Friday, February 20, 2015

Why the Indiana Court of Appeals rejected a proposal by therapist Theresa Slayton and the hazard of incompetent MHPs in child custody proceedings

The 19 February 2015 decision in Paternity of Snyder, M.S., v D.A., by the Indiana Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred when it ordered that Father could not identify himself as such to his daughter who was age six years at the time. This proscription, induced by a mental health professional, goes against public policy established in the state of Indiana.

Considered to be an essential goal of parenting time disputes is seeking an environment in which a child can have a well-founded relationship with each parent.[en1] This goal recognizes that the right of non-custodial parents to visit with their children is a sacred and precious privilege.[en1] The rights of non-custodial parents is not absolute and may be restricted as necessary to protect the welfare of the child. In paternity cases parenting time can be restricted if the court finds that would endanger the child’s physical health and well-being or significantly impair the child’s emotional development.[en2]

Although Father and Mother cohabitated for the first few months of Daughter’s life, Father relocated to Texas and had infrequent contact with Mother or Daughter. Father eventually establish his paternity of Daughter, was granted parenting time, paid child support, and, as part of a reunification plan with Daughter, had parenting time supervised by therapist Theresa Slayton.

Once Father established paternity he became Daughter’s birth parent and as such received certain rights and undertook legal obligations.[en3] Parental rights and responsibilities are considered so important that once paternity is established it may not be disestablished, unless fraud, duress, or a material mistake of fact is shown to have existed at the time the paternity affidavit was executed.[en4] I have recently written about rescinding paternity.

In this case, the record reveals that Father’s paternity was established, and a support order was entered. In addition, Father’s parenting time was initially restricted because of an allegation of Domestic Violence against Mother. Mother later withdrew her attempt to perpetuate the DV protective order. Following the trial court’s initial order, Father has exercised infrequent visitation that is supervised by therapist Theresa Slayton. Slayton devised a novel approach in an effort to coerce Father to exercise greater parenting time under her supervision.

During the modification hearing Slayton testified that she believes that Father has not “earned the title” of “dad” and that revealing this to Daughter would result in her “spending more time trying to figure out who everybody is at her age” which was six years at the time. Further Slayton felt that Father’s desire to inform his daughter of his status as her biological father should be used as leverage to induce him to engage her professional services for more frequent visits. The trial court apparently bought it. The Court of Appeals didn’t and correctly found that Slayton’s plan was not a legally sufficient basis for denying to a child the knowledge of who is his or her Father.

In reversing the trial court’s decision the Court of Appeals found that “[t]here is no evidence in the record suggesting how [Daughter's] physical health or emotional development would be impaired by telling [her] that Father is her biological father.”[en5] And further “[a]s such a finding is required by statute, the trial court erred when it denied Father’s request to tell [Daughter] he is her father, and we accordingly reverse that portion of the trial court’s decision.”

While this panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals correctly found that Slayton’s plan and the trial court’s subsequent order were contradictory to law it did not address that it was wrong. Slayton’s plan to use the child as a hostage or leverage to compel a desirable performance out of Father is abusive to the child and evocative of decadence in the MHP field.

Slayton’s plan is ethically questionable as it holds the mental well-being of the child in limbo contingent upon a quid-pro-quo in which Slayton stood to financially benefit. This is not to say that all treatment plans devised by MHPs are unethical because the plan designer would stand to profit. Clearly I profit from the use of my services but I always design my plans to terminate as quickly as practical so I may assist other parents or attorneys. However, parents, practitioners, and courts should view any plan related to ongoing services askew and demand compelling evidence supporting the plan. Overburdened courts rely heavily on the input of ancillary witnesses. If the demeanor of the court is not reticence to accept such input then it is incumbent upon parents to expose these pitfalls.

[1] Hatmaker v. Hatmaker, 998 N.E.2d 758, 761 (Ind. Ct. App. 2013) (quoting Appolon v. Faught, 796 N.E.2d 297, 300 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003)).
[2] Indiana Code § 31-14-14-1(a). Although the statute uses the term ‘might’ reviewing courts have interpreted the statute to require a finding that the child “would” be endangered. D.B. v. M.B.V., 913 N.E.2d 1271, 1274 (Ind. Ct. App. 2009)
[3] Ind. Code § 31-9-2-10 and Ind. Code § 16-37-2-2.1.
[4] In re Paternity of T.M., 953 N.E.2d 96, 98 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011), trans. denied; See also Ind. Code § 16-37-2-2.1(l).
[5] See Ind. Code § 31-14-14-1(a); Farrell v. Littell, 790 N.E.2d 612 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003) (statute requires specific finding of physical endangerment or emotional impairment prior to imposing restriction).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Make a suggestion for me to write about.

Parents who would like to achieve the best outcome for their children in a contested child custody case should visit my website and contact my scheduler to make an appointment to meet with me. Attorneys may request a free consultation to learn how I can maximize their advocacy for their clients.

Connect with me for the latest Indiana child custody related policy considerations, findings, court rulings and discussions.

View Stuart Showalter's profile on LinkedIn

Subscribe to my child custody updates

* indicates required
©2008, 2015 Stuart Showalter, LLC. Permission is granted to all non-commercial entities to reproduce this article in it's entirety with credit given.

No comments: