Some appellate decisions just warm my heart. The Arizona Court of Appeals recently issued such a decision, Calvin B. v. Brittany B., and ruled against one of the most despicable types of parent: one who does everything he or she can do to limit, control, and even eliminate the other parent’s relationship with their child.
Calvin and Brittany divorced when their son was very young. They agreed to an arrangement wherein Brittany would have sole legal and physical custody of their son, but Calvin would have "liberal" parenting time as the parties agreed. Brittany then proceeded to limit Calvin’s contact with their son. As a result, Calvin sought the court’s help in securing more time with him. Over the course of the next several years, Brittany used orders of protection and other barriers to block Calvin’s parenting time. She also violated the court’s orders several times. Calvin, however, was not a model parent either, failing to exercise a lot of his parenting time, not immediately seeking enforcement of the court’s orders, and failing to take a parenting class that the court had ordered him to take.
Brittany eventually filed in juvenile court to terminate Calvin’s parental rights on the basis that Calvin had abandoned their child. The Superior Court granted the termination petition and Calvin appealed.
"Abandonment" means the failure of a parent to provide reasonable support and to maintain regular contact with the child, including providing normal supervision. Abandonment includes a judicial finding that a parent has made only minimal efforts to support and communicate with the child. Failure to maintain a normal parental relationship with the child without just cause for a period of six months constitutes prima facie evidence of abandonment. When circumstances prevent a parent from bonding traditionally with a child, the parent must act persistently to establish the relationship and vigorously assert his or her rights. Non-support alone does not establish abandonment.
This is the heartwarming part: the Court of Appeals overturned the Superior Court and cut right to the chase:
The record shows that for much of the period after the dissolution in 2008, Brittany interfered with Calvin’s opportunity and ability to develop a normal parental relationship with their son. A parent may not restrict the other parent from interacting with their child and then petition to terminate the latter’s rights for abandonment. For this reason, we conclude the record in this unusual case lacks evidence sufficient for the court to conclude that Brittany proved by clear and convincing evidence that Calvin abandoned his son.
The Court of Appeals also stated, "Having herself curtailed Calvin’s ability to develop a relationship with his son, Brittany did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that Calvin abandoned the child by failing to provide normal parental supervision," and "We cannot accept the proposition that the court acted properly in granting Brittany’s petition to terminate Calvin’s parental rights based on abandonment because he did not take legal measures to reduce the barriers Brittany erected to his ability to parent." In fact, the appellate court remarked that, given the hurdles that Brittany erected, Calvin’s ability to manage as many visits as he did manage was "remarkable." Also note that the Court of Appeals examined both parent’s behaviors: the court examined Brittany’s bad conduct but also scrutinized Calvin’s conduct in attempting to build a relationship with his son.
One may think that this is a no-brainer, but remember that the trial court granted the petition to terminate Calvin’s parental rights! The trial court judge didn’t get it. It took an appeal to set things right. Although Calvin ultimately did not lose his parental rights, he suffered in other ways, including not seeing his son for long periods, only seeing his son a little bit when he did see him, having his parental rights terminated for a time, the agony of the termination and appeals process, and the damage to his relationship with his son. However, Calvin could have avoided much of this by acting differently.
First, Calvin should have avoided a vague parenting time order. He agreed that he would see his son when the parties agreed (which really means whenever Brittany feels like it). If Calvin would have insisted on a set schedule in the Court’s order he would not have had to rely on Brittany’s willingness to allow him to see their son.
Second, Calvin should have followed the court’s orders. Calvin failed to pay most of his child support, which is a factor in abandonment cases. It also has consequences in non-abandonment cases. He also failed to take a parent information class and, when the Superior Court ordered that he could have more parenting time after he took it, he failed to take it for over a year! Furthermore, Brittany used this against him in the abandonment case. Had Calvin taken it the first time, or even the second time, he could have seen his son more and Brittany would have had less to use against him in the abandonment case.
Third, Calvin should have exercised all of the parenting time that the court allowed him to exercise. I never understand why people fight for parenting time, and then only use some of what they get or none at all. They are simply proving that the other party was right and hurting themselves in future court battles. More importantly, they are missing time with their children that they will never get again. Had Calvin used all of his parenting time, he would have never had to worry about the abandonment case.
Finally, Calvin should have rigorously enforced his rights. Calvin did eventually seek enforcement in the Superior Court, but that was after about three years of Brittany controlling and restricting his contact with their son. Had Calvin rigorously enforced his rights, he probably would have won the abandonment case at the trial court level or would not have had to face it at all. More importantly, he would not have missed out on so much time with his son. When the other parent behaves like Brittany behaved in this case, the only sensible course of action is to rigorously enforce your rights. It is aggravating, stressful, and difficult, but losing your child or losing a lot of time with your child for several years is much worse.
Don’t be like Calvin (or Brittany). If you need help not being a Calvin (or Brittany), I would love to talk to you. I am a Phoenix are family law and juvenile law attorney.