was appointed by the court to complete a custody evaluation in relation to a modification of custody hearing.  Dr. Baker initially met with both the mother and father involved in the case, as well as the minor children.

Initially, Dr. Baker was in communication with both parents, as well as the father’s attorney, Archie Futrell.  When the evaluation began to drag out past the point that the parties had expected it to be completed, the mother, father, and Mr. Futrell all began what would be a long and arduous process of attempting to communicate with Dr. Baker.  As the months dragged on and the evaluation still had not been completed, all parties involved became frustrated with Dr. Baker’s lack of progress and lack of communication.  Mr. Futrell attempted to contact Dr. Baker via phone, emails and letters but received no meaningful communication from her through any medium.            Continue reading →

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CarolynFollow “Ask Carolyn” on Twitter

Dear Carolyn:

Now that summer is almost over and school will be starting back, I am reflecting on the summer trip with my two children, who are 9 and 11.  Their mother and I are divorced, and I am trying to make summer memories with them that will last a lifetime.  This summer we ventured to the West Coast to see the sites.  While in Flagstaff, Arizona, we saw advertisements for a place called “Bullets and Burgers” in Arizona. That reminded me of the headlines about a nine-year-old girl from New Jersey, who killed her Uzi instructor in a place like this.   I am just curious if this could happen in North Carolina.  What are the North Carolina laws on this?  Do we have places like “Bullets and Burgers” in North Carolina?  My ex is dating a guy who owns a lot of guns.  Could he take my children to such a place?

~Curious and Concerned

Dear Curious and Concerned:

           You are referring to a story of a 9-year-old girl from New Jersey who was on a family vacation in Arizona. This story received lots of attention in the legal arena and in legal publications.  Her family took her to the place called “Bullets and Burgers.”  She was assigned an instructor and shot a single shot weapon without any trouble.  The instructor then let her shoot an Uzi automatic weapon that shoots 600 rounds per minute. She lost control of the Uzi, shooting and killing her instructor, inadvertently.  No charges were filed and the accident was ruled to be an “industrial accident.”             Continue reading →

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Follow “Ask Carolyn” on Twitter

Dear Carolyn,

Visitation exchanges are almost always awful for my eight-year-old when the exchange is not at school.  I am a Father with fifty-percent custody.  I have Mondays and Tuesdays overnight.  My ex has Wednesdays and Thursdays overnight. We alternate weekends.

When school is out, we do the exchange at a local fast food restaurant.  My ex almost always brings her new boyfriend with her, and he almost always says something “smart” or derogatory toward or about me.  I have emailed my ex to stop these and I have asked her not to bring him.  My eight-year-old hears this nonsense.  What should I do?

~ Exchange Woes

Dear Exchange Woes,

           It is obvious that it is not in the best interest of your child to hear the adults around him or her bickering during visitation exchanges. Your child is part of both you and your ex, and as such, he or she probably is stressed to hear derogatory comments about his or her father. Visitation exchanges should be happy for the child preparing to spend time with the other parent.

In Randolph County, several years ago, the news reported a tragedy at a visitation exchange from which we can learn.  Mom and Dad both had someone else with them at the visitation exchange.  The two other people got into an argument at the exchange, and one of the two other people at the exchange shot the other one (non-fatal shooting).   Apparently, the child apparently witnessed this shooting.

So, what should the rules be for visitation exchanges when the parents just do not get along, or there are other troublemakers, such as your ex’s new boyfriend?

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