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California Child Custody Cases: Gauging Best Interests

California child custody disputes often center on one parent’s word against the other parent’s word. As the state’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained, the primary question in any custody case should be:  what’s in the best interest of the child?

tricycleMother and Father were married for more than two years before Father filed for divorce in 2013. They had two children – ages five and three – at the time. Mother explained to the family court hearing the case that the children had been living with her since the couple split a month earlier. She declined to provide the address, asserting that Father had been sexually abusive to her and physically abusive to the children. Father, on the other hand, claimed that Mother wrongly moved with the children to Texas without his permission. He said Mother was lashing out at him because she was fired from her job at a hospital after Father told the hospital he had found vials of drugs that she took from work.

A trial judge eventually held a hearing on the matter, in which both Father and Mother testified and presented witnesses to support their claims. A licensed clinical social worker who interviewed the parents, kids, and other witnesses recommended that Mother be granted full custody of the children. The social worker said Father was “manipulative.” Although the children had a good relationship with both parents, the social worker said the relationship was stronger with Mother. The social worker also said Mother moved the kids to Texas because she didn’t understand the law and made a mistake. The judge, however, came to a different conclusion. He found that Mother lied about the abuse allegations as an excuse for running off with the kids. As a result, the judge ordered that the children remain in California and that the parents continue to share custody.

Reversing the decision on appeal, the Second District said the trial judge abused his discretion by making a number of factual findings without sufficient evidence to back them up. The judge found, for example, that only Father had shown the “stability” necessary to properly care for the children. Father was living with his girlfriend at the time, while Mother was living with her parents. The Second District disagreed with the Court’s assumption. “While [Husband]’s involvement with the children’s educational and medical needs was disputed, the evidence uniformly suggested that [Wife] was attentive and proactive in these areas,” the Court said.

The Court also said there was enough evidence to support the judge’s finding that Wife’s allegations of abuse were unfounded and that Wife would do or say anything to keep the kids. But it also said the judge may have taken that conclusion too far by assuming it wasn’t in the kids’ best interest to stay with Mother. It noted that Mother had complied with all of the court orders to keep the children in California and share custody with Father. It also noted that the social worker recommended that Mother get custody of the children.

“In sum, although the trial court recognized the difficulty in making a custody determination in this type of case, we conclude it failed to properly consider all of the relevant circumstances in evaluating the best interest of the children here,” the Second District concluded.

If you’re considering a divorce or are grappling with child custody and other issues in California, contact San Jose divorce attorney 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 a wide variety of marital disputes. Call our office at (408) 297-0700 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.

Related blog posts:

Resolving California Child Custody Cases when Parents Live in Different Places – In re Marriage of Runge

Appealing a California Divorce Decision – In re Marriage of Plasse

Want More Child Visitation Time in California? Make Sure to Use What You Have