Court May Award Custody to Third Party Over Biological Parent When in Child’s Best Interest

Superior Court of Connecticut: Post-Judgment Divorce Action

In a post-judgment divorce action, the Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Fairfield, Juvenile Matters at Bridgeport granted sole guardianship of two minor children to their uncle after determining it would not be in their best interests to award custody to either biological parent.

Respondent mother and respondent father had two children, a son (older son) and daughter in 1992 and 1994, respectively. The parents divorced in 1998, and physical custody of the children transferred multiple times from the mother, who lived in Easton with her second husband, and the father, who lived in Stamford with his second wife. The wife and her new husband had a son (younger son) in 2004, and three years later, primary physical custody of the two older children was awarded to the mother.

The Case Details

The mother suffered from lethal, intractable alcohol addiction. In October 2001, she was in a car accident while under the influence, and her children were present and injured. The mother served a short prison term and was placed on probation. In January 2008, she was again arrested and charged with DUI, which prompted the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to file a neglect petition. In November 2008, the mother was hospitalized due to her alcoholism at Bridgeport Hospital, and at a court hearing entered a nolo plea to DCF’s petition. The mother retained custody of the children, but the court imposed a six-month protective supervision order that included “zero” tolerance for the mother’s consumption of alcohol. However, in January 2009, she was treated at the emergency room at Bridgeport Hospital, and a toxicology screen tested positive for alcohol. A few days later, Easton police were called out to the mother’s home for a domestic violence incident, and she was observed as intoxicated and charged by police. After this incident, the mother’s husband vacated the residence with the younger son, and DCF filed additional motions with the court.

After the mother went to the emergency room, the older son called his uncle, who lived in New York City, and asked that the uncle live with them so that the older son and daughter would not have to relocate and live with their father. The uncle agreed and presented himself as a resource for the children: he supervised their daily activities and provided emotional and financial support to the children. In light of pending foreclosure on the Easton residence, the uncle was willing to rent a home to keep the children in their school district. The uncle was also willing to have their guardianship transferred to him.

DCF Motion

DCF filed a motion seeking to transfer guardianship of the three children from the mother: the older son and daughter to the uncle, and the younger son to his biological father. At trial, the older son and daughter testified as to their wishes with respect to child custody. The older son had a very poor relationship with his father and characterized his stepmother’s feelings toward him as “hatred.” The father neglected the needs of the older son, and had very little contact verbally. The daughter had a better relationship with the father and stepmother, but did not want to be separated from the older son. In addition, she was thriving at her current high school academically and socially. Both children expressed the desire to stay with their mother and uncle. Finally, the younger son was happy, well cared for, and thriving in his environment.

When a court considers a motion to modify a disposition, it must consider what is in the present best interest of the child upon a fair preponderance of the evidence. One possible disposition available to a court is the vesting of a child’s custody in any person or persons found to be suitable and worthy by the court. The court will choose an environment that sustains the growth, development, well-being, and continuity and stability of the best interests of the child. However, under the law of neglect proceedings, the rights of a biological parent receive great deference, so in situations where a court is considering a parent and non-parent, the natural parent will presumptively receive greater favor.

The Case Outcome

In this case, the court found that in light of the mother’s history with alcohol and involvement in the criminal courts, modification of the prior disposition of protective supervision was in the best interests of each child. Sole guardianship of the younger son was transferred and vested in his biological father. As to the older son and daughter, the court found that the uncle’s actions demonstrated his relationship with the children to be akin to that of a parent. In addition, the court was concerned that removing the children from the stable support systems they enjoyed at school would be seriously detrimental to their well-being. The presumption of favor for their father was overcome in light of the difficulty and unhappiness the children would experience if they were forced to move and live with him. Therefore, the court found it proper to transfer sole guardianship to their uncle.

Whether advancing or defending a post-judgment motion to modify custody or visitation, a divorced parent is best served by consulting with an experienced family law practitioner. Should you have questions regarding matrimonial matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com, to schedule a free initial consultation.