Child abuse is a serious matter that can weigh heavily in a California divorce case. Courts usually look into molestation and other abuse allegations in a thorough and exacting manner, calling on mental health evaluators and other experts when necessary to determine the facts of the matter. As a recent decision from the state’s Sixth District Court of Appeals shows, a spouse who falsely accuses the other of child abuse is likely putting his or her child custody and visitation rights at risk.
Husband filed for divorce from Wife in 2011, following roughly 18 years of marriage. A court dissolved the marriage approximately two years later and awarded the spouses joint custody of their only child. Wife later sought full custody of the then eight-year-old boy, however, alleging that Husband had molested the child. She was initially awarded sole custody – with no visitation for Husband – after reporting the matter to the local police.
A court-appointed mental health evaluator later found that, although it was not possible to rule out that Son may have been abused by his father or another person, he found no reason to believe that Husband had abused the child. The evaluator also said he was concerned that Wife had influenced the child’s belief that he was abused. The evaluator recommended that Husband be given temporary legal and physical custody of the child, while Wife be allowed supervised visits every other day. Wife and Son underwent therapy sessions, based on the evaluator’s recommendation, and later returned to court so that a long-term custody and visitation plan could be reached.
The trial court issued an order in February 2014, finding that the molestation claim wasn’t substantiated and that Wife had been “affecting the child’s beliefs regarding abuse.” The court awarded sole legal and physical custody to Husband and allowed Wife weekly visitation rights. It also adopted the evaluator’s therapy recommendation. In a hearing on another issue the following day, the court said it was “distressed” that Wife was still claiming that Husband had abused the child. “As far as I am concerned, the treatment will continue until [Wife] comes to a different belief-set,” the judge said. “[A]nd if that doesn’t happen within the next six months, I’ll probably recommend a further psychiatric evaluation to determine whether it would be in everyone’s best interest to terminate her parental rights.”
The court ordered the parties to return in August to further consider the matter. In the meantime, the judge said he would “re-refer” the case to the medical evaluator to monitor the situation.
Denying Wife’s request to reverse the February ruling, the Sixth District held that the lower court’s ruling wasn’t appealable because it didn’t contain a final order. “A judgment is final when it terminates the litigation between the parties on the merits of the case and leaves nothing to be done but to enforce by execution what has been determined,” the Court explained. In this case, the court said the matter was still open. It noted in particular that the judge had ordered the parties to return in August and that he “re-referred” the matter to the evaluator for further input on the visitation issue.
“It is apparent from the trial court’s February 6, 2014 decision and order, and the subsequent proceedings reflected in the record on appeal, that the court contemplated receiving further information from one or more mental health practitioners before finally determining the issue of child custody and visitation,” the appeals court concluded.
As this case makes clear, child custody disputes can devolve into nasty, drawn out affairs that affect both divorcing spouses and their kids. If you’re considering seeking a divorce or are grappling with child custody issues, contact San Jose divorce lawyer John S. Yohanan. With more than 30 years of experience, Mr. Yohanan is an accomplished family law attorney who has helped a number of clients resolve property dispositions and a wide variety of other issues on optimal terms. Call our office at (408) 297-0700 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.
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