It has been said that the court system is broken; its resources stretched to a point where its purposes cannot be achieved.
Take this month’s decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Middleton v. Stringham.
On June 22, 2011, the parties agreed to share joint legal custody of their two children, with physical custody to the mother and liberal parenting time to the father. The parties were divorced by a judgment of divorce entered January 10, 2012. Seven months later, the mother filed a petition to modify the stipulation so as to award her sole legal and physical custody of the children, and the father cross-petitioned for the same relief. After a hearing at which the parties and two of their parent coordinators testified, Westchester County Family Court Judge David Klein modified the stipulation so as to award the father sole legal and physical custody of the subject children.
Generally, on a petition for a modification of joint custody, a court is required to determine whether the parents’ interaction was so acrimonious that it effectively precluded them from joint decision-making, and if so, to award sole custody to whichever parent serves the best interests of the children. Here, however, the Second Department held that the determination that it was in the best interests of the children to award sole custody to the father lacked a sound and substantial basis in the record.
The custody hearing concluded on May 15, 2014, over 20 months after the mother’s petition was filed, and the order appealed from was issued 6 months after that.
For the most part, the evidence at the hearing focused upon allegations, events, and circumstances relating to the period of time that preceded the filing of the petition and cross petition, and the parents’ acrimonious relationship with each other, with limited evidence about the children’s more current circumstances and best interests. Accordingly, the appellate court found that a new hearing was needed to allow the court to elicit more up-to-date evidence.
Moreover, the Second Department noted that under the unique facts of the case (not discussed), and despite the children’s relatively young ages, the court should have conducted in camera interviews with the children.
The Second Department directed that the new hearing, in camera interviews, and new determination should be done with “all convenient speed.”
The parties have now been litigating for the three years that followed the one-year respite after they settled their custody dispute the first time. These cross-proceedings took so long that the reasons there were brought were no longer relevant. Instead, the appellate court wanted to know what had been going on while the Family Court proceeding was ongoing. Even with “all convenient speed,” the resolution (with appeal) will take another year or two.
From the children’s perspective, it must seem like their entire lives have been spent with the sights and sounds coming from the court-system battleground. We owe them better.
William J. Larkin III, Esq., of Larkin, Ingrassia & Brown, LLP, of Newburgh, represented the mother. Neal D. Futerfas, Esq., of White Plains, N.Y., represented the father. Joy S. Joseph, Esq., of White Plains, N.Y., served as attorney for the children.