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Tag: child

Will Having a Child Will Possibly Save Your Marriage? By Braxton Mounteer, Legal Assistant

Have you ever heard that having a child will fix certain problems in marriage? That it will help bring a couple in a strained marriage closer together and thus fix, or facilitate fixing, the problems that you have in your relationship with your spouse?

Probably not, in my view.

But why? Wouldn’t it be safe to assume that the person you married would reorganize his/her priorities in order to love and support the new addition to your family?

I don’t think so.

I have never seen a baby magically fix relationship troubles. I have, however, seen already fragile relationships snap under the added weight of having a child.

The decision to have a child is something deeply personal on an individual and a relationship level. Each person has his/her own wants, desires, fears, and worries surrounding the birth of a child. Having a child also puts strain on a relationship from recovery after the birth to the reorganization of responsibilities in the relationship. Your relationship is fundamentally different once you have a child.

If your relationship is already as rocky as a cliffside coastline, the stress of having a child will likely do nothing but add to its difficulties. Your relationship problems existed before your child was born and will likely exist after that child’s birth. I won’t discount the exhilaration you and your spouse may feel at the prospect of a pregnancy and a future child’s birth. I’ll even concede that some people’s marital problems ease when they welcome a child into their family, but they are the exception, not the rule. If having children made marriages easier or stronger or more pleasant, a lot more children wouldn’t experience their parents’ divorce.

As a child of divorce, I can say with certainty that a child should not have to go through the emotional turmoil of his or her parents getting divorced before they even finish kindergarten.

And how do you think a child would feel if he or she learned that the reason that he/she exists was to be a band aid for a sinking ship? And if those parents later (or sooner) divorce, can you see how a child in that situation might also blame himself/herself for his/her parents’ divorce?

You don’t invite another passenger into a ship that is already sinking. An already weak marriage doesn’t need two sleep deprived, anxious people who aren’t ready to be parents (because they’re struggling at just being spouses at the moment).

Now just as having a child does not save a struggling marriage, circumstances are never ideal to start a family (though having children when you’re young is better than waiting until the biological clock has almost wound down). Don’t put off having children until your relationship is perfect—if you do that, you’ll never have children. Just don’t expect having a child to save a struggling marriage. It isn’t fair to your child, or you or your spouse.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Why Get it Straight From the Horse’s Mouth When You Can Get a Truncated Version, Second-Hand?

When a custody evaluator and/or private guardian ad litem is/are appointed in a divorce case in which custody and parent-time of the children is disputed, they usually interview the children who are the subject of the custody and parent-time dispute and then make observations and recommendations regarding what the custody and parent-time awards should be based in part on those interviews.

But they never record their interviews with the children.

Instead, every custody evaluator (except one) that I know and every PGAL that I know wants us to believe (as opposed to knowing, based upon an objectively verifiable recording) that 1) they did in fact speak with the children; 2) what the custody evaluators and PGALs report second-hand and in summary fashion accurately reflects what was (and was not) asked of the children and what the children said (and did not say) in response; and 3) that the custody evaluator’s and PGAL’s assessment of the children’s credibility (assuming–not knowing–that the child were interviewed in the first place and that what the children allegedly said is in fact what the children said) is correct.

Such a policy is incongruous with the way any other witness account is presented to a court.

Courts claim they need to know the child’s “intent [whatever that means in the context of a child custody dispute] and desires.”

Yet the court goes out of its way to ensure that what we get from custody evaluators and/or PGALs not just second-hand accounts of the child’s purported statements, but summary second-hand accounts of the child’s purported statements.

Then, on the basis of the purported, second-hand summary accounts, the non-witness PGAL “makes a recommendation regarding the best interest of the minor” by ostensibly “disclos[ing] the factors that form the basis of the recommendation” when the purported factors have–not necessarily, but by design, no less–no objectively verifiable basis in the child’s testimony (because there is no testimony). Such a “take my un-recorded, unverifiable, second-hand word for it” process elevates faith over fact, and needlessly.

Yet by way of the court interviewing the child directly and on the record (or by having the child deposed in a fitting, appropriate setting, of course), the court could easily obtain objectively verifiable knowledge of not only the child’s “intent and desires” stated in the child’s own words but in the same way also obtain knowledge of the child’s relevant experiences, observations, feelings, opinions, and anything else the court may want to learn that bears on the child custody and parent-time award decisions.

Everyone who tries to justify the policy against child testimony does so by claiming that there is no equal or superior alternative. Such claims are without merit.

I would be cruel and unreasonable if I did not concede that a child should not be questioned on and for the record if it were proved (as reflected in particularized findings, not generalized views or preferences) that that particular child likely will (not merely could) be harmed by testifying to the extent that the value of the testimony does not outweigh the harm. In such a situation barring that child from testifying would be warranted.

But when avoiding the subject altogether is worse for the child than confronting it, question the child on the record–for the child’s sake. For the sake of the truth- and fact-finding processes. It is cruel and unreasonable to silence the child that way.

Many children are not only willing to testify to the facts bearing upon the child custody and parent-time awards, they want to testify to them. Even when it may be unpleasant to address the topics. Regardless of how eager children may be to testify, they have the greatest stake in the child custody and parent-time awards. They deserve to be heard from, and in their own words. Who would (who could, credibly) gainsay that?

And the notion that a judge or commissioner interviewing a child, or a child being questioned in a deposition (and the child could be deposed by the PGAL, if there were sufficient facts to support a conclusion that the child is in danger of suffering verifiable serious, irreparable harm were the child questioned by the parents’ respective attorneys) would inherently cause a child unjustifiable harm is self-evidently false.

First, I have personal experience with children testifying for the record in child custody and parent-time proceedings without incident. I (and others who have the same experience actually deposing a child) know that it is not inherently harmful to every child who is old enough to testify competently.

Second, children regularly testify in proceedings substantively indistinguishable from divorce/parentage child custody and parent-time proceedings (e.g., contested child abuse, neglect, or dependency cases, contested petitions for termination of parental rights cases, contested adoption and guardianship cases). This is proof that child testimony–though it may be frightening or saddening for some children–is not universally catastrophic for all (even most) children who are old enough to testify competently.

Thus, the assertion that judges, domestic relations commissioners, and lawyers cannot competently question a child in a divorce-based child-custody and parent-time dispute unless they are “specially trained as PGALs (especially when the ‘special training’ can be obtained in a matter of a few days’ time)” is invalid on its face. If one need not be “specially trained” to question a child in contested child abuse, neglect, or dependency cases, contested petitions for termination of parental rights cases, contested adoption and guardianship cases, one need not be “specially trained” as a PGAL to question a child competently and with due sensitivity.

My biggest worry (among many) about the way custody evaluations and PGAL appointments work in Utah is when custody evaluators and PGALs–who can by recording child interviews easily provide the parents and the court with an objective way of verifying whether the children were interviewed, how well or poorly they were interviewed, what they were asked (and not asked) and what they said (or did not say) in response–refuse to do so.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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What happens in court if I file for divorce but my husband has an active case on me for child support? Will I get the child?

Whether you “get the child” (meaning whether you will be awarded physical custody of the child) has little to no relevance to the fact that your spouse is seeking child support from you.

My guess is, based upon the way you phrased your question, that 1) you and your husband are separated and were separated before you filed, or before you have contemplated filing, for divorce; 2) the children have been, on an informal basis (i.e., no court order) your spouse has been exercising sole or primary custody of the children for a while since the separation occurred; and 3) your spouse has applied for an administrative order or court order for child support without having filed for a divorce. Under such circumstances, what would weaken your case for awarding custody to you would be the fact that the children have been in the sole or primary custody of your spouse during separation (and thus, the argument would go, that is the way it should stay, if and when a court issues a decree of divorce), not that he/she has sought child support from you.

If the children have been in the sole or primary custody of your spouse since separation and this is not due to your spouse having concealed the children from you, having absconded with the children, or having otherwise not obtained and exercised this de facto sole/primary custody wrongfully, then it’s not the fact that your spouse is seeking child support from you that hurts your case for custody. What hurts your case for custody being awarded to you is the fact that your spouse stepped up to take care of the kids and you did not.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

Eric Johnson’s answer to What happens in court if I file for divorce but my husband has an active case on me for child support? Will I get the child? – Quora

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Why Do Utah Courts Not Allow Child Testimony?

I had lunch today with a former legal assistant of mine who is now a law student in Arizona. Over the summer he shadowed judges in Maricopa County during their family court rotations.

He told me that in Arizona the courts permit children over the age of 10 years to testify in child custody proceedings.

Are the Arizona courts administered by fools and sadists?

Or could it be that the Utah district courts’ near-universal aversion to any and all forms of on the record child testimony in child custody proceedings is a case of misplaced priorities?

Could it be that the way Utah courts use appointments of guardians ad litem and/or custody evaluators for the ostensible purpose of “speaking for” competent witness minor children

  • is a sophomoric euphemism for good old fashioned hearsay?
  • ironically results in silencing the most percipient witnesses (regarding issues in which they have the greatest stake)?

Could it be that GAL “reports” and “recommendations” that are based upon purported interviews with the minor child (when there is no objectively verifiable record of whether the interviews even took place, to say nothing of what was and was not asked and answered in the course of the alleged interview) are not fact or expert witness testimony (see State ex rel. A.D., ¶¶ 6 and 7, 6 P.3d 1137, 2000 UT App 216) and thus inherently not evidence?

Could it be that custody evaluator “expert testimony” and “recommendations” based upon purported interviews with the minor child (when there is no objectively verifiable record of whether the interviews even took place, to say nothing of what was and was not asked and answered in the course of the alleged interview) inherently can’t qualify as expert testimony (URE Rule 702 (Rules of Evidence))?

Special masters, parent coordinators, and the infantilization of parents

Special masters and parent coordinators (and co-parenting therapists, co-parent coaches/consultants, and their ilk) were invented for the purpose of unburdening courts from some of the conflict associated with domestic relations litigation. They fail to fulfill their purpose. They do not provide value for the money they charge. The parent(s) end up wasting money on a special master, parent coordinator, etc. while the disputes either persist or get worse (and sometimes it’s the involvement of the special master and parent coordinators who are to blame, either in full or in part). Besides, for most litigants a special master, parent coordinator, etc. is an expense they cannot (or should not) financially bear.

The idea that divorced parents need more than the laws currently on the books, the (lawful) orders in their divorce and child custody decrees, and the sensible use of law enforcement officers when warranted is to infantilize divorced and separated parents.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, anyone trying to sell you on a special master, parent coordinators, co-parenting therapist, co-parent coach, consultants, blah, blah, blah is either someone who offers such “services” and who is trying to sell them to you or a is a court trying to take the dispute out its lap and place it in someone else’s.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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I Am 14 and I Want to Live With My Dad. My Parents Have Shared Custody, but My Mom Wants to Keep Me Her Alone (And She’s Not a Good Person). How Do I Stay With My Father Full Time?

I will answer this question in the context of Utah law because I am licensed as an attorney and practice divorce and family law in the state of Utah.

For the typical child in your situation, i.e., one who wants to obtain a modified order from the court changes the award of child custody from one parent to another, there is precious little that the child can do to affect this kind of change.

In fairness, there are some good policy reasons for why this situation arises. For example:

  • Young children often have poor judgment and may not know whether residing primarily with the parent the children wants to reside is in the child’s best interest.

–   A 9-year-old child may say he/she wants to live with a particular parent not because that parent is a fit parent but just the opposite, i.e., doesn’t ensure the child completes homework, chores, doesn’t ensure the child practices good hygiene, feeds the child junk for meals, imposes no discipline, etc.

–   A tween-age or teen-age child may say he/she wants to live with a particular parent not because that parent is a fit parent but because that parent lets the child run wild, skip school, drink, smoke, take drugs, be sexually active, etc.

  • Many young children can be too easily manipulated and/or intimidated into saying that they want what they don’t really want by way of the custody and parent-time schedule.
  • Some feel that seeking the input of children on the subject of the child custody and parent-time awards “traumatizes” (this word is grossly overused in family law) children by placing them in a position where they must favor or choose one parent over another.

These are clearly factors worth carefully considering if and when a child objects to residing with a particular parent or objects to a particular custody or parent-time schedule. But too often courts invoke these factors as a reason to utterly silence and to completely ignore anything a child has to say on. Why?

Is it because all minor children are clearly unable to be taken seriously because of their status as minor children? Obviously not. While some children may be too young or too immature to have sound bases for, or to make sound arguments for, their custodial preferences, plenty of children are more than sufficiently intelligent and mature and responsible to be credible witnesses on their own behalf. And we’ll never know whether a child is a credible or an incredible witness if we don’t inquire with the child first. Courts reject the testimony of lying and incompetent witnesses all the time (as well they should), yet many courts reject a child’s testimony without giving the child a chance to speak on the grounds that they might lie, that they might be coached, and/or that they might be too stupid or naïve to be taken seriously. That’s no different than convicting a defendant without a fair trial because he “might be” guilty.

Is it because asking a child to express his/her opinions is inherently and irreparably harmful to all children, or even to most children? Obviously not. If a child tells his/her parents and the court, “Don’t ask me to talk about this,” then it may be that honoring that child’s wishes is best. By the same token, however, if a child tells his/her parents and the court something to the effect of:

  • “I have a greater stake in the child custody and parent-time awards than anyone else involved in this case.”
  • “I have experiences, observations, opinions, and desires that deserve to be considered before the court makes these decisions that will affect my life for years to come as a youth and throughout my life as an adult.”

So why do some (most, though not all) courts refuse to hear from children about their custodial preferences and the reasons for those preferences? Why do some courts muzzle the children from the outset? Why do they refuse to weigh the credibility and evidentiary value of what the children who want to be heard have to say? In my opinion, it’s laziness disguised as “prudence” and “compassion”.

So, what does a child who wants and deserves a change of custody do? This may sound radical, but it’s really not: get your own attorney to help you. That’s the legal way to do it. And it’s easier said than done. You’ll be excoriated and mocked for trying. You may even be threatened. Be prepared for all this. There are all kinds of extralegal “self-help” methods that are easier and cheap or free by comparison, but that has never been an excuse to break the rules (unless the rules are inherently unfair or administered unfairly). I encourage children in your situation to work through the system even when it’s organized and administered to work against you.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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In re M.S. – 2023 UT App 74

In re M.S. – 2023 UT App 74

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF M.S., A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

R.S. AND J.S.,

Appellants,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210657-CA

Filed July 6, 2023

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Spanish Fork Department

The Honorable F. Richards Smith

No. 1186449

Emily Adams, Sara Pfrommer, Freyja Johnson, and

Hannah Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellants

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and

John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

ORME, Judge:

¶1 R.S. (Mother) and J.S. (Father) (collectively, Parents) appeal the juvenile court’s award of temporary custody of their infant son, M.S. (Child), to the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) following a shelter hearing and the court’s later finding that Child was neglected. We hold that Parents’ first argument is moot but conclude that their second argument satisfies the collateral consequences exception to mootness. And because the juvenile court did not make the necessary findings of fact and conduct the required analysis of whether Parents’ medical decisions for Child were “reasonable and informed,” we reverse the court’s neglect adjudication.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2        Child was born on March 6, 2020, weighing 9.63 pounds. During her pregnancy, Mother had gestational diabetes—a condition which has been linked to increased birth weights. Therefore, while not off the charts, Child’s somewhat larger birth weight was likely caused by Mother’s gestational diabetes. Child was also born with elevated bilirubin levels and was prescribed photo light therapy for jaundice, which Parents administered for the next ten days. Hospital staff informed Mother that Child needed to be seen by a pediatrician three days following discharge from the hospital. Mother complied with the instruction and made an appointment to see a pediatrician (First Pediatrician) at a nearby clinic on March 9.

¶3        By the time of the appointment, Child had lost 12.5% of his birth weight, weighing in at 8.42 pounds. First Pediatrician found Child “to be in good health” overall, but he was concerned about Child’s elevated bilirubin levels and weight loss. Although weight loss is typically expected immediately after birth for infants whose mothers had gestational diabetes, First Pediatrician noted Child’s weight “to be more down than we usually would expect at that time.” First Pediatrician recommended a follow-up appointment “in the next day or two” to check on Child’s bilirubin levels and weight. No such follow-up appointment took place.

¶4        First Pediatrician saw Child again about two-and-a-half weeks later, on March 26. Father took Child to this appointment because Mother did not appreciate First Pediatrician’s “bedside manner” and she did not feel that he had been “very willing to listen to [her] concerns.” At this appointment, Child weighed in at 7.96 pounds, which according to First Pediatrician was a total weight loss of approximately 18% of Child’s original birth weight. First Pediatrician told Father that because Child had lost even more weight, he was concerned that Child was not getting sufficient nutrients from Mother’s breast milk—which was Child’s sole source of nourishment. First Pediatrician became even more concerned when he learned that Child had not had a bowel movement in three days. First Pediatrician explained that while exclusively breast-fed babies can sometimes “go a few days” without producing stool, this information combined with the weight loss caused him to further worry that Child’s nutritional needs were not being met.

¶5        First Pediatrician recommended that Mother pump so that they could quantify the amount of milk she was producing and that Child be given formula every few hours and be weighed each day so it could be determined whether “there was appropriate weight gain with a known specified amount of volume he was taking in.” Father expressed doubt whether this was something Mother would “go for” because they preferred to exclusively breast-feed Child, but he said he would discuss the recommendations with her. First Pediatrician wrote down his recommendations on a note for Father to give to Mother and said for her to contact him if she had any questions. He also tried to contact Mother both during and after the appointment but was unsuccessful.

¶6        First Pediatrician also emphasized the importance of a follow-up appointment the next day to check Child’s electrolyte levels and weight, which instruction he also included in his written note to Mother. At this point, First Pediatrician was “[v]ery concerned” about Child’s health and safety and noted in Child’s file, “If labs are not obtained and no visits happen, I will report to DCFS.”

¶7        Neither parent brought Child in for the labs and weight-check the following day. When First Pediatrician learned this, he called Mother to express his concerns. Mother stated that she was not aware of the missed appointment, that she was out of town, and that she would not be able to come in with Child that day. Mother informed First Pediatrician that she was feeding Child more often, but she was not giving him formula. She repeatedly thanked First Pediatrician for his recommendations and told him she would “take them under consideration.” At the end of the conversation, they both agreed that Mother should find another pediatrician for Child. Mother subsequently scheduled an appointment with another pediatrician for April 2 but did not relay this information to First Pediatrician. She also increased the frequency of Child’s breast-feedings to every two hours, and she immediately filled and began administering a medication for diaper rash First Pediatrician had prescribed during the March 26 appointment.

¶8        Following the phone conversation, First Pediatrician contacted DCFS and reported Parents’ apparent medical neglect and physical neglect of Child and Child’s failure to thrive. First Pediatrician later testified that even if he had known that Child had an appointment with another pediatrician set for April 2, his concerns would not have been eased. He explained that he had ordered labs on Child’s electrolyte levels because his “biggest concern” was that if Child became dehydrated, he would develop “elevated sodium levels in the blood . . . that could potentially cause a lot of health problems” such as lethargy, seizures, and neurological damage. First Pediatrician stated that “the problem with the elevated sodium is more of an urgent or emergent problem that could have been developing, and so it couldn’t have waited” until the April 2 appointment.

¶9        On March 30, a DCFS caseworker (Caseworker) followed up with First Pediatrician, who expressed his concern that Child was at risk of dehydration, which could lead to further health complications. Following the conversation, Caseworker had a difficult time locating and communicating with Parents. When Caseworker called one of the phone numbers provided to her, a man Caseworker believed to be Father answered. He was skeptical that Caseworker worked for DCFS, and the conversation proved unfruitful. After visiting multiple addresses on file for the family to no avail, Caseworker contacted law enforcement officers, who were able to locate Mother, Father, and Child in a motel by “pinging” their cellphone.

¶10      Caseworker arrived at the motel around 1:00 a.m. on April 1. Law enforcement was already at the motel and officers informed Caseworker that paramedics had already examined Child and had determined that Child was alert, breathing normally, had a strong heartbeat, and exhibited no obvious signs of dehydration. Because the examination revealed no concerns, the paramedics did not consider Child in need of further medical attention and returned him to Mother. The paramedics had left by the time Caseworker arrived, so she did not have an opportunity to speak with them.

¶11 The officers warned Caseworker that Father was very upset about her being there and that Father even instructed an officer to stand between him and Caseworker. During the hour-long conversation that ensued, Father refused to allow Caseworker to see Child and instead insisted that Child was “fine.” At one point, Father told Caseworker that he would allow her to see Child if she returned at 8:00 a.m. Caseworker was reluctant to do so because she was aware of a prior case in which Father had fled across state lines with two of his other children, and she worried that Child “would be gone” by 8:00 a.m. if she left. She also found it odd that she had located the family at a motel that was approximately 20 miles from their home.

¶12      Caseworker then requested a warrant for removal of Child. A judge approved the warrant, and Child was taken into DCFS custody in the wee hours of the morning. Caseworker then took Child to an emergency room. There, Child appeared to have gained a little weight, weighing in at 8.05 pounds, although Caseworker suggested the slight weight gain could have also been attributed to a wet diaper. According to the pediatrician (Second Pediatrician) who examined Child later that afternoon when he was brought in by the foster parents with whom Child had been placed, Child “was within the 11th percentile for weight, but his weight to length ratio was in the 3rd percentile,” which was troubling, especially given Child’s higher birth weight. Second Pediatrician stated that although Child was “generally well appearing,” he nonetheless “did appear dehydrated” and underweight. Child’s lab results revealed “abnormalities that were consistent with dehydration and possibly poor feeding,” including abnormal bilirubin levels and elevated liver enzymes (transaminases). Child’s initial lab results also “show[ed] evidence of hemolysis,” which is when the body destroys red blood cells quicker than it can produce them, so the hospital had the labs redone. The second round of labs revealed “normal potassium, but the transaminases still remained mildly elevated.” The lab report also included the following note: “I spoke with [the] pediatric hospitalist, and confirmed that these current findings are not worrisome in this current setting, and they recommended that the patient follow-up with [a] pediatrician in about a week for recheck.”

¶13      Second Pediatrician noted that Child needed to be closely monitored for kernicterus, which he explained “is when bilirubin levels get to a high enough point in the blood that they deposit into the brain, and can cause some brain damage, to use layman’s terms.” Second Pediatrician instructed Child’s foster parents to feed Child formula every “three to four hours” and to return in a couple of days.

¶14      At the follow-up appointment two days later, on April 3, Child had gained approximately 13 ounces,[2] weighing in at 8.88 pounds. At a second follow-up appointment three days later, on April 6, Child weighed 9.44 pounds, meaning he had gained approximately 9 more ounces. A week later, on April 13, Child weighed 10.08 pounds. Child continued to show weight gain in other subsequent exams. Based on this, Second Pediatrician testified that it was his “clinical impression” that Child had not been “receiving appropriate nutrition, and upon receiving appropriate nutrition [Child] returned to an expected weight.” He further explained that “inadequate nutrition can have devastating effects on someone so young” because “dehydration can lead to renal failure, and poor growth can affect development in all areas, physical and mental development.”

¶15 On April 1, the State petitioned for legal custody and guardianship of Child, alleging, in relevant part, neglect by Parents “in that [Child] lacks proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of the parents.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022).[3] The petition alleged, among other things, the following:

  • Child “had lost 18% body weight since birth and was at significant risk for seizures and brain damage,” but Parents refused to follow medical advice and supplement Mother’s breast milk with formula.
  • Parents had provided First Pediatrician’s office with an incorrect address, but with assistance from law enforcement, DCFS eventually located them and Child in a motel approximately 20 miles from their home.
  • Paramedics examined Child and determined that he “was not in distress,” but because the paramedics left prior to Caseworker’s arrival at the motel, DCFS “was not able to get additional information regarding the failure to thrive medical concerns, particularly a weight measurement.”
  • Father refused to allow Caseworker to see Child, and he was “hostile” toward her, even going so far as instructing a police officer to stand between them “so that [he] did not harm” her.
  • Father had several aliases and had “a history of parental kidnapping.”[4]
  • At the emergency room, it was noted that Child had gained a little weight but also that he had a significant diaper rash.

¶16 The juvenile court held a shelter hearing on April 3, which at Parents’ request was then continued until April 8. Following the continued hearing, the court “found that, based upon the medical records relating to [Child], removal was appropriate.” Specifically, the court found that “[t]he medical records indicate that [Child] was underweight,” that Child’s “lab values continued to show that transaminases still remained mildly elevated, and that the bilirubin is also mildly elevated.” The court was also “concerned about the medical evidence of malnutrition presented by the State.”

¶17      A few weeks later, on April 30, Parents filed an Emergency Motion to Return Custody and Dismiss Petition, in which they argued, among other things, that it was common for infants born from mothers with gestational diabetes to lose more than 10% of their birth weight in their first week. They also emphasized the benefits of breast-feeding and asserted that Child had repeatedly been examined following removal and had been found to be healthy. They also submitted a letter from their latest pediatrician (Third Pediatrician), who had originally been scheduled to see Child on April 2. Although Third Pediatrician had not examined Child, he reviewed Child’s medical records and concluded that “while the concerns of [First Pediatrician] were valid, he failed to convey this concern properly to the parents and their wishes were not taken into consideration” and that the April 1 lab results did not reveal “signs of nutritional deficiency or compromise.”

¶18 Some three weeks later, Parents filed an Order to Show Cause and Motion for Order seeking sanctions against DCFS for violating their right to seek a second medical opinion prior to removal. At a subsequent hearing, the State explained that it never opposed a second medical opinion but that Parents had never properly requested one under the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure or the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Parents withdrew their motion for sanctions and Order to Show Cause and moved for Third Pediatrician to examine Child. At a subsequent hearing, Mother reported that Third Pediatrician had examined Child and concluded “there are no safety concerns in this case.” And in September 2020, the juvenile court placed Child in a trial home placement with Parents.

¶19 Following a multi-day trial in January 2021, the juvenile court found the State had proved the allegations in its petition by clear and convincing evidence and adjudicated Child neglected on the ground that Child lacked “proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of” Parents. The court did not find that Parents abused Child. The court found First Pediatrician’s and Second Pediatrician’s testimonies to be persuasive and stated “that the cursory physical examination by paramedics could not have identified” the “very real and very serious” medical issues that were later identified at the hospital.

¶20 The court next determined that Child’s removal from Parents’ home following the shelter hearing “was appropriate and necessary and in [Child’s] best interest.” But the court also found that the circumstances giving rise to Child’s removal, i.e., Child’s failure to thrive, were “largely resolved” and that Child’s trial home placement with Parents that had begun some six months earlier had “not revealed any child safety concerns.” Accordingly, the court terminated its jurisdiction in the case and returned custody of Child to Parents.

¶21      Parents appeal. Obviously, they do not appeal the decision that Child be returned to them. But they challenge prior rulings of the court.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶22 Parents raise two issues on appeal. First, they argue that “the juvenile court erred as a matter of law by awarding custody of Child to the State at the shelter hearing without giving [them] a reasonable time to obtain a second medical opinion.” But because this issue is moot, as explained in Part I.A. below, we lack judicial power to address it. See Transportation All. Bank v. International Confections Co., 2017 UT 55, ¶ 14, 423 P.3d 1171 (“The mootness doctrine is not a simple matter of judicial convenience or an ascetic act of discretion. It is a constitutional principle limiting our exercise of judicial power under article VIII of the Utah Constitution.”) (quotation simplified); Utah Transit Auth. v. Local 382 of Amalgamated Transit Union, 2012 UT 75, ¶ 12, 289 P.3d 582 (“[B]ecause it is moot, we lack the power to address the underlying merits or issue what would amount to an advisory opinion.”).

¶23 Second, Parents argue that the “court improperly adjudicated Child as neglected.” Specifically, they assert that (a) the court “did not consider the full statutory definition of neglect,” (b) the court’s findings “did not support its ultimate decision that Child was neglected,” and (c) “the neglect adjudication was against the clear weight of the evidence.” “We apply differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 58. “We afford the [juvenile court] no deference on questions of law, reviewing issues de novo, and the most deference on questions of fact, reviewing only for clear error.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 23, 523 P.3d 168. The level of deference afforded to mixed questions of law and fact, however, depends on whether they are more “law-like” or “fact-like,” with the former being subject to de novo review while the latter are subject to deferential review. See In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 18. A juvenile court’s neglect adjudication falls within the former category because, “[o]nce the facts have been established, the juvenile court is limited to determining whether the statutory criteria for neglect have been met,” which “is primarily a law-like endeavor.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 28. Accordingly, we review the court’s ultimate adjudication of neglect for correctness.

ANALYSIS

  1. Mootness

¶24 Before we proceed to address the merits of Parents’ arguments, we must first address the contention of the guardian ad litem (the GAL) that this appeal is moot. See Ramos v. Cobblestone Centre, 2020 UT 55, ¶ 22, 472 P.3d 910 (stating that “mootness is a threshold determination” that appellate courts must make before reaching the merits of an appeal). “The defining feature of a moot controversy is the lack of capacity for the court to order a remedy that will have a meaningful impact on the practical positions of the parties.” Utah Transit Auth. v. Local 382 of Amalgamated Transit Union, 2012 UT 75, ¶ 24, 289 P.3d 582. “When a case is moot in this sense, the parties’ interest in its resolution is purely academic.” Id. See Transportation All. Bank v. International Confections Co., 2017 UT 55, ¶ 15, 423 P.3d 1171 (“A case may be mooted on appeal if the relief requested is rendered impossible or of no legal effect.”) (quotation simplified).

¶25 The GAL argues that both issues Parents raise on appeal are moot. We agree that Parents’ argument related to Child’s removal following the shelter hearing is moot and does not satisfy a mootness exception, and we therefore do not reach the merits of that argument. But because we conclude Parents’ arguments related to the juvenile court’s adjudication that Child was neglected satisfies the collateral consequences exception to mootness, we address the merits of those arguments in Part II.

  1. Child’s Removal

¶26      The GAL argues that Parents’ challenge to Child’s removal from their care following the shelter hearing is moot because “they now enjoy full custody of Child.” Although Parents concede that “appellate review would not affect the rights of the parties because the shelter hearing ruling was an interim ruling that is no longer operative,” thereby rendering the issue technically moot, they nonetheless assert that “the issue qualifies under the exception to the mootness doctrine.”

¶27 Under the mootness exception, “we will decide a moot issue when a litigant can demonstrate that the issue will (1) affect the public interest, (2) be likely to recur, and (3) because of the brief time that any one litigant is affected, be likely to evade review.” Widdison v. State, 2021 UT 12, ¶ 14, 489 P.3d 158 (quotation simplified). Even assuming, without deciding, that the first and third elements are met, Parents have not carried their burden of persuasion on the second element. Accordingly, this issue does not satisfy the mootness exception.

¶28      Under the second element, “[a] party must convince us that the issue will arise again.” Id. ¶ 17. “Under settled case law, a mere physical or theoretical possibility of recurrence is insufficient” to satisfy this element. Id. (quotation simplified). Rather, “there must be a reasonable expectation or a demonstrated probability that the same controversy will recur.” Utah Transit Auth., 2012 UT 75, ¶ 36 (quotation simplified).

¶29 Parents’ argument on this element is limited to the assertion that at shelter hearings, “whenever the basis for removal is an allegation of medical neglect, the issue will again arise as to whether the juvenile court can remove the child without permitting the parents reasonable time to seek a second medical opinion.” But Parents’ argument is more intricate than the mere question of whether they were entitled to seek a second medical opinion prior to Child’s removal from their care. Indeed, Utah law is clear that parents facing removal of their child for medical neglect are generally entitled to a reasonable time to obtain such an opinion. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-304(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (“In cases of alleged medical neglect where [DCFS] seeks protective custody, temporary custody, or custody of the child based on the report or testimony of a physician, a parent or guardian shall have a reasonable amount of time, as determined by the juvenile court, to obtain a second medical opinion from another physician of the parent’s or guardian’s choosing who has expertise in the applicable field.”). See also id. § 80-3-304(3) (“If the second medical opinion results in a different diagnosis or treatment recommendation from that of the opinion of the physician [DCFS] used, the juvenile court shall give deference to the second medical opinion as long as that opinion is reasonable and informed and is consistent with treatment that is regularly prescribed by medical experts in the applicable field.”). What Parents’ argument on this issue boils down to, however, is whether, under the facts of this case, Child was facing “an imminent risk of death or a deteriorating condition of [his] health,” see id. § 80-3-304(2),[5] or “an immediate threat of death or serious and irreparable harm,” see id. § 80-3-304(4),[6] thereby depriving Parents of what would otherwise be their statutory right to seek a second medical opinion prior to Child’s removal, see id. § 80-3-304(1)–(2).

¶30      Because Parents’ argument on the “likely to recur” element of the mootness exception does not directly address the intricacies of the issue they raise on appeal, they have not carried their burden of persuasion on this element. See Allen v. Friel, 2008 UT 56, ¶ 9, 194 P.3d 903. Accordingly, this issue is not exempted from the mootness doctrine, and we lack judicial power to address it further.

  1. Neglect Adjudication

¶31 The GAL next asserts that because the juvenile court terminated its jurisdiction and returned Child to Parents’ custody, Child no longer has the status of “neglected” and Parents’ challenge to the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication is therefore moot. Parents and the State oppose this suggestion of mootness. Specifically, although the State agrees that “this appeal may be technically moot because the child has been returned to the Parents and court jurisdiction terminated,” it concedes that the issue satisfies the collateral consequences exception to mootness. This argument is likewise adopted by Parents in their reply brief.[7]

¶32 “Generally, once mootness has been demonstrated, the party seeking to survive dismissal bears the burden of demonstrating that collateral legal consequences will flow from the challenged issue.” In re J.S., 2017 UT App 5, ¶ 11, 391 P.3d 358 (quotation simplified). Our approach to applying the collateral consequences exception differs depending on whether the collateral consequences are presumed or not. “When collateral legal consequences are presumed, the case isn’t moot unless it can be shown that no adverse collateral consequences will result.” State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 14, 417 P.3d 592 (quotation simplified). Conversely, “[w]hen collateral legal consequences aren’t presumed, a case is moot unless the party opposing mootness can establish actual collateral legal consequences.” Id. We conclude that Parents’ argument satisfies the former of these two approaches.

¶33 While “we presume collateral legal consequences follow criminal convictions,” id. ¶ 17, the presumption may arise in other contexts when the collateral consequences are “sufficient to mandate the same undeniable conclusion as criminal convictions, i.e., the existence of a collateral legal consequence is virtually inescapable,”[8] id. ¶ 18. See id. (“We will only presume collateral legal consequences when the challenged action carries extensive collateral consequences imposed by law.”); id. ¶ 24 (“Presumed collateral legal consequences aren’t inherently limited to the realm of criminal convictions.”). This presumption “does not come lightly.” Id. ¶ 18. Indeed, the presumption in the criminal conviction context exists only because “the law mandates numerous legal consequences follow a criminal conviction to such an extent that the existence of at least one collateral legal consequence for an individual defendant is effectively inevitable.”[9] Id. ¶ 17. Thus, in the non-conviction context, the presumption likewise requires a demonstration of “numerous consequences imposed by law that would command the conclusion that some collateral legal consequence is inevitable for every” similarly situated party. Id. ¶ 32. Such consequences must be “statutorily mandated and cannot be avoided by conforming with the law.” Id. ¶ 31. See id. ¶¶ 29–30.

¶34      Parents and the State both argue that the juvenile court’s “finding of neglect remains significant and important notwithstanding the fact that the juvenile court has now terminated jurisdiction over this family.” Specifically, they assert that “a finding of neglect does provide a statutory basis for termination of parental rights were Parents to again find themselves before the juvenile court.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1)(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (listing “that the parent has neglected or abused the child” as a legal ground for which a parent’s rights may be terminated); In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 28–30 & n.3, 463 P.3d 66 (stating that a prior adjudication of abuse or neglect, regardless of whether the “parent has improved herself since,” satisfies the statutory ground for parental termination, leaving the juvenile court to decide only whether termination is in the best interest of the child). The State additionally asserts that the neglect adjudication “precludes Parents from challenging their substantiated finding of neglect on the DCFS Management Information System child abuse database,” see Utah Code Ann. § 80-2-707(7)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (“[A]n alleged perpetrator may not make a request . . . to challenge a supported finding if a court of competent jurisdiction entered a finding, in a proceeding in which the alleged perpetrator was a party, that the alleged perpetrator is substantially responsible for the abuse, neglect, or dependency that is the subject of the supported finding.”), which will have “implications for any future investigations of child abuse/neglect regarding the Parents, as well as affect[] things such as the Parents’ ability to serve as foster parents in the future.” We agree and conclude that this satisfies the presumed collateral consequences approach.

¶35 In State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, 417 P.3d 592, our Supreme Court held that revocation of probation did not warrant presumed collateral consequences (or amount to actual collateral consequences, for that matter). See id. ¶¶ 25, 32, 38. The appellant in that case argued that probation revocation could be used as a “prior history in future contact with the legal system,” could be used “as an aggravating factor in the sentencing recommendation matrix,” could be a basis for the State to refuse “plea offers or offers of probation,” and would render him ineligible “for a reduction of the degree of his or her first offense under Utah Code section 76-3-402.” Id. ¶ 28 (quotation simplified). The Court rejected these arguments, holding that the first three arguments simply amounted to the allegation that “certain non-statutory consequences may occur,” and that “these types of discretionary decisions are not governed by the mere presence or absence of a recorded violation of probation.” Id. ¶ 29 (quotation simplified). Additionally, the Court stated that “the first three potential collateral legal consequences are contingent upon [the appellant] again violating state law,” and that he is “able—and indeed required by law—to prevent such a possibility from occurring.” Id. ¶ 30 (quotation simplified). And concerning the fourth argument regarding “the potential of a 402 reduction,” the Court stated that because it was discretionary, the reduction was “at most, highly speculative and nothing more than a mere possibility.” Id. ¶ 31.

¶36 Our Supreme Court also distinguished its prior opinion in In re Giles, 657 P.2d 285 (Utah 1982), in which it “concluded that an appeal of a civil commitment was not moot because there were ‘collateral consequences that may be imposed upon appellant that might arise were he to face future confrontations with the legal system,’” Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 29 n.4 (quoting In re Giles, 657 P.2d at 287) (quotation otherwise simplified). The Court stated that individuals subject to civil commitments “face similar deprivations of liberty as criminals” and that “unlike the use of previous commitment in future commitment hearings, a defendant is able to completely avoid the use of a probation revocation in a future sentencing decision by not committing a future violation of law.”[10] Id. (quotation simplified). Adjudications of neglect by a juvenile court are on much the same footing.

¶37      As an initial matter, “[a] parent’s right to raise his or her child is one of the most precious rights any person enjoys, and is among the fundamental rights clearly protected by our federal and state constitutions.” In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 9, 436 P.3d 206, aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (“Under both the United States Constitution and the constitution of this state, a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child. For this reason, the termination of family ties by the state may only be done for compelling reasons.”). Accordingly, although taking a different form than that in the criminal-conviction context, parents nonetheless face “deprivations of liberty” as a result of neglect adjudications, which include collateral consequences in possible “future confrontations with the legal system.” See Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 29 n.4 (quotation simplified).

¶38      Unlike the arguments made by the appellant in Legg, the consequences that Parents would be subject to as a result of the neglect adjudication are imposed by law and are not discretionary. Under Utah law, the prior adjudication of neglect is a sufficient ground for termination of parental rights. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1)(b); In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 28–30. Although it would satisfy only one of the two elements required for termination of parental rights,[11] see Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301, that first element plays a critical role in the protection of parental rights, see In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 14 (“Termination of parental rights solely on the basis of the child’s best interest and without any finding of parental unfitness, abandonment, or substantial neglect, violates the parent’s constitutional liberty rights.”) (quotation simplified). Additionally, a finding of neglect carries various consequences because the adjudication remains on the DCFS Management Information System child abuse database. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-2-707(7)(a). As the State explains, this will at the very least preclude Parents from acting as foster parents and will affect any possible future investigations conducted by DCFS.

¶39 Finally, unlike in Legg where the appellant’s arguments were contingent on the appellant again violating the law, see 2018 UT 12, ¶ 30, such is not the case here. Under the parental rights termination test, based on the prior adjudication of neglect, a parent’s rights could conceivably be terminated without the parent subsequently satisfying a statutory ground for termination, so long as termination is in the child’s best interest. See In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 28–30 & n.3.

¶40 For these reasons, we hold that Parents’ challenge to the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication satisfies the collateral consequences exception to the mootness doctrine. We accordingly proceed to address the merits of their argument, even though the issue is technically moot.

  1. Merits of the Neglect Adjudication

¶41 In challenging the juvenile court’s adjudication of Child as neglected, Parents argue that the court committed a threshold legal error when it “failed to conduct the requisite legal analysis into whether Parents’ conduct involved a reasonable and informed health care decision.” We agree with Parents in this regard.

¶42 The juvenile court adjudicated Child neglected on the ground that Child lacked “proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of” Parents. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). But the Utah Code specifically exempts from its definition of neglect “a health care decision made for a child by the child’s parent or guardian, unless the state or other party to a proceeding shows, by clear and convincing evidence, that the health care decision is not reasonable and informed.” Id. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(ii).[12]

¶43 In determining whether a parent acted reasonably regarding a child’s healthcare, “the pivotal question is what action by the parent was proper under the circumstances.” In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, ¶ 15, 995 P.2d 1.[13] This standard “is flexible and depends on the actual circumstances involved,” id. ¶ 17, “includes a full range of conduct on the part of parents and guardians,” and “does not require extraordinary caution or exceptional skill,” id. ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). See id. ¶ 18 (“[P]erfection is not required[.]”). Rather, “similar to a reasonableness standard in torts,” “reasonable care is what an ordinary, prudent parent uses in similar situations.” Id. ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). Additionally, although this “standard may accommodate the cautious and the hesitant, . . . it cannot accommodate inaction in the face of an obvious cause for immediate concern.” Id. ¶ 21. See id. ¶ 16 (“[W]aiting even an hour when a child is suffering from an obvious and serious injury is ordinarily not reasonable and could support a determination of medical neglect.”).

¶44 In addition to being reasonable, the parent’s health care decisions must be “informed.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(b) (ii). “Informed” is defined as “having information” or “based on possession of information.” Informed, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com /dictionary/infor med [https://perma.cc/S8NV-S8X7]See InformedDictionary.comhttps://www.dictionary.com/browse/informed [https://perma.cc/ TN64-KHLB] (defining “informed” as “having or [being] prepared with information or knowledge; apprised”). Thus, parents must take the time to apprise themselves of the necessary information to allow them to make a considered health care decision for their child. Indeed, in cases of alleged medical neglect, absent “an immediate threat of death or serious and irreparable harm” to the child, if a parent obtains a second medical opinion that “results in a different diagnosis or treatment recommendation from that of the opinion of the physician [that DCFS] used,” that opinion is entitled to deference “as long as that opinion is reasonable and informed and is consistent with treatment that is regularly prescribed by medical experts in the applicable field.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-304(3)–(4) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022).

¶45 Here, at the adjudication hearing, the State argued that Parents’ actions “were not reasonable and informed under the circumstance” because they failed to appear for follow-up appointments to check Child’s weight and conduct additional lab tests. Parents countered, asserting that they “have a strong conviction against formula” and that based on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation, they believed that exclusively breast-feeding “is the healthiest way to provide for your child.” Indeed, the materials First Pediatrician gave Parents following the March 26, 2020 appointment state, “Breast milk is the best food for your baby.” Parents further asserted that they did follow medical advice by “treating the bilirubin levels with the light therapy,” treating Child’s diaper rash by administering prescribed medication, and treating Child’s weight loss by increasing the frequency of feedings and by making an appointment to see Third Pediatrician on April 2. Parents pointed to the fact that increased feedings (albeit with formula) were what Second Pediatrician instructed Child’s foster parents to do following his examination of Child. Accordingly, they asserted that although they “disagreed with” First Pediatrician concerning the use of formula, they “did not disregard” his medical recommendation to increase the frequency of Child’s feedings.

¶46 In finding Child was neglected by Parents, the juvenile court did not discuss whether the State had proven, by clear and convincing evidence, that Parents’ medical decisions for Child were not “reasonable and informed.” Instead, the court found that the State had proven the following facts by clear and convincing evidence:

  • By March 30, 2020, Child “had lost 18% body weight since birth and was at significant risk for seizures and brain damage.”
  • Paramedics who examined Child at the motel concluded that Child “was not in distress,” but this “cursory physical examination . . . could not have identified” the “very real and very serious” medical issues that were later identified at the hospital.
  • First Pediatrician “was very concerned about dehydration of” Child.
  • Parents “were advised by [First Pediatrician] of the very serious medical danger to [Child] and advised [Parents] to supplement the baby’s intake with formula.”
  • Parents “refused to follow the medical advice and bring the baby in for weight checks, lab draws, and treatment recommendations regarding [Mother’s] breastmilk supply, or follow the other medical advice given to” them.
  • When taken to the emergency room by DCFS, Child’s “weight had increased from the last time he was seen by” First Pediatrician.

The court also made findings regarding the difficulty Caseworker experienced in locating Child, Father’s aggressive and belligerent attitude toward Caseworker, Father’s use of aliases and “history of parental interference,” and Father’s “very strong, passionate feelings about Government interference or involvement in the lives of private citizens.”[14]

¶47 But despite the GAL’s assertions to the contrary, these facts, without more, are insufficient to establish that Parents’ medical decisions for Child were unreasonable, i.e., that Parents did not “exhibit appropriate concern for the infant’s needs given the observable evidence,” In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, ¶ 20 (quotation simplified), and whether their decisions were informed. Specifically, the court’s findings do not go to the reasonableness of Parents’ decision to increase feeding frequency without supplementing with formula in response to Child’s more-than-expected weight loss, whether Parents’ decision to forgo feeding Child formula under the circumstances was informed, or the reasonableness of Parents’ decision to wait until April 2 to have Child re-examined following the March 26 appointment with First Pediatrician in lieu of the follow-up appointment scheduled for the following day.

¶48      More importantly, even if the juvenile court did make the relevant findings, it did not undertake the necessary analysis of whether Parents’ medical decisions were reasonable, which is an ultimate determination that is left to the juvenile court—not an appellate court. Reasonableness determinations involve the application of law to facts, some of which, depending on the context, are entitled to deferential review and others of which are subject to de novo review. See Sawyer v. Department of Workforce Services, 2015 UT 33, ¶ 20, 345 P.3d 1253 (“[S]ome determinations of reasonableness should be reviewed de novo and others should not.”). The reasonable parent standard is “similar to a reasonableness standard in torts,” In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, ¶ 19, which “is determined by the fact-finder and subject only to deferential review,” Sawyer, 2015 UT 33, ¶ 21. This is because “the particular facts and circumstances of the [parent’s] conduct are likely to be so complex and varying that no rule adequately addressing the relevance of all these facts can be spelled out.” In re adoption of Baby B., 2012 UT 35, ¶ 43, 308 P.3d 382 (quotation simplified). Additionally, a juvenile court’s determination under the reasonable parent standard “would often be affected by [the court’s] observation of a competing witness’s appearance and demeanor on matters that cannot be adequately reflected in the record available to the appellate courts.” Id. (quotation simplified). Accordingly, absent the court’s analysis of whether Parents’ medical decisions satisfied the reasonable parent standard, the juvenile court’s adjudication of neglect in this case is unsustainable, and this court cannot undertake the analysis in the juvenile court’s stead even if it had made the requisite factual findings.

¶49 The State argues that Parents’ conduct was objectively unreasonable and the fact that Child did not suffer permanent harm is not determinative. We certainly agree with the latter portion of this argument, that is, “[a] parent should not benefit from the happenstance that her child’s condition did not worsen” as a result of her unreasonable medical decision. In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, ¶ 14. But for a healthcare decision to be objectively unreasonable, as was the case in In re N.K.C.,[15] the court needed to find that Child’s condition presented “an obvious cause for immediate concern.” Id. ¶ 21 (emphasis added). Although the juvenile court did find that Child’s examination at the hospital revealed “very real and very serious” medical issues, the court did not make a finding regarding whether they were issues that should have been obvious to Parents. To the contrary, the court acknowledged that the examination completed by responding paramedics earlier that night at the motel revealed that Child “was not in distress.” See id. ¶ 20 (stating that a parent is not expected “to make a diagnosis, only to exhibit appropriate concern for the infant’s needs given the observable evidence”) (emphasis added) (quotation otherwise simplified). Thus, Parents’ conduct at the time could not have been objectively unreasonable.

¶50 In sum, because the underlying conduct that should have been the focus of the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication was Parents’ medical decisions regarding Child, the court could not find neglect unless the State had met its burden of proving that those decisions were not “reasonable and informed.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(ii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). Because the court did not conduct the requisite analysis, its ruling contained legal errors, and we therefore reverse.

CONCLUSION

¶51 Because Parents’ argument regarding Child’s removal from their care following the shelter hearing is moot and not subject to a recognized exception to the mootness doctrine, we lack judicial power to address it. But we have power to address Parents’ challenge to the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication because that argument, while technically moot, satisfies the collateral consequences exception to mootness. And because the juvenile court did not make findings or conduct an analysis related to whether Parents’ medical decisions for Child were “reasonable and informed,” the court’s ruling contained critical legal errors, and we therefore reverse the court’s neglect adjudication.

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[1] “We recite the facts in the light most favorable to the juvenile court findings.” In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, n.1, 463 P.3d 66 (quotation simplified).

[2] Second Pediatrician testified that Child had gained around 6 ounces by the April 3 appointment, but medical records show that Child’s weight increased from 3.65 kg to 4.03 kg in the two-day interval, for a total weight gain of 0.38 kg, which is 13.40 ounces.

[3] At the time, the relevant provision appeared in section 78A-6-105 of the Utah Code. The provision has since, without any substantial change, been moved to section 80-1-102. Compare Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-105(36)(a)(ii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018), with id. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii) (Supp. 2022). We cite the current version of the annotated code for convenience.

[4] Specifically, the petition alleged that he took his then two- and four-year-old children out of state during his weekend parent-time and disappeared for eight months. Father and the children were finally located in Pennsylvania where they were observed outside in the winter cold, without coats. The petition further alleged that Father first refused to give responding police officers his name and eventually gave an alias. Once his true identity was discovered, Father was arrested, and the children were returned to their mother in Utah.

[5] The subsection, in its entirety, states,

Unless there is an imminent risk of death or a deteriorating condition of the child’s health, the child shall remain in the custody of the parent or guardian while the parent or guardian obtains a second medical opinion.

Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-304(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022).

[6] The subsection, in its entirety, states,

Subsections (1) through (3) do not apply to emergency treatment or care when the child faces an immediate threat of death or serious and irreparable harm and when there is insufficient time to safely allow the parent or guardian to provide alternative necessary care and treatment of the parent’s or guardian’s choosing.

Id. § 80-3-304(4).

[7] But unlike the State, Parents do not concede that the current appeal is technically moot. Rather, they argue that the appeal is not moot because the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication affects their parental rights. They support their assertion by adopting the State’s collateral consequences argument. That is, Parents do not assert that our resolution of this issue in their favor would have any current or practicable effect on their parental rights. Instead, they base their argument on a potential future event, asserting that their rights are affected because, as discussed in greater detail later in this opinion, “a neglect adjudication remains a statutory basis for terminating Parents’ rights going forward.” See In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 28–30, 463 P.3d 66 (“Once neglect has occurred, a juvenile court is entirely justified in making a finding that a parent ‘has neglected’ a child, even if that parent has improved herself since.”). But we are unpersuaded that even if Parents’ argument proves meritorious, any remedy we could order would “have a meaningful impact on the practical positions of the parties.” Utah Transit Auth. v. Local 382 of Amalgamated Transit Union, 2012 UT 75, ¶ 24, 289 P.3d 582. See State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 26, 417 P.3d 592 (“The question of mootness doesn’t turn on which collateral legal consequences the defendant will suffer, but on whether the requested judicial relief can affect the rights of the litigants.”) (quotation simplified).

[8] An example of a non-criminal context in which the collateral consequences presumption applies is that of civil commitments because “patients of mental hospitals face similar deprivations of liberty as criminals.” State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 29 n.4, 417 P.3d 592 (quotation simplified). See In re Giles, 657 P.2d 285, 286–87 (Utah 1982).

[9]Our Supreme Court has “recognized several collateral legal consequences that may result from a criminal conviction, such as the use of the conviction to impeach the petitioner’s character or as a factor in determining a sentence in a future trial, as well as the petitioner’s inability to vote, engage in certain businesses, or serve on a jury.” State v. Legg2018 UT 12, ¶ 22, 417 P.3d 592 (quotation simplified).

[10] Our Supreme Court also noted that, at the time, “being labeled ‘mentally incompetent’ carried collateral legal consequences comparable to criminal convictions,” such as restrictions on voting rights and the ability to serve on a jury, obtain a driver license, or obtain a firearm license. See Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 29 n.4.

[11] Parental rights may be terminated only if the following two elements are met: (1) “a trial court must find that one or more of the statutory grounds for termination are present” and (2) “a trial court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child.” In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 13, 436 P.3d 206 (quotation simplified), aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827.

[12] The Utah Code further exempts from its definition of neglect a parent’s exercise of his or her right to seek a second medical opinion when DCFS seeks to remove the child from the parent’s custody on allegations of medical neglect. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(iii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). See also id. § 80-3-304 (stating that, with certain limitations, parents have a right to seek a second medical opinion in cases of alleged medical neglect). Parents also argue that the juvenile court erred in failing to consider this provision as part of its adjudication ruling. Because we reverse on the ground that the court did not consider whether Parents’ medical decisions were “reasonable and informed,” we do not reach this question.

[13] In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, 995 P.2d 1, addressed the reasonable parent standard under the medical neglect statute then in effect, which required this court to determine whether a parent provided a child with “proper or necessary” medical care. See id. ¶ 8. The statute has since been rephrased and renumbered, without any substantive change that is relevant to the current appeal. Compare Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(iii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (defining “neglect” as “failure or refusal of a parent, guardian, or custodian to provide proper or necessary subsistence or medical care, or any other care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being”), with id. § 78-3a-103(1)(r)(i)(C) (Supp. 1999) (defining “neglected child” as “a minor . . . whose parent, guardian, or custodian fails or refuses to provide proper or necessary subsistence, education, or medical care, including surgery or psychiatric services when required, or any other care necessary for health, safety, morals, or well-being”). Although the juvenile court in the case before us did not adjudicate Child neglected under the medical neglect statute, it nevertheless was barred from finding neglect if the underlying conduct constituted a “reasonable and informed” healthcare decision. See id. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(ii) (Supp. 2022) (“‘Neglect’ does not include . . . a health care decision made for a child by the child’s parent or guardian, unless the state or other party to a proceeding shows, by clear and convincing evidence, that the health care decision is not reasonable and informed[.]”). Additionally, we see no reason why the reasonable parent standard that is applied to a determination of whether a parent provided “proper or necessary” medical care under the medical neglect statute should differ from the standard applied in determining whether a parent made a “reasonable” healthcare decision under the statute at issue in this case.

[14] The GAL makes much of Father’s contentious behavior, his history of parental interference, and the difficulty Caseworker experienced in locating Parents and Child. There is no question that these behaviors were not constructive and were not helpful to Parents’ cause. But these findings of fact do not go to the reasonableness of Parents’ medical decisions and are therefore largely irrelevant to the determination of whether their medical decisions were reasonable and informed.

[15] In In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, 995 P.2d 1, the father “vigorously shook” his one-month-old child. Id. ¶ 2. The child’s mother, who had been absent during the abuse, later “observed that the child was limp and lethargic” and that his “pupils were fixed.” Id. Instead of seeking immediate medical attention, the mother put the child to bed. Id. Later that night, after the child’s condition had not improved, the mother contacted the child’s pediatrician, who directed her to immediately take the child to the emergency room. Id. ¶ 3. The mother arrived with the child at the emergency room almost five hours after she initially discovered the child’s serious condition. Id. The juvenile court determined that the mother “neglected the child by failing to obtain timely medical care.” Id. ¶ 6 (quotation simplified). We affirmed, stating that under the reasonable-parent standard, the mother’s conduct, in light of the severe symptoms the child was exhibiting, was “well outside that which can reasonably be expected of a parent in that situation,” and therefore “the mother’s failure to summon immediate medical attention amounted to a failure to exercise the minimum degree of care expected of a reasonably prudent parent.” Id. ¶ 21.

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What Can I Legally Do if My Child’s Mother Refuses to Use Car Seat When Traveling With Our Little Child?

What can I legally do if my child’s mother picks up our child in an Uber without a car seat? She is 5 years old, about 50 lbs. She is also the custodial parent with full custody rights, so she feels she can do anything she wants. Can I call the cops?

I’m old enough to remember when it was not illegal to wear a seatbelt. I’m old enough to remember when it was not illegal to permit a child to ride in a car without a seatbelt. I remember when there were no laws that children under a certain weight or height must ride in car seats when riding in cars. Most jurisdictions now have laws that require children of a certain age, weight, or height be strapped into a car seat when riding in a car.

So, the first thing you will need to do is find out whether it is illegal for your ex-wife to have your five-year-old, 50 pound child ride in a car without a car seat. You’ve mentioned that your ex-wife will often have your child picked up by Uber (a ridesharing service), and so you will want to ensure that even if there are laws that require a child to ride in a car seat when writing in a car, there are no exceptions for ridesharing services, taxicabs, buses, etc.

If, after conducting your research, you learn that it is illegal for your ex-wife to have your child ride in a car or when using a ridesharing service without having the child strapped into a car seat, then you would be well within your rights to report this to the police. just because you could do this, however, does not mean that you should, at least without first notifying your ex-wife that what she is doing is illegal and places your child in danger, and that if she refuses to comply with the law you will then report her to the police and perhaps even take the matter up with the court to get an order that requires her to secure the child in a car seat when traveling by car under circumstances when the law requires a car seat be utilized.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/What-can-I-legally-do-if-my-childs-mother-picks-up-our-child-in-an-Uber-without-a-carseat-She-is-5-years-old-about-50-lbs-She-is-also-the-custodial-parent-with-full-custody-rights-so-she-feels-she-can-do-anything/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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State in Interest of P.J.R., 2023 UT App 27

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF P.J.R., A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

C.S.,

Appellant,

V.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220264-CA

Filed March 23, 2023

Sixth District Juvenile Court, Manti Department

The Honorable Brody L. Keisel

No. 1097003

Emily Adams, Freyja Johnson, and Caleb Proulx,
Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M.
Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and DAVID N.
MORTENSEN concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        C.S. (Mother) appeals an order terminating her parental rights regarding P.J.R. (Child). But Mother does not contest the juvenile court’s findings that there were grounds for termination and that termination was in Child’s best interest. Instead, Mother limits her appellate challenge to the court’s determination that the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) made reasonable efforts, during the course of the case, toward reunification of Mother and Child. Specifically, she claims that the court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard in arriving at its reasonable efforts determination and—alternatively—challenges the merits of that ultimate determination. We find Mother’s arguments unpersuasive, and therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2        In 2019, DCFS filed a petition seeking protective supervision of Mother’s five children, including Child. In the petition, DCFS alleged that Mother had abused and neglected Child, and specifically alleged (among other things) that, during an incident in the waiting room of a family counseling center, Mother “grabbed [Child] by the back-collar area of his shirt in such a manner that it restricted his ability to breathe and caused him to choke,” and then “shoved his face into the corner with force.” Even after Child “told Mother he was having difficulty breathing and that Mother was hurting him,” Mother “did not let up on his shirt or the forcing of his face into the corner.” At an ensuing shelter hearing, the juvenile court placed all five children in the temporary custody of DCFS.

¶3        Mother responded to the petition by admitting some of the State’s allegations and, with respect to the rest, neither admitting nor denying them; this response resulted in the court deeming the State’s allegations true. See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e) (“A respondent may answer by admitting or denying the specific allegations of the petition, or by declining to admit or deny the allegations. Allegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.”). On the basis of Mother’s responses, the court adjudicated Child as abused and neglected by Mother. Mother appealed that adjudication order, and this court affirmed it but remanded for additional proceedings on issues not material to this appeal. See In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 33, 473 P.3d 184.

¶4        Following adjudication, the court issued a disposition order in September 2019, setting the primary permanency goal as reunification and the concurrent permanency goal as adoption. In connection with setting reunification as the primary permanency goal, the court adopted a service plan—prepared with Mother’s input and cooperation—and found, “by clear and convincing evidence,” that fulfillment of the plan’s terms would “constitute reasonable efforts on the part of . . . DCFS to finalize the permanency goals,” including reunification. Among other things, the plan required DCFS to “follow up with [Child]’s therapist to monitor his progress in therapy,” to follow up with Mother’s therapist regarding her treatment, to promptly communicate with Mother, to “assess [Mother]’s increase in parenting skills during supervised parent-time,” and to ensure that Child’s living, academic, and health needs were being addressed.

¶5        As the case progressed, friction arose between Mother and the DCFS caseworker. As Mother showed at trial, the conflict became apparent at one supervised visit between Mother and her daughters; in a “heated interaction,” the caseworker cut the visit short after observing Mother say certain things to her daughters that the caseworker deemed inappropriate. On a later occasion, the caseworker sent a text message to the guardian ad litem lamenting the fact that Mother received visitation with one of her daughters at all, noting that “[t]hese kids have been the victims of severe physical and emotional abuse for years.” Eventually, Mother refused to communicate with the caseworker (other than by text message) without her attorney present. Even the State’s attorney noticed that the caseworker was having a hard time keeping her “emotions out of this case,” and admonished the caseworker to be more circumspect in her communication.

¶6        Mother also came to believe that the caseworker was interfering with family therapy during the course of the case. Under the service plan, family therapy involving Mother and Child was to begin when Mother’s and Child’s therapists both recommended it, and the caseworker was supposed to follow up with both therapists. In December 2019, the caseworker apparently told Mother that Child’s therapist did not recommend face-to-face visits when, in fact, the caseworker had not yet communicated with Child’s therapist. The first documented communication between the caseworker and Child’s therapist about family therapy was in June 2020, about nine months after the service plan was put in place. However, some evidence shows that the caseworker had “reached out to [Child]’s therapist regularly throughout the case,” and that as of May 2020, Child’s therapist did not “recommend family therapy with [Mother] at this time.” But when the caseworker was asked at trial whether she communicated with Child’s therapist prior to June 2020, she stated that she did not recall. When the caseworker did reach out to Child’s therapist inquiring about family therapy, the therapist responded that before family therapy would be recommended, Mother would need to take a parenting course, continue her own therapy, and “take[] accountability for her actions and . . . learn[] . . . to regulate her own emotions.”

¶7        Shortly thereafter, Mother complained that the caseworker might be attempting to influence the therapists away from holding family therapy, and the caseworker then told the therapists that the court had instructed her to tell them that they were to communicate with each other (rather than through the caseworker as an intermediary) about “whether family therapy with [Mother] and [Child] would be in [Child’s] best interest.” By this point, Child’s therapist had come to believe that family therapy was now appropriate, and expressed interest in beginning the process. The caseworker said she would follow up to see whether Mother and Child were making progress from the therapy, but—apparently in response to Mother’s request that DCFS “back off”—she stated that she would “not be a part of the scheduling process.”

¶8      In August 2020, the caseworker learned that criminal charges had been filed against Mother, and informed the therapists of this fact. Mother believes that the caseworker implied that the conduct in question had occurred recently, when it had actually occurred prior to removal of the children from Mother’s care. After the therapists learned of the charges, communication between them seemed to halt, and family therapy between Mother and Child never did take place.

¶9        During the reunification period, the court held periodic review hearings to assess Mother’s progress under the service plan; at some of these hearings, Mother voiced concerns about the fact that family therapy was not occurring, and on other occasions she expressed concerns about certain statements the caseworker was alleged to have made. But for the most part Mother was non­specific about what else DCFS could have done to improve its efforts; indeed, on at least one occasion, the court expressly asked Mother’s attorney if “there’s anything else . . . as far as services go . . . that could be provided by [DCFS],” or if there was “anything else that you think [DCFS] should be providing to help [Mother] complete the service plan,” and counsel responded that he did not “have any specific request of [the court] right now.” The most specific complaint Mother raised was in August 2020 when she filed a “motion to take evidence and make findings regarding reasonable efforts” in which she accused DCFS of “hostility” and “actively work[ing] against the reunification goal.”

¶10      But by the time this motion was filed, the court had already made—on several different occasions during the reunification period—specific findings that DCFS was making reasonable efforts toward accomplishing the stated permanency goals, including reunification. For instance, in November 2019, the court after a hearing found that “DCFS has provided and is providing reasonable efforts to finalize the permanency goals.” Several months later, the court made a similar finding, noting along the way that Mother’s attorney “could not articulate other efforts that DCFS should be making to further the permanency goals.” In August 2020, the court found that “DCFS has and continues to provide reasonable efforts to finalize the child/children’s permanency goals and to comply with its court ordered responsibilities.” And a few weeks after that, the court did so again, noting that “[n]o party suggested efforts/services that could be provided by DCFS which are not already being provided.” There is no record of Mother making any objection to any of these interim findings regarding reasonable efforts.

¶11      In November 2020, after fourteen months of reunification services and with a permanency hearing looming, the parties engaged in settlement negotiations and entered into a stipulation that resolved many of the issues in the case. The parties and counsel then appeared before the court to put the terms of their stipulation on the record. Following the hearing, counsel for the State prepared an order memorializing the events of that hearing, and circulated it to Mother’s counsel for review. Mother’s counsel did not object or otherwise comment on the proposed form of the order, and therefore the State submitted it to the court “as being stipulated to,” and the court entered it as an order of the court. That order recites that the parties stipulated that “DCFS or other agency/ies continue to make reasonable efforts to assist the family finalize the service plan and its permanency goals.” The order recites that the parties also stipulated that the court would “terminate reunification services” as to Child, and that “termination of those services” was in Child’s best interest. Based on this stipulation, the court changed Child’s primary permanency goal from reunification to adoption. Mother did not object to the terms of this order, either before or after its entry, and did not object to the change in permanency goal.

¶12      Thereafter, the State filed a petition seeking the termination of Mother’s parental rights regarding Child. Some months later, the parties again entered into negotiations and agreed to resolve some of the issues surrounding the State’s termination petition. In particular, Mother stipulated “to the Court finding that it is in Child’s best interests and strictly necessary for the Court to terminate her parental rights should the Court also find legal grounds for terminating her parental rights.” After entry of this stipulation, the court scheduled a two-day termination trial to consider whether grounds for termination existed and whether DCFS had made reasonable efforts toward reunification.

¶13 The trial took place in November 2021. When the parties and their attorneys appeared for the first day of trial, the State informed the court that it did not intend to call any witnesses in its case-in-chief and, instead, asked the court to “take judicial notice of all the filings in the . . . case.” Mother objected to the court taking judicial notice of such a large quantity of material, arguing that she would never be able to respond to everything in the docket and the court would not have time to review so many documents. Eventually, the State narrowed its request to all the “findings and orders specific to [Child],” and Mother did not object. The court then agreed to take judicial notice of all its interim findings and orders regarding Child. The State then asked the court to take judicial notice of the court-ordered child and family plan pertaining to Child, psychological evaluations of Mother and Child, and court reports pertaining to Child; Mother did not object to the court taking judicial notice of the plan, but did object to the court taking judicial notice of the evaluations and court reports. The court initially took the matter under advisement, but later decided to take judicial notice of the service plan as well as the court reports, reasoning that they had been explicitly incorporated into the court’s previous orders and findings. The reports showed efforts the caseworker made, such as visiting all involved parties, providing transportation for Child, inspecting foster parents’ and Mother’s living situations, communicating with therapists, gauging Mother’s progress, promptly communicating with Mother, and ensuring Child had proper educational, medical, and mental health care.

¶14 The State then made its opening statement, pointing out that the only two issues for trial were grounds for termination and reasonable efforts, and arguing that grounds had already been established through the juvenile court’s previous adjudication that this court affirmed. Regarding reasonable efforts, the State argued that, throughout the entire proceeding, the juvenile court had periodically and continuously found that DCFS had made reasonable efforts toward reunification. The State also asserted that, at the end of the reunification period, Mother had stipulated—as part of the November 2020 stipulation prior to the permanency hearing—that DCFS had made reasonable efforts. The State asserted that it had sufficiently proven its case regarding grounds and reasonable efforts through the judicially noticed documents, and it rested its case without calling any witnesses.

¶15 After the State rested, Mother made a “motion for judgment as a matter of law,” arguing that the court’s previous orders “cannot as a matter of law be relied upon for a finding of reasonable efforts in the context . . . of a termination of parental rights trial” and that these orders were only “interim orders” and “can be revisited.” Mother also suggested that she never actually stipulated to a finding of reasonable efforts, even though the court’s order—to which she had not objected—stated otherwise. The court took Mother’s motion under advisement, and did not ever make an explicit ruling on it, but implicitly denied it by eventually making a ruling on the merits in the State’s favor.

¶16      Mother then proceeded with her case-in-chief, in which she called the caseworker and her therapist in addition to presenting her own sworn testimony. The caseworker testified about the events described above, outlining the actions she took to facilitate reunification and discussing her disagreements with Mother. Mother’s therapist testified about her sessions with Mother and the progress Mother made through therapy. Mother testified about the events, described above, that caused her to believe that DCFS was not making reasonable efforts toward reunification.

¶17      At the conclusion of trial, the court took the matter under advisement. About three months later, the court issued an oral ruling,[1] concluding that there were grounds to terminate Mother’s parental rights, and that the State had demonstrated that DCFS had indeed made reasonable efforts to facilitate reunification. After announcing its ruling, the court instructed the State to prepare an order reflecting the court’s ruling. The State did so, and circulated the proposed order to Mother; within her time to object, Mother filed an objection taking issue with one small part of the order, but did not make any objection to the order’s treatment of the proper evidentiary standard.

¶18      Eventually, the court signed a version of the written order prepared by the State, finding “by clear and convincing evidence” that grounds for termination existed because “Child was previously adjudicated to be abused and neglected” in an order that had been affirmed on appeal.

¶19 The court also found—based on “the review hearings, court reports, and other evidence”—that DCFS had provided reasonable efforts toward reunification, although the court did not specify which standard of proof (e.g., clear and convincing evidence or preponderance of the evidence) it was applying with regard to this determination. Among other things, the court found that DCFS had taken action to (i) ensure that Child’s medical, dental, and mental health needs were met, (ii) visit Child at placements, (iii) supervise visits, (iv) review education records, (v) transport Child, (vi) communicate with Child’s therapist, (vii) “coordinate[] virtual parent-time,” (viii) communicate with Mother, and (ix) answer questions and arrange visits. The court also noted that it had, throughout the pendency of the case, “consistently found reasonable efforts on the part of DCFS” in its previous orders and findings. However, the court did not treat these orders and findings as dispositive, and went on to examine the rebuttal evidence offered by Mother, directly addressing her two main arguments: “personal friction between the Mother and [the caseworker], and the delay in starting family therapy with all of the children.” Regarding the friction, the court noted that “DCFS cases are almost always high stress situations and there are bound to be disagreements between DCFS and the parent whose rights are at risk.” And in this case, the court determined that “[t]he disagreements here were based on the DCFS caseworker’s frustration/stress at the lack of progress made by [Mother], which in some sense suggests the DCFS caseworker’s desire for [Mother] to progress and move forward toward reunification.” Regarding the delay in family therapy, the court noted that “DCFS regularly reported that they were following up with the therapist and that the strategy taken by the therapist was determined by the therapist, not DCFS,” and concluded that, “while there may not have been perfection in the case, . . . DCFS has acted reasonably in their efforts.”

¶20 Accordingly, the court entered an order terminating Mother’s rights as to Child.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶21 Mother now appeals from the court’s termination order, but her appeal is narrowly targeted. As noted, Mother did not contest best interest at trial, after stipulating that termination of her parental rights to Child would be in Child’s best interest. And here on appeal, Mother does not contest the court’s determination that grounds for termination existed. She does, however, challenge—in three different ways—the court’s determination that DCFS made reasonable efforts toward reunification.

¶22 Her first challenge concerns the evidentiary standard the juvenile court applied in making its reasonable efforts determination. She contends that the court should have, but did not, apply a “clear and convincing evidence” standard in making its reasonable efforts determination. “The applicable burden of proof for termination proceedings is a question of law we review for correctness.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 36, 491 P.3d 867.

¶23      Next, she challenges the merits of the court’s reasonable efforts determination, and this challenge has two parts. First, she contends that the court erred in denying her motion, made at the conclusion of the State’s case-in-chief, for “judgment as a matter of law.” In a bench trial, a motion for judgment as a matter of law’s “procedural counterpart,” Grossen v. DeWitt, 1999 UT App 167, ¶ 8, 982 P.2d 581, is a motion for involuntary dismissal, In re J.A., 2018 UT App 29, ¶ 26, 424 P.3d 913, cert. denied, 420 P.3d 704 (Utah 2018). Such a motion “should be granted when the trial judge finds that the claimant has failed to make out a prima facie case or when the trial judge is not persuaded by the evidence presented.” Accesslex Inst. v. Philpot, 2023 UT App 21, ¶ 33 (quotation simplified). “Whether a party has established a prima facie case is a question of law which we review for correctness.” In re M.L., 965 P.2d 551, 558 (Utah Ct. App. 1998).

¶24      Next, Mother challenges the court’s ultimate finding that DCFS made reasonable efforts toward reunification. “A court’s determination that DCFS made reasonable efforts to provide reunification services involves an application of statutory law to the facts that presents a mixed question of fact and law, requiring review of the juvenile court’s factual findings for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” In re N.K., 2020 UT App 26, ¶ 15, 461 P.3d 1116 (quotation simplified). “Because reasonableness determinations are fact-intensive, we afford the juvenile court broad discretion in determining whether reasonable reunification efforts were made.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 17, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified). “Absent a demonstration that the [reasonable efforts] determination was clearly in error, we will not disturb the determination.” In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 52, 201 P.3d 985 (quotation simplified). “A finding of fact is clearly erroneous only when, in light of the evidence supporting the finding, it is against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 23, 437 P.3d 640 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

¶25 We first address Mother’s contention that the juvenile court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard in making its reasonable efforts determination. After that, we address Mother’s challenges to the merits of the court’s determination. For the reasons that follow, we are unpersuaded by Mother’s arguments.

I. Evidentiary Standard

¶26      Mother’s first assertion is that the juvenile court needed to make its reasonable efforts determination by clear and convincing evidence—rather than by the lower preponderance of the evidence standard—and that it did not do so. The first part of Mother’s assertion is correct, but the second part is unsupported by the record in this case.

¶27      With regard to what the proper legal standard is, Mother’s position is correct: the juvenile court needed to apply the clear and convincing evidence standard in making its reasonable efforts determination. Neither the State nor the guardian ad litem takes issue, in this case, with Mother’s position regarding the proper legal standard. And this position is clearly supported by statutory mandate. In all cases in which reunification services are offered, the reasonable efforts determination is a necessary part of the termination inquiry—it is mandated by the statutes governing termination proceedings, see Utah Code § 80-4-301(3)(a) (stating that, “in any case in which the juvenile court has directed the division to provide reunification services to a parent, the juvenile court must find that the division made reasonable efforts to provide those services before” terminating parental rights)—and all facts in termination cases must be established by clear and convincing evidence, see id. § 80-4-103(2)(a) (commanding juvenile courts, in all termination cases, to “require the petitioner to establish the facts by clear and convincing evidence”); see also In re Castillo, 632 P.2d 855, 857 (Utah 1981) (stating that the presumption of parental rights “should be overcome only by clear and convincing evidence”); Utah R. Juv. P. 41(b) (discussing “[t]he burden of proof in matters brought before the juvenile court,” and stating that “cases involving the permanent deprivation of parental rights must be proved by clear and convincing evidence unless otherwise provided by law”).

¶28      But the other half of Mother’s contention—that the juvenile court applied a different standard to its reasonable efforts inquiry—is simply not borne out by the record. As an initial matter, examination of the court’s order indicates that it was generally applying the clear and convincing evidence standard in this termination case. With regard to its determination about grounds for termination, the court specified that it was using the higher evidentiary standard, stating that it “finds that DCFS has proven, by clear and convincing evidence,” that grounds for termination are present. And later in its order, it specified that it was making its legal conclusions regarding termination “by clear and convincing evidence.” Significantly, nowhere in its order did the court reference, even obliquely, any other evidentiary standard. Moreover, earlier in the case, in the court’s September 2019 order approving the service plan, the court had indicated its awareness of the correct evidentiary standard, finding at that point, “by clear and convincing evidence,” that fulfillment of the service plan would “constitute reasonable efforts on the part of [DCFS] to finalize the permanency goals.”

¶29 Mother points out, however, that—while the court, in its final order, specified that its grounds determination and its legal conclusions were being made by clear and convincing evidence— the court did not specifically indicate that it was making its reasonable efforts determination by clear and convincing evidence. As noted, it did not indicate the application of a different evidentiary standard; rather, the reasonable efforts section of the court’s final order was simply silent regarding which evidentiary standard was being applied. As Mother sees it, any uncertainty about which standard the court was applying should be held against the court; in particular, she asks us to infer from this uncertainty that the court was applying an evidentiary standard to that section of its analysis that was different from what it specifically applied to the other sections.

¶30      But this is not the way such inferences work. Uncertainty in the record “is not a basis for reversal.” State v. Hummel, 2017 UT 19, ¶ 82, 393 P.3d 314. Indeed, “[u]ncertainty counts against the appellant, who bears the burden of proof on appeal, and must overcome a presumption of regularity as to the record and decision in the trial court.” Id. “Thus, a lack of certainty in the record does not lead to a reversal and new trial; it leads to an affirmance on the ground that the appellant cannot carry [the] burden of proof.” Id.

¶31      We encountered a similar situation in Gerwe v. Gerwe, 2018

UT App 75, 424 P.3d 1113. In that case, a district court determined, after an evidentiary hearing, that a man had fraudulently induced his ex-wife into signing a postnuptial agreement. Id. ¶ 3. But in so doing, the court was silent regarding which evidentiary standard it was applying; it “did not expressly state that [the ex-wife] presented clear and convincing evidence of fraudulent inducement,” but “it never suggested that a lower standard of proof applied.” Id. ¶ 13. On that record, we rejected the appellant’s assertion of error, stating that a “reviewing court will not presume from a silent record that the court applied an incorrect legal standard but must presume the regularity and validity of the district court’s proceedings, and that it applied the correct legal standard, in the absence of evidence to the contrary.” Id. (quotation simplified). We concluded our analysis by stating that “[b]ecause nothing in the record suggests that the court applied something less than the clear and convincing standard, [the appellant] cannot establish error.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶32 So too here. Mother offers no evidence—aside from the uncertainty engendered by silence—that the juvenile court applied an evidentiary standard other than clear and convincing to its reasonable efforts determination. And as in Gerwe, this is not enough to satisfy Mother’s appellate burden, especially where the court—in two other places in the order—indicated that it was applying the clear and convincing standard.[2] On this basis, we reject Mother’s contention that the juvenile court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard.

II. Reasonable Efforts

¶33      Next, Mother challenges the merits of the juvenile court’s reasonable efforts determination, and this challenge has two parts. First, Mother asserts that the court erred in failing to grant the motion she made at the conclusion of the State’s case-in-chief. Second, she asserts that the court’s ultimate reasonable efforts determination was against the clear weight of the evidence. We address, and reject, each of these arguments, in turn.

A

¶34      At the end of the State’s witness-less case-in-chief, Mother made an oral motion for “judgment as a matter of law.” The court took the motion under advisement, but never issued an express ruling on it; the court implicitly denied the motion when it ruled in the State’s favor on the merits of the reasonable efforts question. Mother challenges the court’s implicit denial of that motion.

¶35      Although Mother referred to her motion as either a motion for summary judgment or a motion for judgment as a matter of law, in bench trials the proper reference is a motion for involuntary dismissal. See In re Trujillo, 2001 UT 38, ¶ 21 n.13, 24 P.3d 972 (stating that “a motion for a directed verdict contemplates only jury trials,” and “[i]n the context of a bench trial, the directed verdict’s procedural counterpart is a motion for involuntary dismissal”); accord Accesslex Inst. v. Philpot, 2023 UT App 21, ¶ 33. As already noted, the relevant question raised by such a motion—at least where the nonmovant bears the burden of proof on the issue at hand—is whether the nonmovant has, during its case-in-chief, made at least a prima facie case in support of its claim. See Accesslex Inst., 2023 UT App 21, ¶ 33 (stating that, where “the party making [the motion] is the party that does not bear the burden of proof,” the motion “should be granted when the trial judge finds that the claimant has failed to make out a prima facie case” (quotation simplified)). “A prima facie case has been made when evidence has been received at trial that, in the absence of contrary evidence, would entitle the party having the burden of proof to judgment as a matter of law.” In re J.A., 2018 UT App 29, ¶ 27, 424 P.3d 913 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 420 P.3d 704 (Utah 2018). Thus, we must consider whether the State—the nonmovant who bore the burden of proof—made out at least a prima facie case in support of its reasonable efforts claim during its case-in-chief.

¶36      Our supreme court has defined “reasonable efforts” as a “fair and serious attempt to reunify a parent with a child prior to seeking to terminate parental rights.” In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 51, 201 P.3d 985 (quotation simplified). Thus, in order to make a prima facie showing with regard to reasonable efforts, the State had to produce evidence that would—at least before consideration of any contrary evidence—show that DCFS had made a fair and serious effort to reunify Mother with Child during the reunification period. As noted, the State called no witnesses in its case-in-chief, choosing instead to rely entirely on documentary evidence that included the juvenile court’s previous interim orders and the court reports incorporated into those orders. But despite this unorthodox approach,[3] in our view the State did enough—on the facts of this particular case—to make at least a prima facie showing in support of its reasonable efforts claim.

¶37      The State’s evidence, such as it was, included the juvenile court’s interim orders, and those orders indicated that the court, in its ongoing supervisory role over the proceedings during the reunification period, had made multiple and repeated findings that DCFS had engaged in reasonable efforts to further the permanency goals, the primary one of which was reunification. The court never made a contrary finding, despite Mother having registered some dissatisfaction on this point at various stages of the case. Moreover, those interim orders incorporated the court reports, which included detailed accounts of the measures DCFS took to fulfill the requirements of the service plan, including visiting Child, providing transportation for Child, inspecting foster parents’ and Mother’s living situations, communicating with the therapists, gauging Mother’s progress on the service plan, communicating with Mother, and ensuring Child had proper educational, medical, and mental health care. Finally, at the end of the reunification period in November 2020, with a permanency hearing looming, Mother apparently stipulated that “DCFS or other agency/ies continue to make reasonable efforts to assist the family finalize the service plan and its permanency goals.” The use of the word “continue” in the stipulation could reasonably be taken to mean that Mother was acknowledging that, throughout the entirety of the reunification period up until the date of the stipulation, DCFS had made reasonable efforts to accomplish the permanency goals, including reunification. Thus, in this particular case, the State’s evidentiary presentation, despite its truncated and unorthodox nature, was sufficient to indicate— at least in the absence of Mother’s contrary evidence, which had yet to be presented—that DCFS had made a fair and serious effort to reunify Mother with Child.

¶38      We recognize that Mother was eventually able to point to at least some contrary evidence. For instance, Mother put on evidence about the ongoing friction between herself and the DCFS caseworker, and about the issues that came up regarding initiation of family therapy. In addition, Mother had some colorable arguments to make about the November 2020 stipulation, asserting that the parties’ actual agreement had not in fact included any stipulation about reasonable efforts and that, if any such stipulation had been reached, its scope was limited. But at the time the court was considering Mother’s motion for involuntary dismissal—at the close of the State’s case-in-chief— none of that evidence had been presented. And in assessing whether the State had made out a prima facie case regarding reasonable efforts, the court was not supposed to consider whatever contrary evidence Mother might eventually produce. The prima facie case inquiry is simply whether the State produced sufficient evidence, standing on its own and without considering any rebuttal, to support its claim. And on the facts of this unique case, we conclude that it did.

¶39 For these reasons, we discern no error in the juvenile court’s implicit denial of Mother’s motion for involuntary dismissal made at the conclusion of the State’s case-in-chief.

B

¶40 Finally, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s ultimate determination, made as factfinder after trial, that DCFS had made reasonable efforts to facilitate reunification. As noted already, we review this determination deferentially, giving “broad discretion” to the juvenile court “in determining whether reasonable reunification efforts were made.” See In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 52, 201 P.3d 985; see also In re A.C., 2004 UT App 255, ¶ 12, 97 P.3d 706 (stating that a juvenile court “is in the best position to evaluate the credibility and competence of those who testify regarding the services that were provided” and to assess the reasonable efforts question). See generally supra ¶ 24.

¶41      Here, the juvenile court listened to the testimony of Mother, the caseworker, and Mother’s therapist, and examined the dozens of exhibits submitted by the parties. This same court had previously been involved in all of the interim review hearings during the reunification period, during which the court assessed DCFS’s reasonable efforts throughout the case. In issuing its ultimate determination, the court took its previous orders into account, but correctly did not treat them as completely dispositive of the question; instead, it considered those orders as potentially persuasive evidence supporting the State’s position, but evaluated that evidence in the context of the rebuttal evidence Mother offered.[4]

¶42 Indeed, the court directly addressed both of Mother’s specific arguments: that the “personal friction” between Mother and the caseworker indicated that the caseworker did not make reasonable efforts, and that the caseworker caused delay in the start of family therapy. With regard to the friction, the court rather astutely noted that child welfare cases “are almost always high stress situations and there are bound to be disagreements between DCFS and the parent whose rights are at risk.” But the court, after reviewing the friction in the context of the entire case, concluded that the disagreements between Mother and the caseworker, while regrettable, did not rise to the level of indicating that the caseworker had failed to provide reasonable efforts. On this record, we cannot say that such a determination is “against the clear weight of the evidence.” See In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 23, 437 P.3d 640.

¶43      With regard to the delay in family therapy, the court noted that, under the service plan, family therapy was not to begin until both Mother’s and Child’s therapists recommended it, and the court was aware that responsibility for scheduling the therapy sessions, once both therapists were on board, was to be up to the therapists themselves. The court, after reviewing this issue in context, concluded that most of the blame for any delay in family therapy should not be laid at the feet of the caseworker, observing that “DCFS cannot, nor should they be required to hold the hand of every party involved to ensure that those parties are also making some efforts,” and ultimately determined that, “while there may not have been perfection in the case, . . . DCFS has acted reasonably in their efforts.” On this record, we cannot say that this determination is against the clear weight of the evidence either.

¶44 Accordingly, we discern no abuse of the juvenile court’s discretion in its ultimate determination, made as factfinder after trial, that DCFS provided reasonable efforts toward reunification.

CONCLUSION

¶45 Mother has not carried her appellate burden of demonstrating that the juvenile court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard to its reasonable efforts determination. And we reject Mother’s challenges to the merits of the court’s ultimate determination that DCFS provided reasonable efforts toward reunifying Mother with Child during the reunification period.

¶46 Affirmed.

 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

[1] A transcript of the court’s oral ruling was not included in the record submitted to us.

[2] Moreover, Mother had an opportunity to bring this issue to the court’s attention prior to entry of the order. Recall that the court issued an oral ruling, which was then memorialized by the State into a written order and circulated to Mother for her input. Mother filed a limited, targeted objection to one point in the draft order, but—notably—did not raise any objection to the court’s discussion of the evidentiary standard it was applying to its determinations. Any lack of clarity about the standard being applied could easily have been remedied at that stage. See Jensen v. Skypark Landowners Ass’n, 2013 UT App 48, ¶ 6 n.4, 299 P.3d 609 (per curiam) (stating that a party who made “no objection to the form of the order” could not complain, for the first time on appeal, that the order was “vague and ambiguous”), cert. denied, 308 P.3d 536 (Utah 2013); cf. In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 63, 201 P.3d 985 (stating that “[j]udicial economy would be disserved” by permitting an appellant to bring, “for the first time on appeal,” a challenge regarding the adequacy of the court’s findings, because such errors are “easy for a trial judge to correct” and are “best corrected when the judge’s findings are fresh in the judge’s mind,” and because “the only likely remedy is merely a remand to the trial court for more detailed findings”).

[3] It would not have been difficult for the State to call at least one critical live witness—the DCFS caseworker—in support of its reasonable efforts claim. The caseworker was available that day to testify, and indeed did testify when she was called to do so by Mother. We do not go very far out onto the proverbial limb by stating that, in most cases, it would be preferable (and, indeed, advisable) for the State, in reasonable efforts cases, to do more than simply rely on previous interim court orders, and we hope that our decision to affirm the juvenile court in this case does not encourage the State to present similarly truncated cases-in-chief in future reasonable efforts cases.

[4] Considering such orders, as well as Mother’s failure to formally object to them, as potentially persuasive but nondispositive evidence appears consistent with previous decisions by this court in reasonable efforts cases. See In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 31, 437 P.3d 640 (“Father also ignores the several times in the record in which the juvenile court made an unchallenged periodic finding—before its termination order—that DCFS had made reasonable efforts to provide him with reunification services.”); see also In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 21, 521 P.3d 887 (noting that, “[a]t no point did Mother object to the court’s findings or indicate that she needed additional or different services.”); In re A.C., 2004 UT App 255, ¶ 17, 97 P.3d 706 (“It is the parent’s responsibility to demand services if they are not offered prior to the termination hearing.” (quotation simplified)).

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Scott v. Benson – 2023 UT 4 – Fraudulent Voluntary Declaration of Paternity

2023 UT 4

IN THE

SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH

TAYLOR LYNN SCOTT,

Respondent,

v.

SARAH CATHERINE BENSON,

Petitioner.

No. 20210922

Heard October 3, 2022

Filed April 20, 2023

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals

Third District, Salt Lake

The Honorable Richard D. McKelvie

No. 194903038

Attorneys:

Jeremy G. Jones, Jeffrey C. Jensen, Sandy, for respondent

Julie J. Nelson, Millcreek, Alexandra Mareschal, Salt Lake City,

for petitioner

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE authored the opinion of the Court in

which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, JUSTICE PETERSEN, JUSTICE HAGEN, and

JUDGE REUBEN RENSTROM joined.

Having recused herself, JUSTICE POHLMAN did not participate;

DISTRICT COURT JUDGE REUBEN RENSTROM sat.

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶1 Utah law permits parents to establish the paternity of their child by signing and filing a voluntary declaration of paternity (VDP) with the Office of Vital Records and Statistics. UTAH CODE §§ 78B-15-301-302. Sarah Benson and Taylor Scott, an unmarried couple, signed a VDP in which they both represented that Scott was the father of Benson’s child (Child). Problem was, Scott was not Child’s biological father, and both Scott and Benson knew that when they signed the VDP.[1]

¶2 After they submitted the VDP to the state, Benson continued to allow Scott to act as a father to Child, much as she had since Child’s birth. But she eventually cut off contact between Scott and Child. Scott filed a complaint, asserting he was Child’s father and asking the court for joint legal and physical custody. Benson challenged the VDP and asked the court to declare that Scott was not Child’s father.

¶3 The district court applied the Utah Uniform Parentage Act and concluded that the VDP should be set aside because of the parties’ fraud and a mutual mistake. See id. § 78B-15-307(1). But it also concluded that, under the Act, Scott should be adjudicated to be Child’s father. See id. § 78B-15-608. Benson appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed.

¶4 Before us, Benson argues that the court of appeals misinterpreted the Act because once the district court concluded that the VDP was the product of fraud and mistake, the Act did not provide a path for Scott to continue to assert that he should be deemed to be Child’s father.

¶5 We reject Benson’s reading of the Act and affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶6 Benson was pregnant with Child when she met and began dating Scott. Scott knew that Benson was pregnant with Child while they were dating and that he was not Child’s biological father.

¶7 But Scott attended Child’s birth and played a substantial role as a parental figure in Child’s life for the next seven years. Child’s biological father passed away shortly after Child’s birth.

¶8 During their dating relationship, Benson became pregnant with Scott’s biological child (Sibling). Before Sibling was born, Benson and Scott—who had never married—split up.

¶9 Because the couple never married, Utah law did not consider Scott to be Sibling’s “presumed father.” Benson initiated a paternity action, which established that Scott was Sibling’s biological father. See supra ¶ 31 n.7. Scott and Benson settled that action by agreeing to sign a voluntary declaration of paternity (VDP)—in which Scott acknowledged that he was Sibling’s father—and by obtaining an order that gave Scott joint custody of and required him to pay child support for Sibling.[2] Under their custody agreement, Scott enjoyed near-equal parent-time with Sibling.

¶10 Scott often cared for Child at the same time and in the same manner that he cared for Sibling. This pattern continued even after Scott married someone other than Benson.[3]

¶11 At some point, Benson was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. Benson pleaded guilty, and her driving privileges were suspended. For the next several months, Scott—at Benson’s request—was the primary caregiver to both Child and Sibling.

¶12 Benson suffered from mental health issues during this period. She wanted a plan to ensure that both of her children would be cared for if she were no longer around. This thinking culminated in Scott and Benson signing and submitting a VDP that represented to the state that Scott was Child’s biological father, even though both Scott and Benson knew that representation was false. The Office of Vital Records updated Child’s birth certificate to reflect Scott’s paternity.

¶13 For a year or so after signing the VDP, Scott and Benson maintained contact and shared parenting responsibilities for both children. Eventually Benson—who had married and whose husband wanted to adopt Child—cut off contact between Scott and Child.

¶14 Scott filed a paternity action, seeking to be declared Child’s legal father and asking for joint legal and physical custody of Child. Benson counter-petitioned, challenging Scott’s paternity and asking to have the VDP set aside.

¶15 The district court treated Benson’s counter-petition as an action to invalidate the VDP under the Utah Uniform Parentage Act. The Act provides that a VDP can be challenged because of fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact. UTAH CODE § 78B-15-307. Benson also filed a motion asking the court to compel Scott to submit to genetic testing, which she asserted would demonstrate that Scott was not Child’s biological father.

¶16 Scott agreed that a genetic test would prove he was not Child’s biological father, and the parties stipulated to that fact. But Scott asked the court to disregard the biological reality under section 608 of the Act—a provision that allows a court to disregard genetic test results in certain circumstances.[4]

¶17 Benson moved for summary judgment and asked the court to set aside the VDP because the parties had made a “material mistake of fact,” a term statutorily defined to include situations in which “genetic test results . . . exclude a declarant father.” Id. § 78B­15-307(5). Benson’s motion also asked the court to find that Scott and Child did not have a father-child relationship because the VDP had been “successfully challenged.”

¶18 The court denied the motion, reasoning that, even though genetic test results would show Scott was not Child’s father, there was no “mistake” because both parties knew Scott was not Child’s biological father when they signed the VDP, and because they “chose at the time to jointly raise a child.”

¶19 After denying Benson’s summary judgment motion, the court held a three-day evidentiary hearing. The district court found that Scott and his witnesses were “generally credible” and that Scott’s description of his relationship with Child was “particularly credible.” The court found that Benson’s own testimony was also “generally credible” but rejected her testimony regarding some aspects of Scott and Child’s relationship.

¶20 The district court reversed the reasoning it had employed to deny summary judgment and concluded that the parties had been operating under a “material mistake of fact” when they signed the VDP. The court also found that Scott and Benson did not defraud each other but that the VDP was still the product of fraud because it committed “fraud against the Utah State Division of Vital Statistics.” The district court determined that the VDP should be set aside and that it was void ab initio and had “no legal force or effect.”

¶21 The district court also accepted the parties’ stipulation that Scott was not Child’s biological father as the “genetic testing” the Act references. The district court also accepted that this “testing” confirmed Scott was not Child’s biological father.[5]

¶22 But the district court ultimately determined that Scott was Child’s legal father, reasoning that its conclusion that the VDP should be set aside “draws the court to [section 608].” The court determined that Benson’s conduct estopped her from denying Scott’s parentage and that it would be inequitable to disrupt Scott and Child’s relationship. The district court also concluded that, after a review of the factors in section 608, it was in Child’s best interest for Scott to be Child’s legal father. The court found that Scott “played a substantial role in [Child’s] life for the first seven years of [Child’s] life, and that role was involuntarily terminated” by Benson. The court also found that “[t]here is and has been a strong bond and attachment between [Scott] and [Child], and there has been since [Child’s] birth.”

¶23 Benson appealed to the court of appeals, which upheld the district court’s ruling. Scott v. Benson, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 1, 501 P.3d 1148. Like the district court, the court of appeals concluded that Scott was Child’s legal father even though Benson successfully challenged the VDP under section 307 of the Act. See id. ¶¶ 31–32. But, unlike the district court, the court of appeals reasoned that a successful 307 challenge did not render the VDP void from its inception. Id. ¶ 40. The court of appeals instead held that a successful 307 challenge meant that a VDP could be “set aside, on a going-forward basis,” but only as long as section 608 “does not counsel otherwise.” Id. And it concluded that section 608 did not demand a different conclusion than the one the district court reached. See id. ¶¶ 40, 43.

¶24 Benson petitioned for certiorari review contending that the court of appeals misinterpreted the Act.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶25 “We review questions of statutory interpretation for correctness, affording no deference to the lower court’s legal conclusions.” Cardiff Wales, LLC v. Washington Cnty. Sch. Dist., 2022 UT 19, ¶ 16, 511 P.3d 1155 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

¶26 Benson first claims that the court of appeals wrongly opined that the Act permitted the district court to conduct a section 608 analysis after it concluded that the VDP was fraudulent and based on a material mistake of fact. According to Benson, the court of appeals erred because once a VDP is successfully challenged, the court’s analysis should end in favor of the challenger. Benson also claims that the court of appeals’ interpretation of the statute raises constitutional issues, leads to absurd results, and promotes bad policy.

I. THE COURT OF APPEALS DID NOT ERR WHEN IT APPLIED
SECTION 608 TO DISREGARD THE GENETIC TEST RESULTS

A. The Court of Appeals Correctly Upheld the District Court’s
Decision to Apply Section 608

¶27 Benson first argues the court of appeals incorrectly upheld the district court’s decision to set aside the genetic test results that showed that Scott was not Child’s biological father.[6] Benson argues that section 608 “does not apply to every proceeding commenced under 307” and that, in this case, section 608 “has no application that is consistent with the language of the statute.”

¶28 The Act outlines two ways a VDP can be set aside. It allows either of the signatories to rescind a VDP by filing a voluntary rescission within sixty days of the date the VDP became effective or before “the date of notice of the first adjudicative proceeding to which the signatory is a party, before a tribunal to adjudicate an issue relating to the child, including a proceeding that establishes support,” whichever is earlier. UTAH CODE § 78B-15-306(1). If neither signatory rescinds the VDP—as in this case—they must look to section 307 to challenge the VDP.

¶29 Section 307 provides:

After the period for rescission . . . has expired, a signatory of a declaration of paternity or denial of paternity, or a support-enforcement agency, may commence a proceeding to challenge the declaration or denial only on the basis of fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact.

Id. § 78B-15-307(1).

¶30 In other words, after the VDP has been signed, either of the signatories can rescind it before the earliest of sixty days or notice of an adjudicative proceeding. Id. § 78B-15-306(1). After the statutory rescission period passes, either a signatory or a support-enforcement agency can challenge the validity of the VDP. This challenge can be based on fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact. Id. § 78B-15­307(1). A challenge based on fraud or duress can be brought at any time. Id. § 78B-15-307(3). A challenge based on material mistake of fact can only be brought within four years after the declaration is filed. Id. § 78B-15-307(4).

¶31 The Act also contemplates that, in some situations, a court can ignore genetic test results when determining paternity. Id. § 78B­15-608. Section 608 permits the district court to do this when “the conduct of the mother or the presumed or declarant father estops that party from denying parentage” and “it would be inequitable to disrupt the father-child relationship between the child and the presumed or declarant father.” Id. § 78B-15-608(1).[7]

¶32 Subsection 608(2) outlines factors a court must consider to determine whether disregarding test results is in the best interest of the child. These factors include how long a presumed or declarant father acted as a child’s father, the nature of the relationship between the child and potential father, and harm to the child if the relationship between the child and potential father is disrupted.[8]

¶33 Benson argues that the court of appeals misread the statute when it endorsed the district court’s decision to conduct the section 608 analysis after it set aside the VDP under section 307. She claims that genetic testing, and therefore section 608, is “irrelevant” to this inquiry “because the ground to set aside the VDP was already established: fraud.” In Benson’s view, the district court starts with the section 307 inquiry and cannot look to section 608 if the court finds that the VDP is the product of fraud, duress, or mistake of fact.

¶34 The court of appeals disagreed with Benson’s argument and held that the district court appropriately applied section 608 because, while other provisions of the Act state when the VDP should be considered “invalid from its inception,” section 307 does not. Scott v. Benson, 2021 UT App 110, ¶¶ 34, 37–38, 501 P.3d 1148. The court of appeals concluded the central question was about “the consequence of a successful Section 307 challenge.” Id. ¶ 36. The court of appeals determined that “the Act’s silence on this point must be viewed in tandem with the specific instructions” given for successfully voiding or rescinding a VDP in other sections of the Act. Id. ¶ 38.

¶35 The court of appeals reasoned that “there is no statutory basis for concluding that a declaration of paternity is void simply because a Section 307 challenge is successful.” Id. ¶ 32. The court of appeals therefore concluded that a district court may look to section 608 to decide whether to disregard genetic testing even after the district court finds a ground to set the VDP aside under section 307.

¶36 In other words, the court of appeals sees the process to challenge a VDP as requiring two steps. In the first step, the district court examines the VDP under section 307 and determines if a challenge to its validity is successful. Id. ¶ 40. If the challenge is successful, the district court moves to step two and applies section 608 to assess whether principles of equity and estoppel should prevent the court from allowing the declaration to “be set aside, on a going-forward basis.” Id. Benson also appears to see this as a two-step process, but she reads the Act to end the inquiry after the first step if the section 307 challenge is successful.

¶37 The aim of statutory interpretation “is to ascertain the intent of the legislature,” and the “best evidence of the legislature’s intent is the plain language of the statute itself.” Castro v. Lemus, 2019 UT 71, ¶ 17, 456 P.3d 750 (cleaned up). We “read the plain language of the statute as a whole, and interpret its provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters.” State v. Barrett, 2005 UT 88, ¶ 29, 127 P.3d 682 (cleaned up). Occasionally, “statutory text may not be plain when read in isolation, but may become so in light of its linguistic, structural, and statutory context.” Bryner v. Cardon Outreach, LLC, 2018 UT 52, ¶ 12, 428 P.3d 1096 (cleaned up).

¶38 When we read the statute’s plain language, we see a different structure than Benson and the court of appeals did. The Act does not contemplate the sequential inquiry that the court of appeals describes and that Benson wants. Rather, when a party challenges a VDP, the Legislature intends that, in appropriate cases, the section 608 factors be considered as part of the question of whether the VDP should be invalidated.

¶39 Section 308, titled “Procedure for rescission or challenge,” sets forth the procedure a court must employ to decide whether to set aside a VDP. UTAH CODE § 78B-15-308. Among the instructions section 308 provides to the district court is the mandate that a “proceeding to rescind or to challenge a declaration of paternity or denial of paternity must be conducted in the same manner as a proceeding to adjudicate parentage under Part 6, Adjudication of Parentage.” Id. § 78B-15-308(4) (emphasis added).

¶40 This means that when Benson challenged the VDP under section 307, the procedure to challenge the VDP had to be conducted in the same manner as adjudication of parentage under Part 6.[9] And, under Part 6, section 608, a district court can ignore genetic test results in appropriate circumstances. Thus, by section 308’s plain language, the court must follow the procedures of Part 6, which, in appropriate cases, incorporates the section 608 analysis into a proceeding challenging a VDP’s validity. This causes us to read the statute as calling for a single-step rather than a two-step inquiry.[10]

¶41 This reading resolves the first problem that Benson identifies. Benson claims that the district court erred (and the court of appeals erred in blessing the district court’s decision) because it looked to section 608’s factors after it concluded that the VDP was the product of mutual mistake and fraud on the state. Benson claims that the district court should not have moved to “step two” (a section 608 analysis), because the inquiry ended after “step one” (a conclusion under section 307 that the VDP was the product of fraud and mutual mistake)[11]

¶42 That problem does not arise when the statute is read correctly. A district court conducts a proceeding on a section 307 challenge in the same manner it conducts a proceeding on a challenge to paternity. Thus, in a proceeding challenging a VDP, the court can consider whether or not to set aside genetic testing based on the factors in section 608, just as it could in a proceeding to challenge paternity.[12]

B. Benson’s Argument that the Court of Appeals’ Reading Creates a
Conflict with Other Provisions of the Act Is Unavailing

¶43 Benson next argues that the court of appeals erred because its reading of the statute creates a conflict between section 608 and section 617.[13]

¶44 Section 617 states:

The tribunal shall apply the following rules to adjudicate the paternity of a child:

The paternity of a child having a presumed, declarant, or adjudicated father may be disproved only by admissible results of genetic testing excluding that man as the father of the child or identifying another man as the father of the child.

Unless the results of genetic testing are admitted to rebut other results of genetic testing, a man identified as the father of a child under Section 78B-15-505 must be adjudicated the father of the child, unless an exception is granted under Section 78B-15-608.

. . . .

(4) Unless the results of genetic testing are admitted to rebut other results of genetic testing, a man properly excluded as the father of a child by genetic testing must be adjudicated not to be the father of the child.

UTAH CODE § 78B-15-617.

¶45 Benson argues that Scott was “properly excluded” as Child’s father and therefore must “be adjudicated not to be the father of the child” without the section 608 analysis, because subsection 617(2) mentions section 608, and subsection 617(4) does not. Id. § 78B-15­617.

¶46 The court of appeals “acknowledge[d] the apparent inconsistency between subsections (2) and (4) of Section 617,” but held that, if they followed Benson’s interpretation, “Section 608— which exists only to give courts an opportunity to disregard genetic evidence in appropriate circumstances—would be effectively excised from the Act.” Scott, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 38 n.9. Because the court did “not perceive therein a legislative intent to abrogate Section 608,” it held that Benson’s reading was unpersuasive. Id.

¶47 We see neither the conflict Benson perceives nor the inconsistency the court of appeals described. Section 617(2) refers to “a man identified as the father” and requires that a man whom genetic testing identifies as the father must be adjudicated the father unless the district court disregards the test results under section 608. UTAH CODE § 78B-15-617(2).

¶48 Section 617(4) refers to a man “properly excluded as the father of a child by genetic testing.” Id. § 78B-15-617(4). That subsection also provides that a man properly excluded by genetic testing must be adjudicated to not be the father. Id. Although subsection 617(4) does not explicitly reference section 608, it does so implicitly by referring to a man “properly excluded” by genetic testing. A man is not “properly excluded” by genetic testing if the district court disregards that testing under section 608.

¶49 Here, Scott was identified as the non-genetic father. But he was not “properly excluded as the father” of Child because the genetic testing in this case was set aside as the statute contemplates. There is no conflict between sections 608 and 617.

II. BENSON’S CONSTITUTIONALITY, ABSURDITY, AND PUBLIC POLICY RGUMENTS DO NOT DICTATE A DIFFERENT RESULT

¶50 For her next set of arguments, Benson strays from the text and contends that we should reject the court of appeals’ interpretation because it raises constitutional issues, leads to absurd results, and is contrary to public policy.

A. Benson Has Not Demonstrated that the Court of Appeals’ Reading

of the Statute Raises Constitutional Concerns That Require

a Different Interpretation

¶51 Benson contends that the court of appeals interpreted the Act in a way that raises constitutional concerns. She further argues that the court of appeals’ reading of section 608 is one that “allows a legal and genetic stranger to take advantage of its provisions” and thus “diminish[es] a mother’s fundamental right to ‘direct the upbringing of [her] children,’” (quoting Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000)). Benson asserts that we should apply the constitutional avoidance canon and reverse the court of appeals.

¶52 The constitutional avoidance canon permits a court to “reject[] one of two plausible constructions of a statute on the ground that [one interpretation] would raise grave doubts as to [the statute’s] constitutionality.” Utah Dep’t of Transp. v. Carlson, 2014 UT 24, ¶ 23, 332 P.3d 900. But when we can, we “decide cases on the preferred grounds of statutory construction, thereby avoiding analysis of underlying constitutional issues unless required to do so.” Id. ¶ 24 (cleaned up).

¶53 Moreover, we do not usually invoke the canon just because we have “doubts about the constitutionality” of a statute. Id. ¶ 25. Nor can we use the canon to “break faith with the statute’s text” and “rewrite the statute” to save an unconstitutional statute. State v. Garcia, 2017 UT 53, ¶ 59, 424 P.3d 171. We simply recognize that where there are two plausible constructions of a statute, and one steers clear of constitutional problems, we presume that the Legislature intended to enact the constitutional interpretation.[14] See Carlson, 2014 UT 24, ¶ 23.

¶54 We take Benson’s point that the Act has the potential to tread into constitutional territory. This court has recognized that “parents have a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care and control of their children.” Jensen ex rel. Jensen v. Cunningham, 2011 UT 17, ¶ 73, 250 P.3d 465. Section 608, in which the Legislature provides a path to declare a person who is not genetically related to the child a parent, has the potential to compromise the genetic parent’s constitutional right.

¶55 But Benson does not offer us a plausible reading of the Act that avoids the potential constitutional concern. Instead, Benson’s proffered solution is to read the Act so that section 608 does not apply to most non-biological fathers. This would require us to rewrite the statute, something that we cannot do.

¶56 Where Benson cannot offer a plausible interpretation of the text that avoids the constitutional concern, Benson’s obligation is to demonstrate that the statute is unconstitutional. Benson has not made that argument.

¶57 That is not to say that we do not understand Benson’s concern. The Act allows someone who is not a genetic parent to gain parental rights and to potentially exercise them at the expense of the genetic parent’s rights. But Benson does not explain how, under the circumstance before us, this would violate her constitutional rights. She does not discuss the impact of her own role in seeking to defraud the State by conspiring to sign a VDP she knew was inaccurate. Nor has she analyzed the impact on her parental rights of permitting Scott to exercise parental-like rights for a number of years. Nor has she explained the impact of the district court’s unchallenged finding that it was in Child’s best interest to not set the VDP aside.

¶58 With neither a plausible interpretation of the statute that both adheres to the text and avoids the constitutional concerns, nor briefing aimed at demonstrating that sections of the Act should be struck as unconstitutional, we reject Benson’s challenges.

B. The Court of Appeals’ Interpretation Does Not Lead to Absurd Results in This Case

¶59 Benson asks us to employ the absurd consequences canon to overturn the court of appeals’ interpretation of the statute. According to Benson, holding that Scott was the “declarant father,” after the district court found the VDP was successfully challenged, leads to absurd results. As an initial matter, for the reasons we outline above, we do not agree that the VDP was “successfully challenged.” But even assuming we could accept that premise, the absurd consequences canon does not require a different interpretation. Benson claims, by way of example, that it would be absurd for a woman who was coerced into signing a VDP to have to endure a section 608 analysis where a district court would consider whether it was in the best interests of her child to set aside the VDP she was coerced to sign.

¶60 The absurd consequences canon allows us to “resolve an ambiguity by choosing the reading that avoids absurd results when statutory language plausibly presents us with two alternative readings.” Utley v. Mill Man Steel, Inc., 2015 UT 75, ¶ 47, 357 P.3d 992 (Durrant, C. J., concurring in part on behalf of the majority) (cleaned up). We conclude that statutory language yields absurd results when those results are “so overwhelmingly absurd no rational legislator could have intended them.” Id. ¶ 46.

¶61 Even if we can conceive of scenarios where the statute the Legislature enacted might produce an absurd result, we do not stray from the statute’s text in a case where the application of the Act in the case before us does not lead to an absurd result. See, e.g.State v. Sanders, 2019 UT 25, ¶ 54 n.13, 445 P.3d 453.

¶62 In Sanders, for example, we upheld Sanders’ conviction for illegal possession of a firearm. Id. ¶ 2. Sanders argued that the State’s proffered statutory construction—which did not leave room for an innocent possession defense—was absurd because there were circumstances where the application of that construction could yield an absurd result. Id. ¶ 51. We agreed with Sanders that it was “not difficult to conceive of factual scenarios where the lack of an innocent possession defense might lead to an absurd result,” such as a felon taking a gun from a toddler to place it safely out of reach. Id. ¶ 54. But the potential for an absurd result in a hypothetical case did not help Sanders, because this was “not the case before us.” Id. Sanders’ arguments were unavailing because they did not demonstrate absurd legislative policy or “that the application of that policy to [Sanders], under the circumstances presented [in that case], yielded an absurd result.” Id. ¶ 51.

¶63 As in Sanders, Benson does not meet her burden of demonstrating that the court of appeals’ statutory interpretation led to absurd results in her case. A rational legislature could have intended the result the district court ordered. At least, Benson has not convinced us that a rational legislature could not have intended that the district court look to the real-world effects on Child if it divested Scott of the parental relationship Benson had allowed to grow.

C. Benson’s Policy Arguments Do Not Allow Us to Ignore or Modify the Statute’s Text

¶64 Benson also advances policy arguments to support a different reading of the Act. Benson claims that conducting a section 608 analysis after a VDP is successfully challenged ignores “a statutory preference for genetic paternity” and would thereby “undermine[] the purposes and policies that form the basis of the comprehensive statutory scheme.”[15] She also claims this interpretation would encourage fraudulent VDPs, possibly at the expense of biological fathers.

¶65 When we can glean the Legislature’s intent from the statute’s text, we have no reason to entertain arguments that we might be able to enact better policy by placing judicial glosses on the text. We have advised that “[w]here the legislature has spoken[,] our role is limited. In the face of duly-enacted legislation we no longer have a primary policymaking role. We are left only to interpret the terms of the statute and then to implement them.” M.J. v. Wisan, 2016 UT 13, ¶ 69, 371 P.3d 21 (cleaned up). Benson may have legitimate policy concerns and may even be able to articulate a statutory scheme that better promotes public policy than the one on the books. But “we have repeatedly declined invitations to interpret statutes contrary to their plain language even when a party offers an interpretation that might better advance the Legislature’s purpose.” Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 2022 UT 1, ¶ 40, 506 P.3d 509. We do so again.

CONCLUSION

¶66 The court of appeals correctly concluded that the district court did not err when it looked to the factors in Utah Code section 78B-16-608 to disregard the genetic test results that would have excluded Scott as Child’s father.

¶67 We affirm the court of appeals’ decision and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings.

 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

[1] The record refers to the appellant as both Benson and Cooper— Cooper being the last name she took when she married. To remain consistent with the court of appeals’ opinion, we refer to the appellant as Benson.

[2] Utah Code section 78B-15-301 creates and authorizes the use of VDPs. Utah law permits the “mother of a child and a man claiming to be the genetic father of the child . . . [to] sign a declaration of paternity to establish the paternity of the child.” Id. The VDP must be signed or authenticated “under penalty of perjury, by the mother and by the declarant father.” Id. § 78B-15-302(1)(b). By signing, the mother and declarant father aver that “the child whose paternity is being declared: (i) does not have a presumed father, or has a presumed father whose full name is stated; and (ii) does not have another declarant or adjudicated father.” Id. § 78B-15-302(1)(d). The VDP is effective once it is “filed and entered into a database established and maintained by the Office of Vital Records.” Id. § 78B­15-302(9).

[3] Benson and Scott disagree on the extent to which Scott had equal parenting time with both Sibling and Child, but Benson’s brief concedes that Scott “continued to have a relationship with Child.”

[4] Under section 608, a court can disregard genetic test results that exclude a declarant father from genetic parentage if the behavior of one of the VDP signatories estops that party from denying parentage and if disrupting the child and declarant-father relationship would be inequitable. Id. § 78B-15-608(1). When a court decides whether to ignore genetic testing, the Act instructs it to focus on the child’s best interest by examining several factors, including the bond between the declarant father and child, and the potential harm to a child if paternity is disestablished. Id. § 78B-15-608(2).

[5] The Act provides a detailed description of what constitutes genetic testing. See id. § 78B-15-102(13). Notably, that definition does not include a stipulation concerning what the genetic tests would show had a test been performed. The district court nevertheless concluded: “Genetic testing has confirmed that Petitioner is not the biological father of [Child].” This conclusion was not directly challenged on appeal, so we do not address it further other than to emphasize that we explicitly offer no opinion on whether a stipulation can be the genetic testing the Act contemplates.

[6] Benson also argues that genetic tests were unnecessary because the parties agreed Scott was not Child’s biological father, so section 608, which only allows the court to set aside genetic testing (or deny a motion for testing), does not apply. But Benson does not directly challenge the district court’s conclusion that the stipulation qualifies as genetic testing for the purposes of section 608. Because Benson has not mounted a challenge to the district court’s conclusion, we accept, without comment, the district court’s decision that the stipulation was the equivalent of a genetic test. See supra ¶ 21 n.5.

[7] A “presumed father” must be someone who, at one point, was married to the mother. See id. § 78B-15-204(1) (defining when a man is a presumed father). Because Benson and Scott were never married, Scott is not and never was Child’s presumed father.

[8] The full list of factors is

(a) the length of time between the proceeding to adjudicate parentage and the time that the presumed or declarant father was placed on notice that he might not be the genetic father;

(b) the length of time during which the presumed or declarant father has assumed the role of father of the child;

(c) the facts surrounding the presumed or declarant father’s discovery of his possible nonpaternity;

(d) the nature of the relationship between the child and the presumed or declarant father;

the age of the child;

(f) the harm that may result to the child if presumed or declared paternity is successfully disestablished;

(g) the nature of the relationship between the child and any alleged father;

(h) the extent to which the passage of time reduces the chances of establishing the paternity of another man and a child-support obligation in favor of the child; and

(i) other factors that may affect the equities arising from the disruption of the father-child relationship between the child and the presumed or declarant father or the chance of other harm to the child.

Id. § 78B-15-608(2).

 

 

[9] Although Benson sometimes references “section 307” in her briefs, it bears noting that section 307 does not outline what a party must show to successfully challenge a VDP. Rather, section 307 details the circumstances in which a party can bring a challenge after the sixty-day period has expired. Id. § 78B-15-307. Section 308 contains the Legislature’s instructions on how to proceed with a VDP challenge, and that section directs a court to proceed in the same manner as any other adjudication of parentage under Part 6.

[10] It is not difficult to envision why the Legislature would structure the statute this way. In many—if not most—cases, a party will use genetic test results to prove the fraud or mutual mistake of fact that could be used to set aside the VDP.

[11] The court of appeals also opined that a successfully challenged VDP “is subject to being declared ineffective on a forward-looking basis.” Scott, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 31. The Act itself is largely silent on the effects of setting aside a VDP. We know that the Legislature told us that a declarant father whose VDP is rescinded cannot claw back child support he paid. See UTAH CODE § 78B-15-308(6) (“If the declaration is rescinded, the declarant father may not recover child support he paid prior to the entry of an order of rescission.”). And we know that the Legislature has declared that at “the conclusion of a proceeding to rescind or challenge a declaration of paternity, . . . the [court] shall order the Office of Vital Records to amend the birth record of the child, if appropriate.” Id. § 78B-15-308(5). But the Act does not tell us what other consequences might flow from setting a VDP aside. Since we don’t need to answer that question to resolve this case, we vacate the court of appeals’ conclusion that a successfully challenged VDP may be “ineffective on a forward-looking basis.” See Scott, 2021 UT App 110, ¶ 31. And we leave the question for a case where that determination matters to the outcome and is specifically briefed.

[12] Benson also argues that the district court erred when it applied section 608 because that section applies to declarant fathers, and “[o]nce the court granted [Benson’s section 307] challenge, Child was no longer a child ‘having a declarant father.’” Benson additionally claims that Scott was not a declarant father because subsection 201(2) of the Act, the provision on father-child relationships, means a successful VDP challenge disestablishes a father-child relationship. UTAH CODE § 78B-15-201(2). As we have explained, if the section 307 challenge is conducted in the same manner as a paternity determination—as the statute requires—the district court applies section 608 as part of the determination to set the VDP aside. And someone in Scott’s position does not lose his declarant father status unless the court invalidates the VDP.

[13] 13 Benson also argues that the court of appeals erred because the Act should be interpreted in light of the Act’s purported purpose— favoring the recognition of genetic parentage. Benson argues that the court of appeals’ interpretation of the statute “which would allow the signatory to a successfully challenged VDP to nonetheless rely on section 608, undermines the purposes and policies that form the basis of the comprehensive statutory scheme.” But we don’t normally interpret the statute in light of its supposed purpose when the plain text tells us how the Legislature intended the statute to operate. See Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 2022 UT 1, ¶ 31, 506 P.3d 509 (“In general, where a statute’s language is unambiguous and provides a workable result, we need not resort to other interpretive tools, and our analysis ends.” (cleaned up)). Sticking to the text helps us avoid “the peril of interpreting statutes in accordance with presumed legislative purpose” as “most statutes represent a compromise of purposes advanced by competing interest groups, not an unmitigated attempt to stamp out a particular evil.” Olsen v. Eagle Mountain City, 2011 UT 10, ¶ 23 n.6, 248 P.3d 465. Thus, in a case like this, where the statutory language is plain, we have no need to start poking around the statute’s purposes in hopes of finding a gloss to put on the text.

 

[14] In State v. Garcia, for example, we employed the canon to choose between two interpretations of “unlawful user” in determining how to read a statute. We chose the interpretation that “comport[ed] better with the statute’s text” because following the text of the statute best “preserve[d] the legislative intent.” Garcia, 2017 UT 53, ¶ 61.

[15] We again note that we do not agree with Benson that the VDP had been “successfully challenged.” We nevertheless engage with the substance of her arguments.

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My children’s father is a bum. Can he get 50/50 custody awarded?

The question is: I’m a stay at home mom, my BD is always working unreliable and inconsistent hours, he wants 50% custody of our son. Will he be granted 50%? His hours always vary from 4pm 7pm 9pm even 2am at times. 

Understand this: it’s not a matter of what you know to be the facts, it’s whether 1) you can prove the facts; and 2) persuade the court that these facts warrant or require that the court rule in your favor and as you want. 

The court cannot know what you know unless you can prove it to the court itself or persuade the court to believe what you say is true.  

Now if the father’s work schedule is not conducive to an equal physical custody schedule and you can prove that, the court will likely rule against a joint physical custody award. If you believe that all you have to do is tell the court, essentially, “The father’s work schedule is not conducive to an equal custody award,” your odds of succeeding on this issue are slim.* 

*But because you are the woman, there is an inexcusable possibility that the court might purport to find as a matter of “fact” that what you say is true—not because you proved it (you obviously didn’t prove it objectively or by a preponderance of the evidence) but because the court simply does not want to award equal custody, does not intend to award equal physical custody, and will look for any hooks upon which to hang that hat.  

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/Im-a-stay-at-home-mom-my-BD-is-always-working-unreliable-and-inconsistent-hours-he-wants-50-custody-of-our-son-Will-he-be-granted-50-His-hours-always-vary-from-4pm-7pm-9pm-even-2am-at-times/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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How can I make sure father won’t gain custody?

My husband cheated on me and we’re getting a divorce. He begged me not to take his children away, but I want him to suffer. How can I make sure that he won’t gain custody or even visitation rights? 

Surely you jest. Right? 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/My-husband-cheated-on-me-and-were-getting-a-divorce-He-begged-me-not-to-take-his-children-away-but-I-want-him-to-suffer-How-can-I-make-sure-that-he-wont-gain-custody-or-even-visitation-rights/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Can a 16-year-old child choose not to have visitation with a parent?

Technically, no. Practicably/pragmatically, yes. 

Technically, a minor child (even a child of 16 years of age) does not have the legal right to choose whether he or she will comply with the parent time “visitation” scheduling orders that a court issues in a divorce or child custody case. But the courts find it difficult to enforce these parent time schedule orders as to the children. In other words, if a child won’t comply with the court’s parent time orders, usually courts do one of two things. Some courts “find” that they don’t have the power to compel a child to comply. This is not true, but by making such a finding that it has no power to coerce and compel a child to comply, the court is able to wash its hands of dealing with the enforcement question. More honestly, other courts find that using the powers of the state, such as arrest and incarceration, to coerce and compel a child to comply with its parent time orders does more harm than good, is more trouble than it’s worth. And it’s not like the parents have any realistic options to enforce parent time orders either. If a parent were to bar the door to his or her home to a child to compel that child to go spend parent time with the other parent, that child could simply dial 911 and report the parent for child abuse and neglect. So in short, if a 16-year-old child doesn’t want to comply with the court’s parent time schedule orders, that child will probably get his or her wish. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/Can-a-16-year-old-child-choose-not-to-have-visitation-with-a-parent-in-full-custody-situations/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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So I want to ask my dad to divorce my mom.

So I want to ask my dad to divorce my mom. She has a troublesome personality, to say. I’m currently 16 and the relationship between not just me and my mother, but also the one between her and my father, is not good in the slightest. Should I ask him? 

Before answering this question myself, I looked at the other answers that have already been provided because I was expecting at least one of them to be along the lines of, “Whether your parents divorce is their choice, and thus none of your business.” And indeed I did. 

It’s a comforting, and thus attempting, position to adopt. But it’s utterly false. 

Given that you are now 16 years old and have, according to you, lived a life in the company of two enemies who happen to be spouses clearly makes your parents’ marriage and the possibility of divorce “your business.” 

Being 16 years old, you are at a unique point in your life where you are starting to think and act more like an adult, but you are still a child. Unless you are unusually mature and wise for your age, there are still many things about adulthood and marriage and family life you don’t completely understand, so you need to respect your parents’ history and experience and thinking on the subject of divorce, if their positions on the subject differ from your own. At the same time, however, given that you have been living in a dysfunctional family for 16 years, your experience, observations, desires, and opinions clearly have weight as well. 

If you determine that you have, in fairness and objectivity, determined in your own mind that your parents would be better off divorced, and you can persuasively articulate why, I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t have not only good reason, but the right as well, to argue the case for divorce to your parents. 

If your parents refused to divorce, and you cannot bear to spend another moment of an acrimony-filled existence at home, another option you might consider would be having your parents permit you to leave their custody to live with grandparents or an aunt or uncle or older sibling who might be willing to take you in, if such an option exists. Depending upon the circumstances, that could be done on an informal basis without having to go through a guardianship proceeding, or it may require court action. 

Finally, and as I mentioned before, if you happen to be mature and wise beyond your years, if you are able to support yourself financially (meaning that you can earn enough income to house, feed, and close yourself without contribution from your parents or the government), you might have the option of petitioning a court to declare you legally emancipated before you turn 18 years of age. 

Either way, if your parents don’t want to divorce and you can stand being enmeshed in their dysfunctional marriage another moment, living away from them could be the right thing for you, if circumstances are conducive to it. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/So-I-want-to-ask-my-dad-to-divorce-my-mom-She-has-a-troublesome-personality-to-say-Im-currently-16-and-the-relationship-between-not-just-me-and-my-mother-but-also-the-one-between-her-and-my-father-is-not-good-in-the-1/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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Can an adult child be sued for helping one parent divorce the other?

Taking your question literally: 

Can? Yes. 

You can file a lawsuit for any “reason” or no reason at all. Crazy and/or malicious people file crazy/malicious/frivolous/unintelligible lawsuits all the time. 

Just because you can file a lawsuit does not mean, however, that you will prevail in court on your claim(s) made in your lawsuit. 

So is it possible to find some plausible legal basis for a cause of action by one adult child against a sibling who helps one of their parents divorce the other? I’m sure it is. 

Is it likely to succeed? No. 

But could it? Possibly, depending upon the legal solidity of the bases for the claim(s), the skill with which the pleadings are drafted and the legal arguments are made, how persuasively you or your attorney argue the matter, and how receptive your judge and/or jury are to your arguments. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/Can-an-adult-child-be-sued-for-helping-one-parent-divorce-the-other/answer/Eric-Johnson-311 

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How can I help my stepdaughter get away from an abusive mother?

How can I help my 12-year-old step daughter get away from an emotionally abusive mother? 

Tell the child’s father (your husband) about the trouble and have him handle it. It’s not legally your fight. You should certainly share your observations and your suggestions, if sought, and you should offer to help in any reasonable way your husband my want or need you to help. But if Dad’s not on board, then no matter how much you want to help, it’s not your place to go it alone. 

Be supportive of your step-daughter and of your husband, but don’t be the one who initiates anything with the mother or the courts. Again, it’s not legally your fight. If you raise the concern you might do your step-daughter’s cause (and both her credibility as a victim and your credibility as a witness) a disservice by looking like a busybody, a “jealous wife” trying to smear the child’s mother to gain the child’s and your husband’s favor and loyalty.  

https://www.quora.com/How-can-I-help-my-12-year-old-step-daughter-get-away-from-an-emotionally-abusive-mother/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Is it wrong for a parent to go to their adult child for emotional support?

Is it wrong for a parent to go to their adult child for emotional support concerning the parent’s marriage?

I am a divorce and family lawyer and a parent, but I am not a mental health professional. That doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion on this subject or that my opinion won’t prove valuable, but it needs to be given the weight of a legal professional, not a mental health professional. 

When my mother died at age 63, I’m sure it was a comfort to her and to my father that her youngest child was an adult (albeit just barely; he was 18) and that he had his father and 8 older siblings to support him and to support one another. I know my father was grateful to have his children rally around him and support him in his loss and grief. Being an appropriate emotional support for a widowed parent in need is as much a child’s obligation as it is an honor. I don’t see why it should be any different for a divorced parent.  

We all know or will know people who are codependent. They need love and emotional support as much as anyone else. The problem with codependents are that they feel an excessive, pathological desire or need for others’ emotional and psychological support. Divorce is often the result of or the creation of a parent or parents who are codependent in relation to their children.  

So to answer your question: no, it is clearly not wrong for a parent to go to their adult children for emotional support over a troubled marriage, as long as that parent is seeking appropriate emotional support from his/her child(ren). 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/Is-it-wrong-for-a-parent-to-go-to-their-adult-child-for-emotional-support-concerning-the-parent-s-marriage/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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If both parents are wonderful, will the court still favor the mother?

If both parents are wonderful, will the court still lean towards full custody to the mother?

[Note: I am a divorce lawyer of 25 years. I am not bitter about “what happened to me in my divorce” as I am not divorced. I have no axe to grind with women or mothers (I love my mother, sisters, wife, and daughters dearly and without reservation). With these facts in mind, I answer your question as follows below.]

Not exactly. But close.

While the courts are finally starting to confront and slowly abolish discrimination against fathers when it comes to making the child custody and parent-time awards, the odds are still ludicrously in the mother’s favor when both parents are fit and loving parents.

No question about it. The exceptions prove the rule.

“All things being equal,” the mother is favored (yes, I know that’s illogical, but the courts find ways to justify or to appear to justify illogical thinking, especially in making child custody and parent-time awards).

It’s grossly unfair to children and to fit, loving fathers alike, but it’s what courts frequently (more often than not) do.

Now clearly there are times when, even though Dad’s a wonderful parent, circumstances (such as the parents living too far apart or having an unorthodox/inflexible work schedule) may render impractical or impracticable the exercise of joint equal physical custody and/or result in joint equal custody arrangements doing the children more harm than good. But far, far too often fit, loving fathers are denied joint equal custody by virtue of plain old sexual discrimination.

What does “favoring the mother” (prejudicing the father) look like nowadays? Here are few of the most common situations:

Rather than awarding joint equal physical custody to both parents, awarding “just a little more time” to Mom than to Dad. Case in point: I worked a case where both Mom and Dad had full-time jobs, but the court awarded Mom more time with the children than with Dad anyway (8 out of every 14 days on a 14-day repeating schedule—the trial court even stated that denying the kids and dad that one day every two weeks would enable dad to have more time to get his work done). This was the case where I reached my breaking point (about three years ago). To his credit, my client agreed to appeal (and pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege), and he won, with the appellate court ordering the trial court to award equal child custody and parent time. If you believe that happens in every case like his, you would be mistaken.

Finding that, even in situations where the children are preteens or older, the mother was (past tense) the children’s primary caregiver when they were infants and toddlers, and therefore she always has that “advantage” over the father in the here and now. I have this case where mom had been working full-time for the past four years. The youngest of the couple’s children could take care of himself and did not need a full-time caregiver. Worse, mom worked outside the home full-time, while dad’s full-time job permitted him to work from home. At the temporary orders phase of the case, the court awarded mom primary physical custody of the kids because (and the court made no secret of the basis for its decision) she had been (past tense) the per children’s primary caregiver. Dad Wasn’t even seeking sole or primary custody; he was seeking joint equal physical custody, but he lost. Such an outcome is ridiculous and tragic, but not surprising.

Rejecting Dad’s claims that the mother is so lazy and that Dad not only works full-time each day outside the home, but then spends the rest of his time at home taking care the housekeeping and taking care of the kids as well. Why? Because (in my experience) in the minds of most judges it is unthinkable for a stay-at-home mother to be a lazy and inattentive parent (while at the same time it is easy for judges to believe—just believe—that a father doesn’t pull his weight when it comes to fulfilling child caregiving).

Penalizing the father for being the only full-time employed (in many cases the only employed) parent and awarding sole or primary physical custody of the children to the mother because she doesn’t work outside the home. Never mind (apparently) the fact that if the parties share joint equal custody, that would enable both parents to provide as much personal care to the children as possible and also allow them to work full-time jobs for their children’s financial support. Nope. Now clever courts will “acknowledge” and “praise” Dad for being a responsible and devoted breadwinner, but won’t award joint equal custody, justifying the unequal award of child custody with assertions such as:

Spending equal time in both parents’ Respective residences creates an “unstable” residential circumstance for the children.

The fact that unemployed Mom spends more of the waking hours with the children than does Dad (until the children start school, in which case the amount of time mom spends with the kids during waking hours is negligible compared to the time the children are with Dad while he’s at work) means that dad should spend even less of the children’s waking hours with them when he gets home from work. Otherwise stated, because Dad can’t be with the kids during the eight or nine hours that he is at work each day, that means that he should not spend the hours that he does have available to be with the children when the children could be spending that time or “consistently” in the custody and care of their mother. If you don’t understand this reasoning the first time you read through it, you’re not alone.

Courts will still indulge in blatantly discriminating against fathers:

  • by citing to the “fact” that women/mothers are “born nurturers”;
  • by citing to the “fact” that children are more closely bonded with, and thus need more time with, their mothers than with their fathers;
  • by claiming “it’s not the quantity of time but the quality of time” that children spend with their fathers that matters most, failing to concede that the quality of the time is a function of the quantity of time when it comes to parent-child interactions. How did the term “Disneyland Dad” evolve? Not by assuming the responsibilities and “heavy lifting” parental duties of day to day living. No, but by spoiling the child when they have such disproportionately little time on alternating weekends and one weeknight. It creates a warped sense of the father-child relationship and of reality for the kids in general, leading to the kids becoming self-absorbed, worldly, and feeling entitled around their fathers.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

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Why isn’t 50/50 custody the default resolution in child custody cases?

I have studied this question throughout my career, and I’ve been a divorce and family lawyer for 25 years. If there is one family law question to which I know the answer, it is this one. 

Eventually, a rebuttable presumption of 50–50 custody will become the norm. That change is happening now, although I am appalled at how slowly. 

There are many reasons why a 50-50 custody award is not the presumptive/default physical child custody award. I will list those reasons in the order of what I believe to be the strongest to the weakest. I do not mean that the strength of an argument depends upon how intellectually rigorous and honest the reason is. I mean how entrenched the reason is in society and in the legal culture. 

#1. Nothing else comes close: sexism. Any knowledgeable and experienced divorce and family law attorney will tell you that although sexism is not as strong as it once was a generation or two ago, it is still alive and kicking the butts of fit fathers who are denied the joint equal physical custody of their children. It is as shocking as it is terrifying as it is disgusting to see mothers and their lawyers make sexist arguments that the court’s still accept. Such as? 

  • Children, especially young children, need to spend more time with their mother than with their fathers. 
  • Women are born nurturers, more naturally competent parents than are men. 
  • Children are more strongly bonded to their mothers than to their fathers. 
  • (This one is particularly insulting) men who want more than minimal custody and parent time with their children do so to avoid having to pay child support. 
    • While it is true that some men don’t really want to be that involved in their children’s lives, yet seek sole or joint custody simply to reduce the amount of child support they have to pay without having any intention of engaging in the level of responsibility that a joint equal physical custodian should, to suggest that men in general want joint custody solely or primarily to save money is a pretty damn cynical view of men, not to mention a pretty damn false one. Think about it. If men wanting joint custody are motivated by greed, does that mean that women wanting sole or primary physical custody of their children are motivated by greed as well? 
    • We all know plenty of women who oppose a joint custody award and seek a sole or primary custody award precisely for the financial benefits primary or sole custody confers. It is unfair to presume that either mothers or fathers inherently seek a child custody award that is the most financially advantageous at the expense of their children’s emotional and physical well-being. 

#2. Unscientific and pseudoscientific principles (that are usually, though not always, invoked to mask the blatant sexism). Such as? 

  • Children should not be going back and forth like ping-pong balls between their parents’ respective homes 
    • There is some truth to this, but only under certain circumstances. The way I explain it to my clients and to legal professionals with open minds (few though there are currently) is that joint equal custody doesn’t benefit children if the parents live so far away from each other that the children don’t have access to the same group of friends and other familiar surroundings and resources. 
    • If mom and dad live many miles apart, the kids end up having no friends in either mom’s neighborhood or dad’s neighborhood. Here’s why: they are only in mom’s neighborhood half the time and only in dad’s neighborhood half the time. that makes it hard to make friends in either neighborhood. And so the kids often end up with no friends in either neighborhood. Certainly no close friends. They don’t go to church with the same kids on the weekends. While they may go to one school, if that school is in one parent’s neighborhood, then the kids don’t do anything with their friends after school on the days and weeks when they are with the other parent. 
      • Some parents and lawyers and judges think that the solution to this problem is having the children go to a school centrally located between moms and dads house. this almost never works well. the kids may have friends at school, but because they do not live in the neighborhood without school is located, their friendship is limited to the time they spend at school. 
    • Joint equal physical custody works best for children when the parents live within walking distance of each other, when the parents reside in the same neighborhood and school district and parish. Yet even when these circumstances exist, I’ve seen courts that still refuse to award of joint equal custody claiming that going back and forth between moms and dads house is a problem in itself, not a symptom of parents who live too far apart. 
  • joint equal custody makes it hard for kids to follow two different sets of rules in each parent’s home. What utter bilge. Sure, if the environments and rules in each parent’s home are so radically and catastrophically different from one another as to do the children harm, then perhaps joint equal custody can’t work. But such a scenario just doesn’t arise often enough to dismiss the idea of joint equal custody out of hand on this basis. The majority of parents are going to agree upon things like diet and bedtimes, and those parents who aren’t in total agreement will likely have rules and routines that don’t differ enough to do the children harm (such as bedtime at mom’s being 8:30 p.m. and bedtime at dad’s being 9:00 p.m., or mom may eat out with the kids more often than dad does— these are differences that are going to do the children long-term damage, if any damage at all). 

There is one legitimate reason why every child should not be in a 50–50 physical custody arrangement: when the circumstances of the parents and children are not conducive to a joint equal physical custody (50-50″) award. 

  • Sometimes the circumstances of one or both parents makes joint equal physical custody more trouble than it’s worth, of no benefit to the child, or even deleterious to the child. 
    • Work schedules and distance between the parents’ respective homes may not be conducive to the exercise of joint equal physical custody.

If a parent is unfit to exercise custody of a child, then that’s not really a problem with joint equal physical custody, but a matter of the parent’s incompetence. Holding father to a burden of proof that presumes them to be unfit until proven otherwise, is patently irrational, unconstitutional, and fundamentally unfair and gratuitously harmful to children and fathers alike. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/Why-isnt-50-50-custody-the-default-resolution-in-child-custody-cases/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?__nsrc__=4&__snid3__=31406040166 

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Is it damaging for a child to witness a divorce/parents fighting constantly?

Is it damaging for a child to witness a divorce or witness their parents fighting constantly?

Yes. 

Yes, of course. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/Is-it-damaging-for-a-child-to-witness-a-divorce-or-witness-their-parents-fighting-constantly/answer/Eric-Johnson-311 

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What to do when child won’t comply with the custody award?

What will happen if the court ruled in favor of a mother to have the custody of her child but the child refuses to go with her and she prefers to stay with the father?

This situation (and this question) comes up a lot. I will answer the question as it applies in my experience to the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law (Utah).

SHORT ANSWER: The general rule of thumb is that if the child is a teenager and has the guts and the will to defy the court’s custody orders, then that child is going to live with the parent with whom he or she wants to live because the court is essentially powerless to force the child to comply with the child custody order, i.e., the court finds it more trouble than it is worth to enforce a child custody order against a defiant teen.

LONGER ANSWER:

Technically, the child has no choice in the matter, once the court has issued its child custody ruling and resulting orders. In other words, just because somebody doesn’t want to follow court orders doesn’t mean that he or she is free to disregard them or to act as a law unto himself or herself. This proves to be true of court orders pertaining to adults. Child custody orders, and the children affected by them, however, are in reality a different matter.

In the law we have two terms that help to describe the situation: de jure and de factoDe jure means that which is which applies as a matter of law. For example, as a matter of law, your child is ordered to spend most of his/her time in the custody of mother, with the father spending time the child on alternating weekends and a few odd holidays. De facto means that which is or that which applies as a matter of fact (in reality, and not as the court may artificially require). So while as a matter of law your child is required to live with mother, if in reality (as a matter of “fact”—this is where the “facto” in “de facto” comes from) the child refuses to live with mother and stays at the father’s house, that is the de facto child custody situation.

When A) the de jure and de facto situations conflict in a child custody situation, and B) the child is old enough, strong enough, and willful enough to continue to the court’s custody orders, the court often (not always, but usually) feels that they are practicably powerless to force children to live with a parent with whom they do not wish to live.

Normally, when an adult will not comply with the court’s order, One of the tools a court can use to enforce compliance is its contempt powers. Those powers include finding and jailing the noncompliant person. But with children, that power is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Children usually have no money with which to pay a fine, and Utah does not allow courts to jail minors for mere contempt of court.

Some courts try to get creative and impose sanctions on a noncompliant child by essentially ordering them “grounded”, but again, if the child chooses not to comply, there is little the court can do or feels is wise to do to the child. I’ve seen a court try to get a child to comply by ordering her barred from participating in her beloved dance classes and driver education courses (so that she can’t get her driver license unless she lives with the court ordered custodial parent) as long as the child refused to live with the court-ordered custodial parent. In that case, however, the child outlasted the court, i.e., she kept living with the noncustodial parent and stopped attending dance and driver’s ed. classes. Then the court found itself in the awkward position of preventing the child from getting exercise and driving to and from her job and other worthwhile, even necessary activities, so the court relented (both in the best interest of the child and to save face). This is a lesson that most courts learn when they try to use the coercive powers of the court against children to enforce child custody orders.

Courts don’t want to dedicate their own resources and law enforcement resources to 1) literally dragging a child out of one parent’s home and literally stuffing the child into some other home; and 2) doing so repeatedly when the child refuses to stay put. It’s a waste of law enforcement resources and the fear is the child will eventually run away (and act out in other self-destructive and dangerous ways), if not allowed to live with the parent of his/her choosing.

And courts don’t want to punish a parent for the misconduct of a child. Some courts have tried to punish noncustodial parent by holding them responsible for their children’s noncompliance with the court orders, but that doesn’t work when the noncustodial parent truly isn’t at fault. Courts realize that a noncustodial parent cannot simply, for example, 1) push the child out the door, lock it behind the child, and wish the child well in subzero degree weather; or 2) manhandle the child into the custodial parent’s car, then be charged with child abuse. And punishing the noncustodial parent often only serves to lead the child to be more determined to defy court orders.

As you can imagine, a child’s “power” to choose where he/she lives usually does not arise until the child is old enough and strong enough and willful enough to exercise some degree of autonomy over which parent with whom he/she lives. That doesn’t usually happen until children reach approximately the age of 12 or 14, although some children may start younger. Children under that age are typically unable or too afraid to exert their own preferences and wills.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/What-will-happen-if-the-court-ruled-in-favor-of-a-mother-to-have-the-custody-of-her-child-but-the-child-refuses-to-go-with-her-and-she-prefers-to-stay-with-the-father/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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