Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

A.A.B. v. A.D.L.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Northern Division

April 16, 2019

A.A.B. And A.M.B., Individually and as Next Friend for A.A.B., Respondents,
v.
A.D.L., Appellant, and J.B.U., Defendant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Marion County Honorable John J. Jackson

          LAWRENCE E. MOONEY, JUDGE.

         The mother, A.D.L., appeals the judgment entered by the Circuit Court of Marion County awarding third-party custody of the minor child to A.M.B., the man the child knew as his father for the first nine years of his life ("the putative father"). The trial court found the mother and the biological father, J.B.U., [1] unfit and unsuitable custodians, found that the welfare of the child required an award of custody to the putative father, and found that granting custody to the putative father was in the best interests of the child. When deciding appeals from trial courts, we sit as a court of review. The case was litigated and adjudicated as a third-party custody case, so we review it as such. Because the trial court's findings are sufficient to support its award of third-party custody to the putative father, and because the award is not against the weight of the evidence, we affirm as modified.

         Facts

         The mother and putative father met in 2003, and began dating on and off. The putative father believed that they were dating exclusively when the mother announced that she was pregnant in the summer of 2005. The mother reassured the putative father multiple times that he was the biological father of the child. The putative father testified that he attended doctor appointments and Lamaze classes with the mother, and that he was present in the delivery room when the mother gave birth to the minor child, A.A.B., in February 2006. Both the putative father and mother signed an affidavit of paternity naming the putative father as the child's biological father. Thus the child's birth certificate bore the putative father's name, and the child carried the putative father's surname. The mother and putative father lived together after the child's birth, and the putative father helped care for the child. The mother and putative father continued to live together with the child until they separated early in 2007.

         After the mother and putative father separated, the putative father enjoyed visitation with the child on alternating weekends for eight years. The child called the putative father "dad," and they engaged in many activities together: cooking meals; visiting the putative father's family where the child played with his cousins; riding bicycles, ATVs, and horses; lifting weights; hunting and fishing; playing ball and video games; and attending church. The putative father and child typically spoke or texted once or twice each week. The putative father always celebrated the child's birthday, gave him birthday and Christmas gifts, and celebrated holidays with him. Both parties testified that the putative father and mother successfully coordinated their holiday parenting time with the child.

         In 2008, the mother successfully pursued a child-support action against the putative father through the Missouri Department of Social Services, during which the mother represented that the putative father was the child's biological father. Over the next several years, the putative father paid over $60, 000 in child support, which the mother accepted. Yet, the mother acknowledged in her trial testimony that she was positive from the time of the child's birth that the putative father was not the child's biological father.

         In May 2015, the mother telephoned the putative father and announced that he was not the child's biological father. The mother also abruptly revealed this information to the nine-year-old child, in the absence of professional mental-health support while the child was playing a video game. DNA testing later confirmed that another man, J.B.U., is the child's biological father. Within a week of her announcement to the child, the mother moved J.B.U. into her home with the child despite her knowledge of J.B.U.'s extensive criminal record. The mother acknowledged that the child did not even know of J.B.U.'s existence until her revelation. The putative father immediately filed this action[2] after the mother told him that he was not the child's biological father, told him that the child would no longer visit him, and denied the putative father his usual weekend with the child.

         The mother immediately severed contact between the child and the putative father, the paternal grandparents, and the paternal aunt, with whom the child was especially close. The mother and J.B.U. gave the child a mobile phone, and instructed him not to enter the phone numbers of the putative father or the putative father's family on the phone. The mother permitted no contact between the child and the putative father or the putative father's family until November 2015 when the trial court entered a temporary order for visitation. The putative father, his mother, and his sister managed to visit the child briefly in mid-August 2015 at the child's school under the supervision of a counselor. But when the mother learned of the visit, she transferred the child to another school district so that the putative father would not know where the child attended school.

         Even after the court ordered visitation, the mother interfered with the putative father's visitation, and she failed to take the child to court-ordered counseling. Once visitation resumed, the child no longer called the putative father "dad" except when he forgot to self-censor, and the child acted awkward and distant when the mother or J.B.U. was present. The mother and J.B.U. further interfered by not allowing the child to speak freely with the putative father by telephone, threatening to ground the child if he referred to the putative father as his father, prohibiting the child from giving his new phone number to the putative father or his family, and cursing at the putative father in the child's presence.

         The guardian ad litem recommended that the court award sole physical custody to the putative father, and joint legal custody to the putative father and mother. The guardian ad litem testified that she had "significant concerns that [the child] was coached" in his testimony because the child's testimony mirrored language used by the mother and J.B.U. in texts and voicemails, that the mother's and J.B.U.'s behavior was similar to that found with parental alienation, and that she had concerns about the credibility of the mother's testimony. The guardian ad litem testified that she doubted such behavior would end unless the putative father had custody of the child.

         The court conducted a trial over two days in May 2017. The trial court found that the mother had stopped and prohibited all contact between the child and the putative father for six months; "interfered with [the putative father's] significant bond and relationship with the minor child"; disregarded previous court orders and interfered with the putative father's visitation rights; deliberately tried to destroy the bond between the putative father and the child without any recognition of possible serious emotional harm to the minor child; attempted to alienate the child from the putative father, thus neglecting the child's emotional needs; and told the putative father's family that "she would remove all traces of them from the minor child's life." The trial court also found that the putative father is a suitable custodian and can provide a stable environment for the child; that the biological father and the mother are unfit and unsuitable to serve as custodians; that the welfare of the child requires an award of custody to the putative father; and that an award of physical custody to the putative father is in the child's best interest.

         The trial court stated that it had considered the factors enumerated in section 452.375 RSMo. (2016), [3] and thus concluded that the welfare of the child required an award of sole physical custody to the putative father. The court further determined that such an award was in the child's best interest. The court, inter alia, awarded the mother and father joint legal custody, and ordered that the child retain the putative father's surname.[4] The mother appeals.

         Standard of Review

         We must affirm the trial court's judgment 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. Bowers v. Bowers, 543 S.W.3d 608, 613 (Mo. banc 2018); Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976).

         Discussion

         In two points on appeal, the mother claims the trial court failed to make required findings of fact and that the evidence failed to demonstrate that she is unfit, unsuitable, or unable to maintain custody of the child.

         In her first point, the mother contends that the trial court failed to make findings of fact required pursuant to section 452.375. hi deciding the custody arrangement that would serve the best interests of a child, the trial court shall consider all relevant factors and enter findings of fact and conclusions of law, including the following:

(1) the wishes of the child's parents;
(2) the needs of the child for a frequent, continuing, and meaningful relationship with both parents, and the ability and willingness of parents to actively perform their functions for the needs of the child;
(3) the interaction and interrelationship of the child with parents, siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child's best interests;
(4) which parent is more likely to allow the child frequent, continuing, and meaningful contact ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.