In Maryland, the court may appoint a “best interest” attorney for a child in a family law proceeding. He or she makes independent assessments of what is in the child’s best interest and advocates for these assessments in court. Sometimes one or both of the parents dispute these assessments.
In a 2010 case involving a best interest attorney, a native of the Philippines answered an ad placed by a United States citizen seeking a wife. They did not speak each other’s language very well. However, they married in 1996 and had three daughters. The wife filed for absolute divorce or in the alternative limited divorce. The Master found that the wife hadn’t been allowed to have contact with her daughters after she left.
At a pendente lite hearing, the court ordered that the wife could have visitation, that the husband had to pay her alimony and that the children needed to be represented by what’s called a “best interest” attorney to be paid by the father. The husband filed a motion to amend the orders, arguing visitation was not in the best interest of the children and that the therapist had concerns. He also said that the mother lived with someone who had a criminal record. The mother filed a motion for order of contempt arguing that the father wasn’t complying with the order.
The wife explained that the person with a criminal record had lived with them while they were married and there weren’t allegations sufficient to modify custody. Nonetheless the father sought to modify visitation and that the best-interest attorney also did not find unsupervised visitation in the children’s best interests.
Eventually the parties went to trial for the divorce. It was revealed that the wife had no skills or assets. They had moved in with the man’s mother. When she left the home the wife claimed she had been physically and mentally abused by the husband over a long period, but only felt like she could leave once she was a permanent resident.
The husband claimed the wife could not meet the children’s needs because of her limited English-speaking skills and lack of education. He also alleged she abused the children. Meanwhile the wife claimed that the husband’s mother controlled the household and that was why she did not participate as much in her children’s upbringing.
The court found the children smart and capable in school and did not find persuasive evidence that the mother neglected or mistreated them. The therapist testified that the husband and his mother discouraged the children from participating appropriately with therapy. The children expressed that their mother was stupid for not knowing English. They also said that she should go back to her own country. The therapist believed they were being programmed to be cruel adults.
The father asked the court to interview the children. The best interests attorney and the mother, however, opposed having the children testify, arguing they lacked judgment and maturity and had been programmed to testify falsely.
The court interviewed them off the record. The kids claimed their mother “abused them” but then only evidence of it was that she hugged them when they didn’t want to be hugged. One claimed that if the Court required them to have unsupervised visitation they would run away and not follow the order. They had no empathy for their mother’s point of view. It was clear their father had coached them.
The father asked his mother to testify. She testified with a great deal of bias towards her son. She also appeared to be hiding his earnings, since she was his employer.
The trial court concluded that the parties needed to take steps towards reunification and that the children were in danger of psychological injury. The court awarded physical custody to the father, but ordered the parents to share legal custody. The best interests attorney was ordered to oversee the therapy of the children.
The father appealed the order on numerous grounds. Among other things, he argued that the trial court did not have the authority to delegate the issue of how long family reunification therapy would continue to the best interest attorney. The wife argued that the order gave the best interest attorney the authority to coordinate therapy already in place.
The appellate court reasoned that the trial court here had made determinations about custody and visitation itself. The trial court simply delegated authority as to the coordination of family reunification therapy. The appellate court disagreed with the father’s argument regarding the best interest attorney and on most issues upheld the lower court’s order.
If you are going through a contested divorce or dealing with custody issues, an experienced Maryland family law attorney can make a world of difference. Contact our office via the online form for a legal consultation.
Virtual Visitation in Maryland, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, September 27, 2013
Limited Divorce in Maryland, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, September 17, 2013