In a recent appellate court decision that discusses an aspect of North Carolina custody law, a mother appealed from an order that granted her and the father joint custody of teenage children pending the start of a reunification program. The program was supposed to fix the kids’ relationship to their father, which the court determined was damaged by the mother’s alienating conduct.
The order gave the father primary physical custody of the children after starting the program, while the mother’s visitation with the kids would be temporarily suspended pending the program’s completion. The order also directed that the kids go to private or public school, instead of being homeschooled by their mother.
The case arose in connection with three children born from a couple’s marriage. The father demanded custody when they were older because the mother had committed adultery. The mother responded to the father’s complaint and letter by taking the kids to South Carolina and cutting off the father’s contact. The father filed a motion for emergency custody relief, claiming the mother had a relationship with someone in Sweden and that she planned to go there with the kids despite his objection. He was worried the mother would take the kids and not come back. The court granted him temporary exclusive custody of the children in an emergency order.
When the mother returned to North Carolina, the parents agreed to a rotating schedule for physical custody. In 2015, the father moved for a custody evaluation and argued the mother wasn’t following the schedule they’d agreed upon and that instead she was alienating the kids from him.
The lower court entered a consent order that appointed a forensic custody evaluator. She was supposed to look at the parents’ behavior and their mental health and make recommendations about treatment if needed. The court updated the earlier order and gave the parents joint physical custody on a rotating schedule.
The father again moved for a custody modification due to the mom’s refusal to follow the order. He claimed the mother had acted to alienate the sons from him. At a permanent custody hearing, the mother moved to exclude the custody evaluation report of a doctor. This motion was denied and the doctor was accepted as an expert. The court ordered that the mother would have no contact with the kids until she completed a particular program.
She appealed and argued that the court should have excluded the doctor’s expert testimony because it wasn’t relevant or reliable and that the court shouldn’t have suspended her visitation. The appellate court explained that expert testimony must: (1) be based on technical, scientific or specialized knowledge that would help a trier of fact understand evidence, (2) the expert has to be qualified as such by education, training, experience, knowledge or skill, and (3) the testimony must be reliable in that: (a) it is based on enough data or facts, (b) it must be the product of reliable methods or principles, and (c) the witness applied the methods and principles reliably to the facts of the case.
The doctor’s testimony met all the above criteria and she’d spent a year on her custody evaluation. The appellate court found no abuse of discretion. Similarly, it found there was no abuse of discretion with regard to the temporary and conditional suspension of the mother’s visitation. The lower court had ample evidence that the mother intentionally tried to alienate the children’s love for their father and that this was harmful to their welfare. It also found that the expert’s testimony that the mother had started to use homeschooling as a weapon to damage the children’s relationship with the father was supported.
The order was affirmed.
If you are facing fraught issues in your North Carolina child custody dispute with your soon-to-be ex-spouse, you should consult dedicated family law attorneys. Contact the Woodruff Family Law Group at 336.272.9122 or via our online form.
More Blog Posts