A father’s efforts to push his daughter into keeping a journal disparaging her mother and to be videotaped complaining about her mother caused his visitation to be both supervised and limited. The father’s stated intention to enhance his case that the mother was abusive to her daughter, which both the appointed forensic evaluator and the Court found was not the case, was not justification for the father’s poor judgment.
In her June 14, 2012 decision in Matter of A.H. v C.B., Queens County Family Court Judge Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson, not only rejected a father’s efforts to expand his visitation, but further limited them.
The father alleged the mother’s abusive behavior towards their daughter constituted the change in circumstances necessary to alter existing arrangements. The father also sought to resume the liberal visitation that he had been informally allowed by the mother following the parties’ divorce. The parties’ 2003 divorce decree granted custody to the mother, but did not deal with visitation issues. As a result, a 2002 Family Court order providing for supervised visitation had remained in effect, although often not followed.
The father claimed that the daughter told him that the mother would call her “a jackass” and “stupid” and that in conversations with the daughter, the mother would disparage the father and his family. The father testified that he began to be concerned that the mother was mistreating his daughter through “verbal abuse” and by putting extreme pressure on the daughter to do well in school. He alleged that the mother slapped the daughter and abused her mentally and emotionally.
In 2009, the father gave his daughter a journal and encouraged her to write in it about her negative experiences with her mother. He also videotaped his daughter talking about her mother in a negative way.
In October, 2010, the father went to his daughter’s school and tried to show the principal the videotape and the journal. The mother was told by the school principal notifying her that the father had come to the school.
The daughter refuted the allegations that her mother abused her. Moreover, the daughter told the forensic evaluator, Dr. James R. Gries, that she was coerced by her father to make the videos and that she felt manipulated by her father to betray her mother. The forensic evaluator reported that the daughter tearfully told him that she did not want to make the video, but that for a long time, her father told her she had to. The daughter indicated that her father coerced her to fabricate stories about her mother, the father telling his daughter that if she didn’t do it, he would have a heart attack.
Dr. Gries did find that the father and daughter had a positive relationship, a strong bond, and exhibited great love for each other. Nevertheless, the father was fixated on his belief that the daughter was being abused by the mother and was intent on proving it. The daughter was clearly conflicted because of her father’s behavior. After viewing the video made by the father, Dr. Gries stated that the father clearly coached the daughter in making the video — and the journal. The experience was traumatizing and disturbing to the daughter. Dr. Gries reported that the father had little insight into the impact his actions would have on his daughter’s emotional well-being.
Dr. Gries reported that the evidence strongly indicates that the daughter was not abused by her mother. He recommended therapeutic supervised visitation for the father because of relationship problems. He advised against supervision by any relative of the father because it would put the chosen relative in an awkward position in light of the father’s moods. He believed that supervision by a person related to the child, but not related to the father would be appropriate.
Judge Richardson-Mendelson did not interview the child, holding that compelling her against her will to meet with yet another professional about the personal issues in her life would cause the daughter further stress. Because an in-camera interview was unnecessary for the purpose of deciding the case, the Court found it inadvisable to further burden the daughter.
Finding the father’s accusations unsupported, Judge Richardson-Mendelson reaffirmed the need for and strictly limited the father’s supervised visitation. The Court concluded that the father had exhibited extremely poor judgment and a lack of interest in his daughter’s medical care, education, and other aspects of her life. He was clearly obsessed with proving that the mother abused the daughter.
Judge Richardson-Mendelson did not rubber-stamp the forensic evaluation. Instead she carefully balanced the expert’s opinion with her own assessment of the best interests of the child and the best structure for visitation.
Although Dr. Gries recommended therapeutic supervised visitation, the Court found that because of the daughter’s distrust of mental health professionals, her interest would be better served by non-therapeutic supervision. Also, although Dr. Gries recommended that supervision be provided by a non-relative of the father, the Court found that the daughter’s interest would be best served by appointing as supervisor her paternal aunt, whom the daughter loves, trusts and enjoys being with.
Still further, in light of his clear mental health disturbance and lack of insight into the impact his behavior had on his daughter, the father was directed to engage in individual mental health treatment as a component (although not as a condition) of his visitation.
Finally, although Dr. Gries recommended counseling for the mother and the daughter, such was not ordered in light of the daughter’s dislike of treatment and distrust of mental health providers. That decision was left to the mother.
Judge Richardson-Mendelson also serves as Administrative Judge of the Family Court of the City of New York. The mother was represented by Sandra C. Mattessich; the father by Susan Gerner. Alissa L. Van Horn was attorney for the child