The parties, who were never married, have two children together, the younger of whom is now 17 years old. The parents have been litigating custody and visitation issues for almost the entire lives of their children.
In its December 28, 2016 decision in Matter of Sullivan v. Plotnick, the Appellate Division, Second Department, addressed a family’s relationships, concluding (?) more than a decade of litigation. By consent orders in 2004 and 2005, the mother had physical custody of the children. In 2007, the mother petitioned to modify the earlier-agreed visitation schedule. Without a hearing., the Family Court granted the father’s motion to dismiss the mother’s petition. On a prior appeal, the Second Department reversed that order and remitted the matter for a hearing. In 2010, the father filed a petition to modify the custody and visitation orders so as to award him sole custody of the children, alleging that the mother interfered with his parenting time.
In July 2010, while these proceedings were pending, the children’s paternal uncle contacted the children and revealed that the father had been previously married, and that they had two older siblings. The children were upset that the father had withheld this information and refused to visit or communicate with the father.
In an attempt to rehabilitate the relationship between the father and the children, in 2010 the Family Court directed therapeutic visitation. The father subsequently filed two motions alleging that the mother had violated that direction. He also filed petitions to vacate a 2007 support order, and sought sole physical and legal custody on the basis of the mother’s alienation. After a hearing, by order dated September 6, 2011, the Family Court found that the mother willfully violated the orders directing therapeutic visitation.
After further hearings on the parties’ modification petitions, in April, 2013, Nassau County Family Court Judicial Hearing Officer Elaine Jackson Stack found the mother had alienated the children by failing to affirmatively act to restore the parental access rights of the father and interfering with the children’s relationship with the father, but refused to modify the custody and visitation orders. J.H.O. Stack did grant that branch of the father’s petition to vacate his support obligation to the extent of directing him to pay 50% of his child support obligation to the mother, and to pay the remaining 50% of his child support obligation to the mother’s attorney to hold in an escrow account pending the mother’s active participation in restoring the parental access rights of the father.
In 2014, Family Court (now Supreme Court) Judge Edmund M. Dane confirmed J.H.O. Stack’s report finding that the mother willfully violated the April 2013 order and her recommendation that the father’s support obligation be terminated; that funds received by the mother’s attorney as partial payment of the father’s support obligation be refunded to the father; that the branch of the father’s amended petition which was to modify the custody orders be denied; and that prior orders directing parental access for the father be vacated.
Both parties appealed. By the time of the Second Department’s December 28, 2016 decision, the parties’ son had turned 18, mooting the custody (but not the child support) aspects of the appeal as to him.
With respect to the parties’ daughter, who is now 17 years old, the Second Department noted that while one parent’s alienation of a child from the other parent is an act inconsistent with the best interests of the child, here, the daughter’s bond to her mother, and her alienation from her father, were so strong (both parents contributing to the deterioration of that relationship), that a change of custody would be harmful to her. As a result, there was no basis to disturb the Family Court’s determination that a change of custody would not be in the child’s best interests. Moreover, giving due consideration to the wishes, age, and maturity of the parties’ daughter, who was 14 at the time of J.H.O. Stack’s order, had a strained relationship with the father and was vehemently opposed to any form of visitation with the father, the Second Department affirmed the vacating of all prior orders that had directed parental access for the father.
On the other hand, the evidence adduced at the hearings justified a suspension of the father’s obligation to make future child support payments. There was evidence that the mother deliberately frustrated the court-ordered therapeutic visitation in many ways, including:
- unnecessarily canceling a number of sessions;
- discussing the court proceedings and the therapeutic visits with the children;
- telling the son that it was up to him as to whether he participated in the therapeutic visits;
- referring negatively to the father in the presence of the children;
- failing to make an effort to have a therapist address the children’s negative feelings toward their father; and
- making no effort to assist the children in restoring their relationship with the father.
The mother, by her example, her actions, and her inaction, manipulated the children’s loyalty, encouraged the estrangement of the father and children, and deliberately frustrated visitation. Under those circumstances, it was appropriate to suspend the father’s current child support obligations.
With a judicial system that lacks the resources to timely and fully address the needs and best interests of the children, no less the rights of parents, there is little chance that the rights of all concerned can be effectively promoted. No one wins when a family is in court during the entire minority of the children.
Rhonda R. Weir, of Brooklyn, represented the father. William A. Sheeckutz, of East Meadow, represented the mother. Steven Feldman, of counsel to Arza Feldman, of Uniondale, served as attorney for the child.