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Friday, July 18, 2014

In re E.L. - Abuse Factors Largely in Child Custody Decisions

In most cases where a parent has been stripped of child custody or visitation, the New York Administration for Children's Services must work extensively toward the goal of reunification. This is based on the principle that children benefit emotionally, physically and financially by sharing a bond with both parents.

However, our Brooklyn ACS attorneys recognize that in some circumstances, the court may find aggravating circumstances preclude the agency from this responsibility. While there have assuredly been instances in which the courts have wielded this power with greater frequency than they should, it's primarily intended to protect children (and to some extent, spouses) from abuse.

Courts will mostly look at physical abuse, but psychological abuse can be considered too. This was the case in In re E.L., before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

According to court records, the mother, father and two children lived a very isolated life in a rural setting, abiding by their strict interpretations of biblical teachings. These interpretations required the mother to be submissive to the father in all respects, and they each limited their contacts with the outside world. Both children were born in the unfinished home, were home-schooled and were not allowed play dates with other children.

Over time, the husband's behavior reportedly became increasingly controlling and hostile. He controlled what the mother wore, insisted she keep to an exercise routine, forbid her from using the family car or engage in innocent social interactions. He was also allegedly verbally abusive to her, demeaning her about her weight and making threats to physically harm her (by way of dragging her behind a bumper or using a cattle prod on her).

As the children grew older, he turned his attentions more toward them. In one instance, he reportedly smacked his daughter for grinding her teeth as she slept. Excessive corporal punishment was reportedly routine. He also allegedly left loaded firearms in areas accessible to the children.

The children rarely saw medical professionals, with question as to whether the younger child had ever been to a doctor.

When one of the children developed a cavity, the father reportedly refused to allow her to visit a dentist. Instead, he insisted he would drill her tooth. He bought a drill. This was the catalyst for the mother calling police one day while he was gone, and receiving help to remove her and her children from the home.

The state's child services agency filed a petition for the trial court to find aggravating circumstances that would prevent them from attempting to seek reunification with the father. The court sided with the agency, and the father appealed.

He argued that while the evidence of psychological abuse was sufficient to support a jeopardy finding, he said the court should only be allowed to consider whether the parent poses a threat at the time of the hearing. Because he was in jail at the time of the hearing, he argued he held no threat to the children. Further, he said there was not enough evidence to support a finding of aggravated circumstances because there was no showing the children were sufficiently impacted by the abuse.

The court rejected his arguments, indicating that past evidence of abuse is relevant to whether there is a threat of future abuse. Further, the court found the evidence indicated the father's actions and alleged abuse both directly and indirectly caused "severe emotional trauma" to both children.

Additionally, the court indicated that while the threshold of proof would be greater in a criminal case, a different standard is used to weigh the protection of children in a family law setting. Therefore, the trial court's findings were upheld.

We recognize that cases involving those working to extract themselves and their children from abusive relationships require careful attention.

If you are need the assistance of a Brooklyn ACS attorney, call our offices at (718) 864-2011.

Additional Resources:

In re E.L., July 1, 2014, Maine Supreme Judicial Court

More Blog Entries:

Requests for New York Child Custody Modifications Must be Convincing, June 15, 2014, Brooklyn ACS Lawyer Blog


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