Allegations of sexual, physical or emotional abuse are taken very seriously in Maryland child custody cases. The child’s best interests are of primary importance. In a recent case, the parents’ custody of a fourteen-year-old was modified after the mother learned of sexual abuse allegations in the context of the father and her niece. The parents’ relationship began in 1993 when they were teenagers. Though they did not marry, they bore a daughter six years later. They ended their relationship in 2001. The mother had another child with another father.
The mother said that during their relationship the father was abusive towards her, calling her “crazy,” “nutcase,” “whore” and throwing her down the stairs, locking her in the cold and choking her. In one altercation, the father had pushed both the mother and a third party, resulting in the police being called and the mother getting a protective order against the father for a year.
Three years after their relationship ended, the parents entered into a custody arrangement and a few years after that, the mother was granted primary physical custody. However, the father had visitation on alternate weekends and on certain holidays and they shared legal custody.
Shortly after that, the mother’s niece in North Carolina claimed that the father had abused her for five years during the summer when she stayed with the mother or her grandmother in Maryland. The father was 21 when the alleged abuse began.
The mother filed a motion to modify custody and visitation. The court ordered a temporary suspension of the father’s visitation with his daughter and then permitted one supervised weekend visit. A therapist was asked to complete a custody evaluation before trial.
At trial the court heard testimony from the niece and a number of other witnesses about the sexual abuse and about the parents’ relationship with their daughter. She testified that she thought she and the father were in a relationship and that the father said eventually they would reveal to others they would be a couple. The niece ended the relationship with the father when she was fifteen and avoided him. She testified as to her substance abuse and mental health issues, but said she was clean now.
The evaluator testified that the father had threatened her with retribution, including trying to get her professional license taken if she made unfavorable recommendations. The daughter had told the evaluator that the father told the daughter the mother would go to jail. The evaluator also testified regarding allegations that the father had sexually abused three minor boys, the sons of his fiancée. She recommended the mother be granted sole custody, both physical and legal, and that the father have supervised visitation only.
The mother testified that the father did not agree to send the daughter to therapy in spite of what had happened between them. She also testified as to concerns about whether the father’s parents were offering enough supervision. The daughter and the father would sometimes play video games in the basement out of sight of his parents.
The father called several witnesses who stated they didn’t believe the sexual abuse allegations and that the daughter and father had a close relationship. He also testified and denied the sexual abuse allegations.
The circuit court ruled that the allegations of sexual abuse were a material change in circumstances that required the court to look at the daughter’s best interests. The court found that the mother had some areas in which she needed improvement, such as going to therapy, but found that the daughter had done well in the mother’s custody and that the mother had done well shielding the daughter from the sexual abuse allegations. The court also referenced the father’s prior abuse to the mother. The court granted the mother sole legal custody and maintained the mother’s primary physical custody. Believing the niece’s testimony to be credible, the court awarded the father supervised visits every other Sunday.
The father appealed, arguing that the court had to assess the likelihood of future abuse after finding reasonable grounds to believe a party previously abused a child. The appellate court deferred to the court’s credibility findings and explained that the lower court may not grant custody or unsupervised visitation to a party who has previously abused a child unless the court finds there is no likelihood of further abuse.
The burden was on the father to prove that he would not abuse again. The appellate court found that the lower court had articulated enough facts to show why it concluded that abuse was likely to happen in the future. Specifically, the daughter’s age was the same as the niece’s age when the abuse began and the father had no insight into his behavior. The lower court’s ruling was not disturbed.
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