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Clark v. Clark

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, Second Division

February 22, 2019

JAMES REX CLARK, Petitioner-Respondent,
v.
REGINA DAYLE CLARK, Respondent-Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF MCDONALD COUNTY Honorable John LePage, Associate Circuit Judge.

          OPINION

          JEFFREY W. BATES, J.

         Regina Clark (Mother) appeals from an amended judgment that dissolved her marriage to James Clark (Father), awarded Father sole legal and physical custody of the parties' three children, and purported to grant Mother restricted visitation. According to Mother, the manner in which her visitation schedule was to be determined "constitutes an impermissible delegation of judicial authority to someone other than a judge[.]" We agree. The amended judgment is reversed, and the cause is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Because of the narrow issue presented by this appeal, the relevant facts can be succinctly summarized. In January 2016, Father filed a petition for dissolution of the parties' marriage. The parties' three children were then ages 10, 15 and 18. A guardian ad litem (GAL) was appointed to represent the children. Temporary custody was placed with Father.

         In June 2016, the court entered an order concerning Mother's visitation. The court found that Mother "would benefit from therapeutic visitation with the children at this time." The court ordered that "the local rule visitation for mother will be suspended pending further order of this Court, and mother shall participate in therapeutic visitation with the children[.]" In August 2016, the GAL filed a motion to terminate the therapeutic visits. In a September docket entry, the court suspended therapeutic visitation until further evidence could be heard on the matter.

         In March 2017, trial on the petition for dissolution was held. The court heard testimony from several witnesses, including: (1) the family therapist conducting the initial therapeutic visitation; (2) the children's therapist; (3) Mother's therapist; (4) Mother; (5) Father; and (6) the parties' three children.

         In December 2017, the court entered an amended judgment of dissolution. In awarding Father sole legal and physical custody of the children, the court made a finding that "frequent, continuing and meaningful contact with the mother is not in the children's best interest[.]"[1] The judgment incorporated a parenting plan (Parenting Plan) "restricting" Mother's visitation to therapeutic visits. Such visits were to be determined by: (1) Mother's therapist; (2) the children's therapist; and (3) a "therapeutic visitation therapist" agreed to by the parties. The visitation provision in the Parenting Plan stated:

The best interests of the children will be served by restricting mother's visitation time in the following manner:
The mother shall be encouraged to engage in therapy with her own individual therapist … and when her therapist reaches a point in therapy that her therapist believes the mother can engage in a healthy therapeutic relationship with the children, mother's therapist shall reach out to the children's therapist … and upon the children's therapist recommendation therapeutic visits may be coordinated with a therapist agreed to by the parties, hereinafter known as the "therapeutic visitation therapist". The mother shall be consulted on the selection of the therapeutic visitation therapist, however, the decision of which therapist to utilize will be decided by the therapist of the children. If either party disagrees, they may seek the Court's recommendation by simple request of the Court for such recommendation.
When the therapeutic visitation therapist believes that the therapy is effective and it is time to look at supervised visitation (without a therapist) or unsupervised visitation; then the therapeutic visitation therapist shall reach out to the children's current therapist and upon agreement and recommendation of the children's therapist, supervised visits or limited unsupervised visits may be allowed.
The recommendation by the [c]hildren's [t]herapist (not the therapeutic visitation therapist) for unlimited unsupervised visits, will be prima facie evidence of a change in circumstances warranting a change in the visitation schedule, but not necessarily a substantial change in circumstances warranting a change in the custody of the children.

(Underlining in original and other emphasis added.) This appeal followed.[2]

         Our review of this court-tried case is governed by Rule 84.13(d) and Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976). In Re Bell, 481 S.W.3d 855, 858-59 (Mo. App. 2016).[3] "The judgment will be affirmed unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law." Id. The issue presented by this appeal involves a delegation of statutory authority, which we review de novo. See Barker v. Barker, 98 S.W.3d 532, 534 (Mo. banc 2003).

         Mother contends that the trial court erred by granting Mother therapeutic visitation that "could only take place upon recommendations of Mother's therapist and the children's therapist and requiring both therapists to coordinate with a third therapist who would conduct the therapeutic visitation." According to Mother, the judgment "constitutes an impermissible ...


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