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Complex Family Dynamics: Custody Matters Involving Grandparents, Stepparents, and Abusive Households

Few family law matters are as contentious as child custody or as distressing as child abuse. Custody battles between biological parents can become intense as parties sometimes passionately disagree about what’s best for their child. These disputes increase in complexity when third parties seek custody due to parental neglect or abuse.  

Nonparents’ Role in Child Custody 

Nonparents can file for custody of a child if they have standing, which can often be established if they have participated in the care of the child.1 Courts grant custody to third parties, such as grandparents, as they deem appropriate,2 but there is an added requirement when someone who is not a parent files for custody:  they must prove that the child’s parents have not fulfilled their parental rights.  

The behavior of a third party can also have a significant bearing on a parent’s custody rights if the parent allows the third party, such as a stepparent, to be harmful or abusive to the child. In these situations, parents may lose custody rights if they fail to protect their children. Thomas v. Oxendine3 out of Cabarrus County is an example of such a case.  

Thomas v. Oxendine 

Mother and Father had one child together, and the three of them lived with Paternal Grandparents for two years following the child’s birth. Father left the house, but Mother and the child stayed for another three years. At this point, the child had lived with Paternal Grandparents for the first five years of her life.  

In 2010, when the child was five years old, she and Mother moved in with Stepfather, who was abusive to the child. The abuse continued for years, and in 2016, the child was admitted to the hospital for depression and suicidal ideation due to the abuse she endured. Then, in 2019, Stepfather threw the child to the ground and injured her. Paternal Grandparents filed a Complaint for Child Custody and sought emergency custody. Emergency custody was granted.  

Paternal Grandparents Granted Custody

A few months later, a permanent order was entered granting sole physical and legal custody to Paternal Grandparents with visitation rights to Mother. Because Mother did not step in to prevent Stepfather’s abuse, it was determined that she did not fulfill her rights or duties as a parent. In addition, the trial court required Mother to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and Stepfather to take parenting classes. Mother appealed this decision.  

Mother argued that Paternal Grandparents did not have standing to seek custody of the child. She also stated that they did not provide sufficient evidence that she had behaved in such a way that her parental rights should be taken away. Mother further argued that the trial court’s requirement for a psychiatric evaluation and parenting classes were not in the child’s best interests. The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decisions on all of these issues.  

If you are in need of a compassionate advisor, dedicated advocate, or fierce defender, contact the Woodruff Family Law Group. Our team of Greensboro divorce lawyers has the unique combination of experience, knowledge, and skills to help you in your case. Call us today to schedule your consultation.