Sometimes a parent’s mental illness can present a substantial challenge within the family and, in some cases, may even make contact between parent and child unhealthy for the child. A court that views contact between parent and child as not in the child’s best interest can reduce or eliminate this contact. A court, however, cannot do so without giving that parent the “road map” that is required in order to resume an active relationship with the child. A Lee County trial court’s failure to give a father such directions ultimately resulted in the 2d District Court of Appeal’s reversal of the trial court’s custody decision.
The case involved Larry and Susan Niekamp, who divorced in 2013 after 22 years of marriage. The couple had two children together. During the divorce trial, a psychologist testified that the father had major depression, anxiety, and avoidant personality disorders, and that these conditions had harmed his relationship with his children. The trial court appointed Dr. Jason Sabo to oversee a “therapeutic reunification” between father and children. However, in the subsequent final order granting the divorce, the court gave the mother sole custody, declining to award the father any contact at all with the children. The court ruled that contact between father and children was not in the children’s best interests “for the time being.”
The appeals court concluded that the custody and contact arrangement was improper. The flaw with the trial court’s order was similar to another Lee County case from earlier this year, Perez v. Fay. In the Perez case, the mother struggled with mental illness, including a period of involuntary commitment. The father in that case persuaded the trial court to award him primary custody, and to limit the mother only to supervised contact.
In both the Niekamp and the Perez cases, the trial court’s orders offered no instructions to the parent whose contact was reduced or eliminated as to what steps were required in order to be allowed to resume their relationships with the children.
These rulings followed a 2010 case, Grigsby v. Grigsby, where the appeals court reversed a trial court’s order that had cut off one parent completely. The court explained that these types of orders are erroneous because they keep both the cut-off parent and future courts in the dark as to how that parent can reclaim a relationship with the children. Much as how certain types of contempt require the court to provide that party with the “key” to purging that contempt, the trial courts that reduced or eliminated a parent’s contact had a similar obligation. The court in the Grigsby case explained that “the court must give the parent the key to reconnecting with his or her children.” Failing to do that “prevents the parent from knowing what is expected and prevents any successor judge from monitoring the parent’s progress.”
One of the most important elements of any divorce case is protecting one’s children and one’s ability to be an active part of their lives. For answers to your custody questions or issues, contact the South Florida child custody attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. Our diligent attorneys have years of helping South Florida parents like you maintain their relationships with their children.
Contact us online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.
More blog posts:
What You Need to Obtain an Emergency Ex Parte Child Custody Order in Florida, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, July 15, 2015
How to Obtain a Custody Modification in Florida, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Feb. 11, 2015