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Tag: father

Have You Heard That Fathers Defeat Mothers’ Claims of DV and Child Abuse by Claiming Parental Alienation?

We all know the aphorism, “If it looks/sounds to good to be true, it probably is [not true].” This also means, however, that if it looks/sounds too 𝙗𝙖𝙙 to be true, it probably is [not true] too.

Can we all agree that the following claim looks, on its face, too bad to be true?:

A George Washington University Law School article shows that mothers are statistically up to 90% more likely to lose custody of their children when they go on record about abuse. Abusive fathers, who claim parental alienation are almost always granted custody.

So, is the claim true?

I found the article: Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations, by Joan S. Meier George Washington University Law School.

Here is what that article actually claims (this is not the entire article, of course, and I have my doubts about the methodology and the resulting accuracy of the claims themselves, but I digress):

Spoiler alert: the article does not make any “women lose custody 90% of the time when they report abuse” claim.

Quotations directly from the article itself:

“Focusing on cases where it was determined that mothers started with possession of the children, and alleged some type of abuse by the father, the data show mothers losing custody in 26% (284/1111) of cases.”

*****

It is also notable that when mothers report mixed types of child abuse (sexual and physical) their custody losses skyrocket (from under 30% (39/135) up to 50%)(11/22).

*****

• When Fathers cross-claim alienation, courts are more than twice as likely to disbelieve Mothers’ claims of (any) abuse than if fathers made no alienation claim; and

• When Fathers cross-claim alienation, courts are almost 4 (3.9) times more likely to disbelieve Mothers’ claims of child abuse than if fathers made no alienation claim.

*****

As the chart indicates, when fathers claim alienation, the rate at which mothers lose custody shoots up from over 25% to over 50%. That is, fathers’ alienation claims roughly double mothers’ rates of losing custody. When courts credit the alienation claim, rates of maternal losses of custody increase more drastically:

Mothers’ Custody Losses When Courts Credit Fathers’ Alienation Claims

Type of Abuse Alleged Mother Lost Custody:

DV (domestic violence): 60% (15/25)
CPA (child physical abuse): 59% (10/17)
CSA (child sexual abuse): 68% (13/19)
DVCh (domestic violence and child physical abuse): 79% (19/24)
CACSA (child physical abuse and child sexual abuse): 100% (6/6)
Any abuse: 73% (60/82)

*****

“AKA” cases: those in which a court viewed a mother as alienating in her behavior but did not use the term “alienation.”

Mothers’ Custody Losses when Found to have Committed AKA

 

Custody Losses by Type of Abuse Alleged

Custody Losses When Abuse was Proven

   
DV  62% (24/39) DV  60% (3/5)
CPA  61% (17/28) CPA  50% (1/2)
CSA  58% (25/43) CSA  –
DVCh  55% (16/29) DVCh  –
CACSA  78% (7/9) CACSA  100% (1/1)
Any  60% (89/148) Any  63% (5/8)

—————————–

The article is definitely food for thought, but clearly does not find that mothers who allege abuse are 90% more likely to lose/not win custody.

Additionally, one of my critiques of the article is this: it does not reveal whether the abuse-alleging mothers who lost/did not win custody was due purely to their alleging abuse or purely because they were found to have engaged in parental alienation or something like it. For example, if these mothers were themselves child abusers or were found to be unfit parents for other reasons (i.e., child neglect, substance abuse, lacking sufficient housing, ability to provide financially, practicing poor hygiene, insufficient bonding, etc.), how many of them would have lost/not won custody anyway? The article does not address this.

But even if the only reason these mothers lost/did not win custody was due to the court finding them to have engaged in parental alienation, would that not be reason enough? Now, I’m not asserting that all cases of actual parental alienation should cause a mother (or father committing alienation) to lose/not win custody (level of severity must be considered), but parental alienation would be, in my professional opinion, sufficient grounds for awarding custody of children to the other parent, assuming the other parent were found, on balance to be 1) sufficiently fit as a parent; and 2) the more fit of the two parents.

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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In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126 – permanent custody and guardianship

In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF A.S.G.-R.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.R.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH AND E.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion No. 20220645-CA

Filed October 19, 2023

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department

The Honorable D. Scott Davis

No. 1196726

Alexandra Mareschal and Julie J. Nelson,

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Neil D. Skousen, Attorney for Appellee E.G.

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and RYAN D. TENNEY

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        G.R. (Mother) became convinced that E.G. (Father) was sexually abusing their daughter, A.S.G.-R. (Child). Over a nearly two-year period, Mother made or sparked some thirty reports of sexual abuse to Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). After investigation, however, DCFS was unable to discover any credible evidence supporting Mother’s allegations, and therefore did not substantiate any of them. And given the number and repeated nature of the reports, DCFS became concerned that Child was being harmed by the allegations and ensuing investigations, some of which had included invasive physical examinations of Child.

¶2        Eventually, the State filed a petition for protective supervision and obtained an order removing Child from Mother’s custody and placing her with Father. After affording Mother fifteen months of reunification services, including a psychological evaluation and therapy, the juvenile court determined that the services had not resulted in sufficient change to the situation and that Child would be placed at substantial risk if she were returned to Mother, and therefore terminated reunification services. And after a four-day permanency hearing, the court entered a permanent custody and guardianship order in favor of Father.

¶3        Mother now appeals, arguing that the court erred in its decisions to not extend reunification services and to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. We discern no reversible error in those decisions, and therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶4        Child was born in January 2017. Mother and Father separated shortly before Child’s birth, and about two years later they finalized their divorce. In the decree of divorce, Mother and Father were awarded joint legal custody of Child, but Mother was awarded primary physical custody with Father having statutory parent-time.

¶5        Child welfare officials first became involved with this family in November 2018, when DCFS made a supported finding of domestic violence with Father as the perpetrator and Child as the victim. At some point during this same time frame, Mother obtained a protective order against Father, based on allegations that he committed domestic violence against her also.

¶6        Beginning in May 2019, Mother began to make accusations that Father was sexually abusing Child. Over the course of the next two years, Mother made at least eight direct reports to DCFS of alleged sexual abuse. In addition, Mother reported her allegations to various medical and mental health professionals, some of whom also made reports to DCFS based on Mother’s representations. In total, between May 2019 and February 2021, some thirty separate reports were made to DCFS that Father was sexually abusing Child. DCFS investigated these reports and could not substantiate any of them. In connection with some of these reports, Mother took Child to the hospital. During two of these visits, Child—approximately three years old at the time— was subjected to invasive physical examinations, including one “code-R” rape examination.[2] The examinations yielded no evidence of abuse, and in January 2020 DCFS representatives spoke with Mother about the potential harm that could result to Child from repeated unfounded allegations and needless forensic medical examinations. In addition, in April 2020 the “medical director of Utah’s [Center for] Safe and Healthy Families” program advised Mother that subjecting Child to “any further sexual assault examinations could result in an allegation of abuse for [Mother] due to the harm that unnecessary examinations can cause a child.”

¶7        During this time frame, and in an effort to expand Mother’s understanding of the relevant issues, DCFS opened a “voluntary services case” to provide Mother the opportunity to take advantage of certain services, and Mother agreed to work with DCFS to try to improve the situation.

¶8        During the pendency of the voluntary services case, however, Mother hired a private investigator to investigate the possibility of sexual abuse by Father, and she did not tell DCFS that she had done so. This investigator interviewed Child, using techniques the juvenile court later found to “violate[] nearly every guideline for child forensic interviewing,” including “ask[ing] leading questions, [making] promises to [Child] that could not be kept, and offer[ing Child] ice cream if she would tell the interviewer what ‘daddy’s secret’ is.”

¶9        Despite DCFS’s efforts to assist Mother, the voluntary services case did not have its desired effect. Mother proved unable or unwilling to follow the plan DCFS outlined, and she stopped communicating with the DCFS caseworker.[3] Eventually, DCFS closed the voluntary services case.

¶10 Sometime after that case was closed, Mother—in a continuing effort to present evidence that Father was sexually abusing Child—took a video recording of Child in an incident the juvenile court described as follows: Mother “videotaped [Child], naked on a bed, having her point to where [Father] touches her. On the video, [Mother] touches [Child’s] genitals and has her spread her legs and moves the camera angle close-up to [Child’s] genitals.” Mother provided a copy of this recording to DCFS, but caseworkers declined to view it “based on concerns that it may potentially contain child pornography.” Mother then provided the video recording to law enforcement.

¶11      In January 2021, Mother again brought Child to a hospital, alleging that Child “disclosed that [Father] had put his mouth on [Child’s] vagina just hours prior.” Another invasive physical examination was performed on Child, yet “no male DNA was found on [Child’s] genitals.” DCFS was informed about this incident, presumably from hospital personnel, and investigated it; the investigation included interviewing Child at the Children’s Justice Center. After completing its investigation, DCFS found “no corroborating evidence” and concluded that Child’s “disclosure was coached” and “not credible.”

¶12      The present case was initiated in March 2021 when Mother sought a protective order barring Father from having contact with Child, and the State responded by not only intervening in the protective order case but also by filing this action: a petition for protective supervision services in which the State asked the court to “discontinue” the protective order, conclude that Child was “abused, dependent, and/or neglected,” award DCFS protective supervision of Child, and allow DCFS to place Child in Father’s custody during the pendency of the case.

¶13      At a shelter hearing held about a week later, the juvenile court ordered Child removed from Mother’s custody and placed in the temporary custody of DCFS, which then placed Child, on a preliminary basis, with Father. Child has remained in Father’s care ever since.

¶14      Later, at a subsequent hearing, the court found, based on stipulation, that Child was dependent as to Father. With regard to Father, the court indicated that the primary permanency goal was “Reunification/REMAIN HOME,” and that the concurrent goal was “Remain Home with non-custodial parent.”

¶15      The court held an adjudication hearing as to Mother; at that hearing, Father and the guardian ad litem (the GAL) asserted that Mother’s conduct—making repeated false claims of sexual abuse, thereby subjecting Child to interviews, investigations, and physical examinations—constituted abuse, but the State argued only for a finding of neglect. After the hearing, the court found “no specific evidence” of harm to Child that could support a finding of abuse, but instead determined that Child “is neglected” as to Mother because Child “lacks proper care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother].” For Mother, the court set a primary permanency goal of “RETURN HOME” and a concurrent permanency goal of “Permanent Custody and Guardianship with a Relative.” The court explained that it was setting “different permanency goals for each parent,” and that for Father, “the primary goal will be” for Child to “remain[] home with him,” with “the concurrent goal of reunification if she is removed from his care.” For Mother, the primary goal was “reunification, with the concurrent goal of guardianship with [a] relative.”

¶16 In connection with setting these permanency goals, the court adopted a Child and Family Plan (the Plan). Under the terms of the Plan, Mother was required to, among other things, “complete a psychological evaluation and follow through with all recommendations”; “participate in individual therapy”; participate in a “parenting class”; and “maintain stable and appropriate housing” for herself and Child. The Plan also required Mother to be “open and honest” in connection with the psychological evaluation, as well as with therapists and other mental health professionals. The Plan provided that its objectives would “be achieved when [Child] is living at [Mother’s] home” and when Mother “is providing a healthy, stable, and age-appropriate environment . . . that supports a strong co-parenting relationship with” Father. No party lodged any objection to the terms of the Plan or to the permanency goals the court set.[4]

¶17 Thereafter, Mother completed a parenting class as well as—after some delay that may or may not have been attributable to her—the required psychological evaluation. The psychologist who conducted the evaluation (Evaluator) diagnosed Mother with “unspecified personality disorder” characterized by “symptoms indicative of borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders as well as paranoid-like features.” In particular, Evaluator noted that Mother has “a belief that she can only be understood by a few people,” a “sense of entitlement,” a “lack of empathy,” and a “pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others” that leads her to sometimes “suspect[], without sufficient basis, that others are harming and deceiving her.” Evaluator offered his view that, “unless [Mother] overcomes her psychopathological features,” she “cannot act in [Child’s] best interest.” He noted that the “obvious recommendation” for Mother would be for her to “pursue an effective treatment program,” but he was doubtful that such a program would succeed in Mother’s case, because Mother “is convinced that she is not the problem” and because, “given her personality disorder features, . . . it would be hard for [Mother] to develop an effective psychotherapeutic alliance with her psychotherapist.”

¶18 Thereafter, DCFS sent Mother a list of recommended therapists, and Mother attended therapy sessions with at least three different mental health professionals. DCFS expressed concern that Mother “was seeking out multiple providers,” some of whom reported that Mother was attempting to “get a second opinion on the psychological evaluation,” and DCFS was worried that Mother was “continu[ing] to report” to these therapists “that [Child] was being sexually abused.” Because of this, DCFS harbored a “concern that there is no clear progress in therapy, due to minimal communication from providers, multiple providers involved and regular changes in therapy.” Mother maintains, however, that she “engaged in all recommended therapy,” an assertion no party apparently contests, although the record is far from clear about what the specific recommendations were and exactly how Mother complied with them.

¶19 After the psychological evaluation was completed, the parties appeared for a review hearing before the court. At that hearing, the results of the evaluation were discussed, and the court commented that, “if the case were closed today and things returned to how they were before the case, [Child] would be at risk of harm by” Mother. The court ordered that Child remain in DCFS custody and placed with Father, with whom the court stated it had “no safety concerns.”

¶20 As the twelve-month permanency hearing approached, Mother moved for an extension of reunification services for “at least 90 days.” Mother argued that she had complied with the Plan, in that she had completed the parenting class and the psychological evaluation and had engaged in therapy. In this motion, Mother also argued that the juvenile court could not enter an order of permanent custody and guardianship with Father, because the district court had already entered a custody order, in connection with the parties’ divorce case, and in Mother’s view the district court should be the court to enter and modify custody orders between the parents. Father opposed Mother’s motion for extended services, but the State did not register opposition. The court scheduled an evidentiary hearing to consider the matter. But due to problems with witness subpoenas, the evidentiary hearing needed to be postponed, which resulted in Mother’s motion for an extension of services being de facto granted: services were then extended for another ninety days, and the postponed evidentiary hearing was turned into a permanency hearing.

¶21      After these delays, the permanency hearing was held, over four nonconsecutive trial days, in April and June 2022. Child’s DCFS caseworker testified that she believed that Mother had been “coaching [Child] into telling people certain things.” And Child’s psychologist testified that she “did not observe significant behaviors or concerns, [or] emotions concerning expressions that would signal to [her] that [Child] has experienced sexual abuse.”

¶22      Evaluator testified at length during the trial, and discussed the specifics of his evaluation of Mother. He discussed his diagnosis that Mother had an “unspecified personality disorder.” He testified that the evaluation took longer than anticipated because Mother “did not involve herself in the evaluation in a forthright manner,” “withheld relevant information that was requested of her,” and “intentionally distorted information.” In his view, Mother did not think that she was the problem or that she had done anything wrong. Evaluator reiterated his view that unless Mother “overcomes her psychopathological features, [she] cannot act in [Child’s] best interest.”

¶23 During her own testimony, Mother continued to cling to her viewpoint that Father had been sexually abusing Child. She testified that “she does not agree with a doctor’s opinion that there was no evidence of sexual abuse.” When asked whether she “still believe[d]” that Father had sexually abused Child, she answered that she did not know, but that some “part of [her]” still believed that abuse took place, and that she still had “a suspicion” in that regard. She did not recognize any impropriety in her multiple reports of sexual abuse to DCFS and other authorities, testifying that she did not “think [she] was doing anything incorrectly” regarding the parenting of Child. And she did not agree that her behavior constituted neglect of Child.

¶24      In this same vein, Mother also called her ongoing therapist to testify at the trial. The therapist testified that he had spent some thirty hours of therapy with Mother and that she had been cooperative. The therapist opined, to the extent he was able to as a fact witness, that Evaluator’s diagnosis of an “unspecified personality disorder” was incorrect, that Mother had not neglected Child by reporting sexual abuse to the authorities, and that Father had indeed sexually abused Child.

¶25      At the conclusion of the trial, the juvenile court took the matter under advisement. A few weeks later, the court issued a written decision containing several different rulings. First, the court declined Mother’s invitation to further extend reunification services, and it terminated those services. Important to the court’s decision in this regard were its findings that—although Mother had taken certain steps, including completing parenting classes, engaging in therapy, and completing the psychological evaluation—Mother had not fully complied with the terms of the Plan, because even after all of these services, Mother “accepted virtually no responsibility for [Child] being in DCFS custody for more than one year,” “demonstrated virtually no insight regarding the harm she has caused” to Child, and offered “varied and conflicted” testimony “regarding whether she still believed” that Father had sexually abused Child, “despite there being no credible evidence that he has.” The court also determined that reunification between Mother and Child was not “probable or likely within the next 90 days” and that the extension of services was not in Child’s best interest.

¶26 Second, the court awarded “permanent custody and guardianship” of Child to Father. Important to the court’s decision in this regard were its findings that “return of [Child] to [Mother’s] care would create a substantial risk of detriment to [Child’s] physical or emotional well-being,” that there is “no credible evidence” that Father has ever sexually abused Child, and that Child “seems to be thriving and well-adjusted [and] well cared for” in Father’s care.

¶27 Finally, after denying Mother’s request for additional reunification services and granting permanent custody and guardianship in favor of Father, the court terminated its jurisdiction in the case.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶28 Mother now appeals, and she raises two issues for our consideration. First, she challenges the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. The juvenile court is “in the best position to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, the parent’s level of participation in reunification services, and whether services were appropriately tailored to remedy the problems that led to the child’s removal.” In re D.R., 2022 UT App 124, ¶ 9, 521 P.3d 545 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1264 (Utah 2023). Accordingly, “absent a demonstration that the determination was clearly in error, we will not disturb the determination” to terminate reunification services. See id. (quotation simplified).

¶29      Second, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s decision to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father, her fellow parent. As part of this challenge, she takes issue with the court setting slightly different permanency goals for each parent, and with the court accomplishing two separate objectives—namely, choosing among those goals and awarding permanent custody to Father—all in connection with the same hearing. In the main, Mother’s challenges in this regard involve questions of statutory interpretation, which “are questions of law that we review for correctness.” In re S.Y.T., 2011 UT App 407, ¶ 9, 267 P.3d 930 (quotation simplified). But to the extent that Mother here challenges the court’s underlying factual findings, we adopt a more deferential standard of review. See In re L.M., 2013 UT App 191, ¶ 6, 308 P.3d 553 (“We review the juvenile court’s factual findings for clear error . . . .” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 320 P.3d 676 (Utah 2014).[5]

ANALYSIS

I

¶30      Mother first challenges the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. For the reasons discussed, we discern no clear error in the court’s decision.

¶31 When a juvenile court removes a child from a parent’s custody, it may afford the parent the opportunity to take advantage of certain services—e.g., mental health counseling or parenting classes—designed to address the problems that led to removal and aimed at facilitating reunification between parent and child. See Utah Code § 80-3-406. However, due to the need for swift permanence in child welfare cases, the duration of reunification services may not ordinarily “exceed 12 months” from the date of removal. See id. § 80-3-406(13)(a); see also id. § 80­3-409(6). A juvenile court may, however, extend reunification services by an additional “90 days”—for a total of fifteen months—if the court finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, “that (i) there has been substantial compliance with the child and family plan; (ii) reunification is probable within that 90-day period; and (iii) the extension is in the best interest of the minor.” Id. § 80-3­409(7)(a). And in exceptional cases, the court may extend services for a second ninety-day period—for a total of eighteen months— but only if the court can make those same three findings by clear and convincing evidenceId. § 80-3-409(7)(c).

¶32      In this case, Child was removed from Mother’s custody at a shelter hearing in March 2021. Thus, reunification services were to presumptively end in March 2022, unless the court made findings sufficient to support an extension. In early April 2022, the court commenced an evidentiary hearing for the purpose of determining whether reunification services should be terminated or extended but, due to problems with witness subpoenas, the evidentiary hearing needed to be postponed, which resulted in a de facto extension of reunification services for another three months, into June 2022. Finally, at the conclusion of the four-day hearing that same month, the court ordered that reunification services be terminated. In its order, the court—presumably out of an abundance of caution given the timing of the hearing—stated that it was “not able to find by a preponderance of the evidence, and certainly not by clear and convincing evidence, that [Mother] is in substantial compliance with [the Plan], that reunification . . . is probable or likely within the next 90 days, or that extension of services for [Mother] is in [Child’s] best interest.”

¶33 Mother challenges this decision, asserting that it goes against the clear weight of the evidence because, she asserts, she at least substantially complied with the Plan. We acknowledge that Mother did take certain actions that the Plan required, such as completing the psychological evaluation and participating in parenting classes and individual therapy, and we therefore agree with Mother’s assertion that she complied with many—if not necessarily all[6]—of the Plan’s individual requirements.

¶34      But even taking Mother’s assertion—that she completed all of the Plan’s individual subsidiary tasks—at face value, that does not necessarily compel the conclusion that Mother substantially complied with the Plan, because in this case Mother’s efforts did not bear fruit. That is, at the end of fifteen months of reunification services, Mother had not rectified the problem that led to the removal of Child from her custody. The Plan explicitly stated that its goals would be “achieved when [Child] is living at [Mother’s] home [and] where Mother is providing a healthy, stable, and age-appropriate environment . . . that supports a strong co-parenting relationship with [Father].” Child was removed from Mother’s custody because Child lacked “proper care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother]” due to Mother’s continued unsupported reports to authorities that Father was sexually abusing Child. After fifteen months of services, the court—based at least in part on Mother’s own testimony at the evidentiary hearing— determined that the original problem still existed, and that Child could not therefore safely be returned to Mother’s custody. It is far from clear error for a juvenile court to determine that a parent who has completed many of a child and family plan’s individual requirements, but who has still not meaningfully addressed the underlying problem the plan was designed to solve, has not substantially complied with the plan.

¶35      Moreover, even if we were to assume, for the purposes of the discussion, that Mother’s actions constituted substantial compliance with the Plan, Mother must also grapple with the juvenile court’s findings that reunification was not probable within the next ninety days, and that another extension of reunification services was not in Child’s best interest. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(7)(a)(ii), (iii); see also In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶ 54, 523 P.3d 736 (“Although [the mother] subsequently complied with the child and family plan, the court nonetheless determined that [the child] could not safely be returned to her care because it found that the return posed a substantial risk of detriment to [the child’s] physical or emotional well-being.”), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). While Mother spends many pages in her brief contesting the court’s “substantial compliance” finding, she does not directly engage with the court’s findings that, given her lack of progress on solving the underlying problem, she had not shown—by either evidentiary standard— that reunification was probable in the next ninety days or that reunification was in Child’s best interest. And based on our review of the record, we discern no clear error in these findings.

¶36      Accordingly, we discern no error, let alone reversible error, in the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services.

II

¶37 Next, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s decision to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. Her challenge in this regard is multi-faceted. First, she challenges the substance of the court’s decision, and asserts that the court—by considering its options limited to those set forth in section 80-3­409(4)(b) of the Utah Code—erred in its interpretation of the governing statute. And in connection with this argument, Mother asks us to overrule one of our recent opinions. Second, Mother challenges the procedure the court used in reaching its decision. For the reasons discussed, we reject Mother’s arguments.

A

¶38      Under our law, in any case in which reunification services are ordered, “the juvenile court shall, at the permanency hearing, determine . . . whether the minor may safely be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(2)(a). And “[i]f the juvenile court finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that return of the minor to the minor’s parent would create a substantial risk of detriment to the minor’s physical or emotional well-being, the minor may not be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent.” Id. § 80-3-409(2)(b).

¶39      In this case, as already discussed, the juvenile court ordered reunification services for Mother, and therefore needed to confront, at the permanency hearing, the question of whether Child faced “substantial risk of detriment to her physical and emotional well-being if returned to [Mother’s] care.” In its findings and conclusions entered following that hearing, the court specifically found, by “both a preponderance of the evidence” and by “clear and convincing evidence, that return of [Child] to [Mother’s] care would create a substantial risk of detriment to [Child’s] physical or emotional well-being.” Mother does not directly challenge that finding on appeal.[7]

¶40      In situations where a juvenile court makes a finding of risk and therefore determines that a child cannot be returned to the parent’s custody, our law then requires the court to do certain things: “(a) order termination of reunification services to the parent; (b) make a final determination regarding whether termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship is the most appropriate final plan for the minor . . . ; and (c) . . . establish a concurrent permanency plan that identifies the second most appropriate final plan for the minor, if appropriate.” Id. § 80-3-409(4). As discussed above, the court terminated reunification services, and did not err by so doing.

¶41      The court then considered the three options presented by the second part of the governing statute: termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship.[8] See id. § 80-3-409(4)(b). The court determined that permanent custody and guardianship with Father was the most appropriate of those three options.

¶42      Mother challenges the substance of this determination, and she makes two specific arguments. First, she asserts that the statutory subsection the court believed governed the situation— section 80-3-409(4) of the Utah Code—doesn’t actually govern, because in Mother’s view Child was “returned to” a parent (Father) after the permanency hearing. Second, and relatedly, Mother acknowledges that one of our recent decisions—In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, 523 P.3d 736, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023)—interpreted the governing statute in a manner unfavorable to her, and she asks us to overrule that recent case. We find neither of Mother’s arguments persuasive.

1

¶43 Mother’s first argument challenges the juvenile court’s interpretation of statutory text. In particular, she notes that a threshold requirement of the governing statute is that the minor not be “returned to the minor’s parent or guardian at the permanency hearing.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4). Only if a child is not “returned to the minor’s parent” at the permanency hearing does a court need to choose from one of the three options set forth in subsection (4)(b): termination, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship. See id. If a child is “returned to the minor’s parent,” then a court presumably could select some other option not listed in subsection (4)(b). As Mother sees it, the statutory reference to “the minor’s parent” includes not only the parent from whom the child was removed and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made, but also the child’s other parent. And she asserts that, because Child was placed in the custody of Father—Child’s other parent—after the permanency hearing, the court erred by considering itself limited to the three options set out in subsection (4)(b).

¶44      Our “overarching goal” in interpreting a statute is “to implement the intent of the legislature.” See State v. Rushton, 2017 UT 21, ¶ 11, 395 P.3d 92. In attempting to ascertain that intent, we start with “the language and structure of the statute.” Id. “Often, statutory text may not be plain when read in isolation, but may become so in light of its linguistic, structural, and statutory context.” Id. (quotation simplified). “The reverse is equally true: words or phrases may appear unambiguous when read in isolation, but become ambiguous when read in context.” Id. For this reason, “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, avoiding any interpretation which renders parts or words in a statute inoperative or superfluous in order to give effect to every word in the statute.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶45 In our view, the phrase “the minor’s parent,” as used in section 80-3-409(4), refers only to the parent from whom the child was removed, who was offered reunification services, and to whom return of the child “would create a substantial risk of detriment” to the child. It does not refer to another parent with whom the child is currently placed, who has not been ordered to complete any reunification services, and with regard to whom the court has not made any “substantial risk” determination. Indeed, the thrust of this entire statutory section has to do with whether a child will be reunited with a parent from whom the child has been removed and who has received reunification services. See Utah Code § 80-3-409. As already noted, subsection (2) requires a court to make a threshold determination about whether the “minor may safely be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent,” something that may not occur if “return of the minor to the minor’s parent would create a substantial risk of detriment” to the minor. Id. § 80-3-409(2)(a), (b). The verb “returned” is meaningful here: one does not “return” to a situation in which one has never been in the first place. See Return,    Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/return            [https://perma.cc/Y4YF-3ENP]
(defining “return” as “to go back or come back again”). In the subsection (2) context, the phrase “the minor’s parent” clearly refers to the parent from whom the minor was removed, who received reunification services, and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made; indeed, the statute instructs juvenile courts that are making the subsection (2) threshold determination to consider, among other things, whether the parent in question has demonstrated “progress” and whether the parent has “cooperated and used the services provided.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(3)(a)(iv), (v). In our view, it would be nonsensical to apply this phrase to the minor’s other parent in a situation where the child was already in the custody of that parent at the time of the permanency hearing, where that parent did not receive reunification services, and where the court made no “substantial risk” determination concerning that parent at that hearing. Indeed, at oral argument before this court, Mother conceded that the phrase “the minor’s parent,” as used in subsection (2), must refer solely to the parent who received reunification services and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made.

¶46 That same phrase—“the minor’s parent”—used two subsections later means the same thing. As noted, we read statutes as a whole, including all of their subsections, and “interpret [their] provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters.” See Rushton, 2017 UT 21, ¶ 11 (quotation simplified). Under “the canon of consistent meaning,” there is a “presumption that the established meaning of a word in a given body of law carries over to other uses of the same term used elsewhere within that same law.” In re Childers-Gray, 2021 UT 13, ¶ 142, 487 P.3d 96 (Lee, J., dissenting). And the “canon of consistent meaning is at its strongest when it is applied to a term used in neighboring subparts of the same statutory provision.” Irving Place Assocs. v. 628 Park Ave, LLC, 2015 UT 91, ¶ 21, 362 P.3d 1241; see also Barneck v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2015 UT 50, ¶ 31, 353 P.3d 140 (determining that a term “cannot properly mean one thing as applied to two of the objects in a series . . . but something else as applied to the other object in the same series”). Thus, when assessing the meaning of the phrase “the minor’s parent” in subsection (4), it is highly relevant how that phrase is used in subsection (2). And we conclude that, interpreted in its proper context, the phrase—as used in subsection (4) as well as subsection (2)—refers only to the parent from whom the child was removed, who received reunification services, and with regard to whom the court is making the “substantial risk” determination, and not to another parent who does not fit those criteria.

¶47      Accordingly, we reject Mother’s argument that subsection 409(4) has no application to her situation. By the plain terms of that statutory section, the juvenile court—as soon as it determined that Child could not safely be returned to Mother—was obligated to apply that statutory subsection according to its text.

2

¶48      Under the text of that statutory subsection, a court that has made a “substantial risk” determination must terminate reunification services. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4)(a). At that point, the statute requires the court to “make a final determination regarding whether termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship is the most appropriate final plan for the minor.” Id. § 80-3-409(4)(b). The language of this statutory subsection therefore speaks of only three options, and requires the court in this situation to choose one of them. And we have recently interpreted this language according to its text, even as applied to disputes between parents. See In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, 523 P.3d 736, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023).

¶49      Yet here, Mother nevertheless asserts that, at least in cases involving disputes between two parents, juvenile courts ought to be allowed to choose a different option: entry of a simple custody order that is controlled by the usual standards governing entry and modification of custody orders in divorce court. Mother asserts that awarding a parent the status of “guardian” makes no sense, given that a parent already has all the rights that a guardian has. And she asserts that entering orders of permanent guardianship as between parents has the effect—one she posits was unintended—of preventing one parent from being able to seek modification of the custody order.

¶50      To her credit, Mother recognizes that our recent holding in In re H.C. forecloses her argument for a fourth option. In that case, the parents of a child were divorced, with a parenting plan that gave primary custody to the mother. Id. ¶ 2. But later, the juvenile court determined that the child had been neglected by the mother, and the child was placed in the care of the father. Id. ¶¶ 4, 8. After the permanency hearing, the juvenile court determined that the child would be at substantial risk if returned to the mother’s custody, and the court placed the child with the father under an order of permanent custody and guardianship. Id. ¶¶ 28, 38. On appeal, we affirmed the juvenile court’s decision, and we interpreted subsection 409(4)(b) as limiting the juvenile court to the three options set forth therein. Id. ¶ 58. We held that subsection 409(4)(b) “leaves a juvenile court judge with no discretion” to do anything else, and we specifically stated that the statute “does not vest the juvenile court with the authority to defer to the district court” with regard to custody of the adjudicated child. Id. (quotation simplified).

¶51      In an effort to get around this roadblock, Mother asks us to overrule In re H.C. We do possess the authority to overrule our own precedent in appropriate cases. See State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 11, 417 P.3d 592 (stating that one panel of this court “retains the right to overrule another panel’s decision if the appropriate standard is met”). “But we do not do so lightly,” given our respect for the principle of stare decisis, which ordinarily requires us to defer to “the first decision by a court on a particular question.” See State v. Garcia-Lorenzo, 2022 UT App 101, ¶¶ 42, 44, 517 P.3d 424 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022).

¶52      “Before we may overrule one of our precedents, we must engage in the two-part exercise required by our supreme court in such situations.” Id. ¶ 45. “First, we must assess the correctness of the precedent, and specifically examine the persuasiveness of the authority and reasoning on which the precedent was originally based.” Id. (quotation simplified). “Second, we must assess the practical effect of the precedent, including considerations such as the age of the precedent, how well it has worked in practice, its consistency with other legal principles, and the extent to which people’s reliance on the precedent would create injustice or hardship if it were overturned.” Id. (quotation simplified). Both parts of the test must be satisfied before we may overrule a precedent. See id. In this case, we need not discuss the second part because, in our view, the first one is not satisfied.

¶53 With regard to the first part—the correctness of the precedent—Mother asserts that our decision in In re H.C. “upends the district court’s jurisdiction over custody matters and imposes an unnecessarily restrictive scheme on custody between two parents.” She points out that, when a child is placed with the other parent after a permanency hearing, “the child isn’t in ‘legal limbo’” and “all that is left to determine is what [the] custody [arrangement] between the parents will look like.” And she maintains that, if subsection 409(4)(b) is interpreted to require courts to order permanent custody and guardianship in favor of one of the parents, that result would serve to “override[] district court custody orders” and would create a “super sole custody” arrangement in which “the non-guardian parent can never modify the terms of the guardianship.” She asserts that this is an “absurd result” that “cannot be what the legislature intended.”

¶54 But in our view, the panel’s reasoning in In re H.C. was sound. There, the court analyzed the text of subsection 409(4)(b) and concluded that the language used by the legislature limited juvenile courts in this situation to the three options set forth in the text of the statute. See In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶¶ 58–59. Our analysis of that same text leads us to the same conclusion.

¶55      Moreover, Mother overlooks the fact that the panel in In re H.C. considered many of the same arguments that Mother is advancing here. In that case, the appellant asserted that “juvenile courts should not be deciding custody between two fit parents.” Id. ¶ 52 (quotation simplified). And the appellant complained that an order of permanent custody and guardianship in favor of the other parent may prevent her “from petitioning for custodial change in the future.” Id. ¶ 53. We rejected these arguments, in part, by noting that, given the court’s adjudication rulings, “this was not merely a custody proceeding ‘between two fit parents.’” Id. ¶ 54. And we acknowledged the remainder of these arguments in a footnote, editorializing that “it seems odd that, in a situation such as this with two parents vying for custody of a minor child, the statute authorizes the award of permanent guardianship to one parent over the other, where both enjoy parental rights in the minor child.” Id. ¶ 59 n.13. But we found these arguments nevertheless unpersuasive in light of the text of the “statutory regimen that we [were] called upon to interpret and apply.” Id.

¶56      We share the sentiment of the panel in In re H.C. that the text of the governing statute compels the interpretation described there. The text selected and enacted by our legislature limits juvenile courts to just three options in this situation. See id. ¶¶ 58– 59 & n.13 (stating that “permanent custody and guardianship is one of only three options available by the terms of the controlling statute when parental neglect has triggered the juvenile court’s jurisdiction and the case progresses to a permanency hearing at which parental neglect is found and reunification services are terminated”). If our legislature intended a different result, it can always amend the statute to provide for additional options—for instance, entry of a simple custody order awarding primary physical custody to the other parent, and allowing the district court to manage things from there—that a juvenile court might be able to apply in cases involving disputes between two parents. But for now, the text of the governing statute speaks of only three options, applicable in all cases, and we must apply the statute as written, Mother’s policy arguments notwithstanding.[9]

¶57 For all of these reasons, we decline Mother’s invitation to overrule In re H.C. That case—and the statutory text interpreted therein—compels the conclusion that the juvenile court, in this case, had only three options after concluding that it could not return Child to Mother’s custody: it had to either (a) terminate Mother’s parental rights, (b) work toward adoption, or (c) enter an order of permanent custody and guardianship with someone other than the parent at issue. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4)(b); see also In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶¶ 58–59. The juvenile court, by selecting permanent custody and guardianship in favor of Father, chose one of the available options.[10] In so doing, the court properly followed the governing statute, and did not misinterpret it. We therefore reject Mother’s second substantive argument.

B

¶58      Finally, Mother makes two challenges to the procedure the juvenile court employed in arriving at its conclusion to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. We reject both challenges.

¶59 First, Mother claims that the court acted inappropriately when it took the following two actions in the same ruling and after the same hearing: (a) it changed Child’s final permanency goal to permanent custody and guardianship and (b) it entered an order effectuating the permanent custody and guardianship. As Mother sees it, the court was required “to first change the permanency goals . . . and then hold a review hearing (possibly another evidentiary hearing) to determine whether the final permanency goal is established.” Mother notes that “nothing in section 409 permits a juvenile court to” accomplish both things in the same ruling and after the same hearing. But Mother cites no statute or appellate opinion forbidding the court from doing so and, in this situation, we see no reason why the court could not have proceeded as it did.

¶60 Had the court chosen “adoption” as the primary permanency goal following the permanency hearing, then perhaps Mother would have a point: as a practical matter, setting adoption as the goal entails a fair bit of extra work. To facilitate an adoption, the parent’s rights would need to be terminated, and to make that happen, the State (or another petitioner) would need to file a petition for termination of parental rights, which would need to be litigated. And the juvenile court would also need to concern itself, in the event the parent’s rights were terminated, with finding an appropriate adoptive placement for the child.

¶61 But where the court selects permanent custody and guardianship as the primary permanency goal, and the child is already placed with the person to whom custody and guardianship is to be given, there are not necessarily any additional steps that the court needs to take before making that goal a reality. Certainly, in this case Mother doesn’t identify any additional work that needed to be done in the interim. And as noted, Mother points to no statute or governing case forbidding the juvenile court, in cases like this one, from proceeding efficiently and entering the order of guardianship in the same order as it selects the primary permanency goal. Mother has therefore not carried her burden of demonstrating error.

¶62 Second, Mother takes issue with the juvenile court’s decision, earlier in the case, to set different permanency goals for each parent. As noted above, after adjudicating Child dependent as to Father, the court initially set the primary permanency goal, as to Father, as “Reunification/REMAIN HOME,” and the concurrent permanency goal as “Remain Home with non­custodial parent.” Later, after adjudicating Child neglected as to Mother, the court set a primary permanency goal, as to Mother, of “RETURN HOME” and a concurrent permanency goal of “Permanent Custody and Guardianship with a Relative.” The court explained that it was setting “different permanency goals for each parent,” and that for Father, “the primary goal will be” for Child to “remain[] home with him,” with “the concurrent goal of reunification if she is removed from his care.” For Mother, the primary permanency goal was “reunification, with the concurrent goal of guardianship with [a] relative.” Mother challenges this procedure as improper, asserting that this choice made “it additionally difficult for any parent to determine what the effect of abandoning one of the primary plans would be.” But Mother cites no statute or governing case forbidding the court from engaging in this procedure, and she overlooks the fact that she did not object to these goals when they were set. In addition, Mother does not articulate how the court’s decision to set slightly different permanency goals vis-à-vis each parent resulted in any harm to her at the end of the case. Accordingly, Mother has not carried her burden of demonstrating reversible error.[11]

CONCLUSION

¶63 We discern no clear error in the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. And we reject Mother’s challenges—both substantive and procedural—to the court’s award of permanent custody and guardianship to Father.

¶64 Affirmed.

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

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In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122 – termination of parental rights

In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF H.M. AND D.M.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.B.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220774-CA

Filed October 13, 2023

First District Juvenile Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Kirk M. Morgan

No. 1187751

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal,

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Jonathan P. Thomas, Attorney for Father

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1 Mother and Father separated in 2015 and were divorced in 2018. They had two children during their marriage—D.M. and H.M. (collectively, the Children). From 2015 until 2020, Mother repeatedly told state authorities that Father had physically and sexually abused the Children. In several instances, Mother prompted the Children to make allegations against Father too.

Although authorities investigated the reports, none of the investigations resulted in a finding that Father had abused the Children. Also, on two occasions in 2020, Mother absconded with the Children during times in which she did not have custody. Both times, law enforcement was involved in locating and returning the Children to Father’s custody.

¶2        After Mother encouraged one of the Children to file a new report of abuse against Father in January 2022, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. At the close of a several-day trial, the juvenile court issued an order finding that Mother “cannot stop her destructive behavior” of making “false allegations” against Father. The court then terminated Mother’s parental rights.

¶3        Mother now appeals the termination decision. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶4        Mother and Father had two children during their marriage: D.M., who was born in 2012, and H.M., who was born in late 2014. Mother and Father separated in 2015 when H.M. was approximately three months old, and their divorce was finalized in 2018. Mother subsequently married another man (Stepfather).

Allegations of Abuse from 2015 Through 2020[1]

¶5        The reports of abuse began in February 2015, when DCFS received a referral alleging that during the marriage between Mother and Father, Father would “throw things, but not at [Mother], and punch holes in the doors.” DCFS chose not to accept this referral as a basis for action. In June 2015, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father views pornography “including teenaged girls.” This referral was unaccepted because there were no allegations that the Children were being abused or neglected.

¶6 In May 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that after D.M. came back from parent-time with Father, he would not sit down because “his bottom hurt” and his anus was “red and inflamed.” The referral was not accepted because D.M. did not make any disclosure that any abuse had occurred. In September 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children had returned from parent-time with Father with black eyes and that Father commonly yelled at the Children, which allegedly made D.M. fearful to get out of bed to use the bathroom at night. The referral was unaccepted because the Children did not report any injuries from Father or provide specific details about what Father was saying to the Children.

¶7        In early October 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children were being physically abused by Father and that H.M. had been sexually abused by Father. The referral was accompanied by photographs of a bruise on H.M.’s leg. When a DCFS worker interviewed D.M. about these allegations, D.M. reported that Father had pushed him into a “monkey bag,” but D.M. couldn’t explain what a “monkey bag” was. D.M. made no disclosures of sexual abuse.

¶8        In late October 2016, Mother contacted law enforcement and reported that H.M. had complained of his “bum hurting” after returning from parent-time with Father. Mother also said that she changed H.M.’s diaper and that there was blood present and that she had also observed tearing on his anus. Mother told law enforcement that H.M. had said that Father put his finger “in there.” DCFS interviewed H.M. the following day. During that interview, H.M. said that he had been “hurt” at “daddy’s house,” but he made no other disclosures. Shortly thereafter, H.M. underwent a physical examination at the Children’s Justice Center (the CJC), but no evidence of sexual or physical abuse was discovered during this examination.

¶9      In September 2017, DCFS received a referral alleging that D.M. had been physically abused by his paternal grandfather. When DCFS interviewed D.M., D.M. said that “grandpa pushed him backwards and he fell on the rocks, because he didn’t hear grandpa.” When the grandfather was then interviewed, he acknowledged that he had accidentally knocked D.M. over during a recent visit when moving him away from something.

¶10      In June 2018, DCFS received a referral alleging that during a parent-time exchange, Mother had pulled Father’s beard and kicked him and that Father had ripped out one of Mother’s hair extensions. This case was not accepted.

¶11      In November 2018, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father attempted to hit Mother with his car and that Father had threatened to kill Mother by loosening the screws on her car. While investigating this referral, DCFS interviewed both of the Children. H.M. reported that he gets “hurt” at “all of my parents’ houses,” that his parents get frustrated with each other, and that Father punches Mother. D.M. reported that his parents are “always fighting.”

¶12 In December 2018, March 2019, and April 2019, Father made reports against Mother suggesting that she was using illegal drugs and wasn’t taking proper care of the Children. None of the referrals were accepted.

¶13 In April 2019, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children had been “sodomized” by both Father and the paternal grandfather during visits with Father and that the paternal grandmother was aware of the abuse but not intervening. The referral also alleged that Father had punched D.M. in the stomach and testicles. As part of an investigation into these allegations, both of the Children were interviewed at the CJC. Though somewhat unclear, the record suggests that D.M. said nothing about abuse in his interview. H.M., however, said that his “old dad” is “going to be in the car when it explodes” “because he was mean to me.” H.M. also said that Father “put his penis in my bum” and “spanks [my] bum.” H.M. said that Father did the same thing to his cousins and that Mother told him this. When the interviewer spoke to Mother about what the Children had said, Mother asked the interviewer to talk to D.M. again, which the interviewer declined to do. During this investigation, Mother was “jittery and unable to finish sentences.”

¶14      In May 2019, Mother sought a protective order against Father. The protective order request was later denied. Around this same time, Mother informed DCFS that H.M. had bloody stools and that H.M. had reported that Father had “punched and kicked him.” Later that month, DCFS received information that H.M. had allegedly said Father “peed in his butt.” Father denied all allegations when interviewed by a detective from the Smithfield City Police Department.

¶15      In June 2019, DCFS received another referral alleging that the Children were being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by Father. DCFS visited with the Children and observed no suspicious bruises. DCFS also found the accusations of physical abuse to be without merit. As part of this investigation, a DCFS caseworker and a Smithfield City Police Department detective interviewed Mother. During this interview, Mother alleged that the Children had told her that they “are being raped” and “punched in the crotch” by Father.

¶16      On July 1, 2019, Mother brought the Children to the CJC for an interview. At the outset of H.M.’s interview, and before the DCFS interviewer had even finished explaining the nature of the interview to him, H.M. said, “Well, my dad puts his penis in my bum.” H.M. said that Mother was present when this occurred, and that Father, paternal grandfather, and paternal grandmother “did it.” H.M. further reported that Father punches him with a “real hammer that is metal and black.” H.M. also reported that Father punches him in the penis and “punches me with his butt.” When asked what he saw when Father put his penis in his bottom, H.M. said, “That’s all I needed to tell you. I didn’t see anything.” When asked again what he saw, H.M. responded, “That’s all I have to tell you.” D.M. was also interviewed at the CJC that day. D.M. responded “nothing” and “I don’t know” to the majority of the interviewer’s questions. He also said that “nothing happened” at Father’s house and that “nothing happened to his brother that hurt him.” In addition, D.M. told the interviewer that Mother would talk to H.M. about events that happened at Father’s house. After finishing the interviews with the Children, the interviewer and a Smithfield City Police Department detective interviewed Mother. They encouraged Mother “not to press” the Children “for information and not to question them.”

¶17 Later that month, Mother contacted law enforcement during a parent-time exchange with Father. Mother told law enforcement that the Children wanted to share “their concerns” regarding Father. The Children spoke to law enforcement, and nothing further was reported to DCFS.

¶18      On February 21, 2020, DCFS received another referral alleging that the Children were being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by Father. This referral alleged that Father had threatened to kill the Children and Mother if the Children reported the abuse. The referral further alleged that, within the past few days, Father had touched the Children’s genitals and “‘go[ne] inside’ their bums.” The referral also alleged that Father would give D.M. medicine to induce vomiting when D.M. would make a mistake on his homework and that Father would not allow the Children to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

¶19      While investigating this latest referral, a DCFS investigator met with Father and the Children at Father’s home. Father denied each allegation. The DCFS investigator also observed that the Children interacted with her appropriately, appeared happy and healthy, and had no marks or bruises. During this investigation, DCFS came to believe that the Children were being emotionally abused by Mother.

¶20      On February 25, 2020, DCFS received a report that Father takes the Children to “drinking parties,” that Father stalks Mother and Stepfather, and that Father “rapes” the Children. The Smithfield City Police Department conducted a welfare check but failed to find any support for the allegations or anything out of the ordinary with the Children. At this point, the Smithfield City Police Department informed DCFS that it would no longer conduct welfare checks on the Children “because of the number of reports made and lack of findings of concern.”

¶21      DCFS interviewed the Children again at the CJC on March 2, 2020. H.M. reported that Father and neighbors put cameras outside his house and that the “cameras are made from poisonous stuff that make[s] people go crazy and rip kids’ heads off.” H.M. said that the cameras have speakers to “do bad stuff to [Mother].” H.M. denied having ever been hurt and denied that anyone told him what to say at the interview. In his interview, D.M. reported that he didn’t “remember if anything has happened to him” and that there was “nothing he needs to talk about” happening at either parent’s house. D.M. also stated that no one told him what to say at the interview.

¶22      On March 20, 2020, Mother obtained an ex parte protective order against Father. A few days later, DCFS received a report alleging that Father had been sexually inappropriate in front of the Children, that Father had raped Mother in the presence of the Children, and that Father had been telling the Children that there are cameras at Mother’s house watching them. Father denied these allegations.

¶23      On March 26, 2020, the court held a hearing on the ex parte protective order. Less than an hour before it began, Mother texted a DCFS employee and alleged that the Children wanted to tell her about abuse from Father. Mother then brought a recording of the Children alleging sexual abuse by Father to the court hearing, so the hearing was continued. At a hearing that was held on April 30, the court ordered that despite Mother’s allegations, Father could resume his previously ordered parent-time.

¶24      A few days later, Mother refused to bring the Children to the exchange point, telling law enforcement that she believed the Children were in danger. That same day, the Children were interviewed at a DCFS office. Without prompting, and without waiting for the interviewer to explain what the interview would be about, H.M. said that Father had “choked him, peed in his mouth, and put his penis in his bum and it bled, and that [H.M.’s] neck was broken.” H.M. said that these things all occurred in the middle of church and that “they” were wearing church clothes when it all happened. When asked for more detail, H.M. said, “that’s all I said, that’s all I needed to tell you about,” and he continued to reply “that’s all” and “that’s all he did” to further questions. H.M. then became emotional and visibly upset, and when asked why, H.M. responded, “[B]ecause that’s what I needed to say to you!” When asked if someone had told him what to say, H.M. said that he and Mother had “talked on the iPad about it.”

¶25      When Mother was asked about H.M.’s statements later that day, Mother claimed that H.M. must have been referring to the recorded disclosure he had previously made and which Mother had previously brought to court. Following the interview, Mother asked DCFS if she still needed to send the Children to Father for parent-time the following day. DCFS informed Mother that there was not enough information to support the allegations and that it was not recommending any adjustment to parent-time.

¶26      On May 3, 2020, law enforcement was called to conduct a welfare check at Mother’s home after she reported that she was afraid Father was going to come shoot her and the Children. A week later, DCFS received a report that Father had been unable to retrieve the Children for his parent-time. Law enforcement soon learned from the maternal grandfather that Mother and the Children were staying at a local hotel, but he would not disclose its location. On May 9, 2020, Mother brought the Children to the Bountiful City Police Department to demonstrate to law enforcement that the Children were physically safe.

¶27      On May 11, 2020, Mother called law enforcement in Tooele to report that the Children’s paternal aunt and uncle were sexually and physically abusing the Children. The next day, DCFS received an additional report that Mother had told law enforcement in Layton that the Children had been sexually abused by Father and were being victimized by a sex trafficking ring. Law enforcement stated that Mother was speaking rapidly and that the conversation “went in circles.” Law enforcement was concerned that Mother was under the influence of a substance or was suffering from a mental illness. H.M. also called law enforcement that day and reported that he had been abused.

¶28 On May 14, 2020, Father obtained a writ of assistance, authorizing the help of law enforcement to retrieve the Children from Mother. Mother refused to cooperate with this order, so Father received a second writ of assistance on May 21, 2020, authorizing law enforcement to locate Mother through cell phone tracking. The Children were eventually recovered from a hotel by law enforcement.

Protective Supervision Services Case

¶29      On May 26, 2020, the State filed an expedited verified petition for protective supervision with the juvenile court. The State requested that the Children remain in Father’s custody, with DCFS providing protective supervision services. In June 2020, the juvenile court ordered DCFS to supervise the Children’s visits with Mother moving forward.

¶30      During a supervised visit at a DCFS office on July 2, 2020, Mother, Stepfather, and a step-grandfather took the Children and left the building. H.M. cried, yelled, and became upset when the step-grandfather picked him up and carried him out. Mother and the others left with the Children despite DCFS employees telling Mother that law enforcement would be called. Law enforcement soon located Mother, Stepfather, the step-grandfather, and the Children in a nearby canyon and, pursuant to a warrant, returned the Children to Father.

¶31      On July 13, 2020, the juvenile court found that Mother had neglected the Children by attempting to alienate them from Father and by making repeated reports that Father had abused the Children. The court ordered the Children to remain in Father’s custody, and it further ordered that Mother’s visits must be supervised by a professional visit supervisor and a security guard. The court also ordered Mother and Stepfather to participate in psychological evaluations and receive treatment. Mother and Stepfather subsequently participated in the ordered psychological evaluations and participated in follow-up treatment with a psychologist specializing in high-conflict custody cases. The evaluating psychologist concluded that Mother “is stuck in her narrative about what has transpired with the Children” and that she “lacks insight into her own behaviors.”

¶32      The Children began receiving therapy from a trauma therapist (Therapist). Therapist initially diagnosed both of the Children with an acute stress disorder, though she later modified the diagnoses to post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapist opined that the Children had suffered cumulative and complex trauma because of Mother’s actions, and Therapist noted that their symptoms included intrusive thoughts, negative moods, sleep disturbances, irritable behavior, angry outbursts, and physical aggression. In an August 2020 letter to the court, Therapist said that both Children, and more particularly H.M., had expressed fear of being “stole[n]” by Mother again and of having the police “chase [them] down.” Therapist also described D.M.’s stress related to the May 2020 hotel stay.

¶33      As noted, Mother began having supervised visits with Children in July 2020. DCFS’s progress notes indicate that Mother asked “some inappropriate questions during the visits,” e.g., that she had asked the Children “multiple times if they are ok or if there is anything wrong” and that Mother also questioned the Children about “where they live, who lives with them, and if anyone is telling them not to tell her things.” Although Mother had been told several times not to talk to the Children about the case, Mother asked the Children in September 2020 “if they could tell someone about the things they told her and the things she said were not crazy,” and that if they did, “they could go home with her because ‘they think that I’m lying.’” When the supervising DCFS caseworker (Lead Caseworker) told Mother not to talk about these things with the Children, Mother became defensive and told Lead Caseworker to “back off.”

¶34      Mother’s supervised visits began proceeding without serious incident, though, and in March 2021, the juvenile court removed the requirement that a security guard be present. The court also ruled that the Children could have visits in Mother’s home if Mother provided a minimum of three negative drug tests and was in compliance with all other provisions from a Child and Family Plan. In April 2021, Therapist noted that D.M. had said that he had “mixed up feelings” about the possibility of staying at Mother’s home. D.M. said that he wanted to “stay overnight at [his] mom’s house,” but he was “scared” that she would “ask questions about [him] getting hurt” and felt like he had “to answer those things she asks.” Therapist also noted that D.M. felt pressured by Mother to say that “bad things” had happened at Father’s house. Therapist noted that D.M. feels like he “disappoint[ed]” Mother if he told her that he was safe at Father’s house.

¶35 In May 2021 and again in July 2021, the juvenile court increased the length of Mother’s visits with the Children. In September 2021, the court began allowing unsupervised visits at Mother’s home. In October 2021, however, the Children told DCFS that Mother “was starting to ask questions” about Father’s “house like before and they [didn’t] like it when” she did that. In November 2021, the Children reported to DCFS that “the visits have been going well” and that Mother “hasn’t asked them questions about [Father’s] house anymore.”

¶36      At a December 8, 2021, review hearing, the Guardian Ad Litem (the GAL) recommended closing the protective supervision services case due to the substantial completion of services provided to Mother and Stepfather. At the close of the hearing, Father was awarded primary custody of the Children, and the juvenile court ordered the Children to be released from the protective supervision of DCFS. The case was then closed.

Mother’s Allegations Against Father Resume

¶37      Less than a month after the protective supervision case was closed, a series of events occurred in rapid succession that again involved Mother implicating Father in alleged abuse.

¶38 On January 3, 2022, D.M. reported to a school counselor that Father was hitting him. D.M. was unable to provide any further context or detail about the alleged abuse. On January 4, DCFS received a referral that Mother was acting erratically and had perhaps used methamphetamine. That same day, Mother refused to return the Children to Father following a mid-week visit. On January 5, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father “may have” physically abused D.M. On January 6, Mother attempted to take the Children from their school, even though that day was not hers under the parent-time schedule. Law enforcement was called, and in the presence of both the Children and other school children, Mother accused Father of attempting to kidnap the Children. The Children went home with Father.

¶39      On January 10, D.M. was interviewed at the CJC. During the interview, DCFS received an additional report that Father was physically abusing D.M. and sexually abusing him by putting “his private parts in [D.M.’s] private parts.” When the interviewer asked D.M. about this information, D.M. stated that Father “hits [him], spanks [him], chokes [him], and hurts [him],” but he denied that Father had done anything else to his body. When D.M. was asked why he decided to talk about these things that day, D.M. stated he “wanted to get it out” and was “too scared to talk about it before.” H.M. was also interviewed at the CJC that day, but he said nothing about any abuse.

¶40      That same day, DCFS learned that the Cache County Sheriff’s Office had just received a letter that was written by D.M. in which D.M. alleged that Father had physically and sexually abused D.M. and H.M. When a detective spoke with Mother that day, Mother told him that she had “no idea” that D.M. had written the letter. On January 11, D.M. was interviewed at his school regarding the letter by a detective (Detective). D.M. said that “nobody knows about the letter” and that he had ridden his bike to drop it off in a mailbox. When asked for further details, D.M. responded, “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember.” D.M. also said that he “knew” the address for the sheriff’s office and that he had run a Google search and used YouTube on his tablet to learn how to send a letter.

¶41      Detective obtained a search warrant allowing him to examine the tablets used in Mother and Stepfather’s home. Pursuant to this search, Detective found no evidence of any searches like those described by D.M. But Detective did learn that Mother had searched “when does Sheriff read the mail” on January 10, 2022.

¶42      After obtaining this evidence, Detective interviewed Mother again at the sheriff’s office. Mother now acknowledged that she had taught D.M. how to “write this letter.” She also admitted to having looked up the address of the sheriff’s office and having taken D.M. to the post office to mail the letter. Mother then said that D.M. had told her that Father has “hit, choked, and sodomized” him and that H.M. had said that the first time Father “sodomized him” was when he was three years old. Mother said that H.M. couldn’t sit down because it hurt and that “something came out of his butt when he went to the bathroom.” Mother said she was having his underwear “tested for DNA” “in Florida,” but she refused to give Detective any more information about the alleged DNA testing. Mother said that she “knows this stuff is true” and that the Children were being “put back with” a “pedophile.”

¶43      On January 12, D.M. was again interviewed at school, this time by Lead Caseworker. D.M. began crying and stated that Mother “made me write that letter.” D.M. said that the “choking, the spanking and the hitting” “didn’t really happen” and that Mother had instructed him to write a letter about “something bad about” Father and “all the mean stuff she thinks has happened” to D.M. He said that he did not ride his bike to the post office but that Mother had helped him address the envelope and had then driven him there. Lead Caseworker also interviewed H.M. at school that day. H.M. reported that Mother “forced” D.M. to write a letter to the police because Mother “is trying to get dad arrested” “so they can live with her forever.” At trial, Therapist testified that both Children told her the same things about the events surrounding this letter and that both Children had also told her that as they were mailing the letter, Mother exclaimed, “This is a day we will celebrate every year.”

Termination Proceedings

¶44      DCFS sought protective supervision services for the Children on January 19, 2022. In February 2022, DCFS filed a petition for the termination of Mother’s parental rights.

¶45      The Children soon resumed regular therapy with Therapist. Therapist later testified that “D.M. came in very tearful, very confused. He had been through four to five interviews” in one week and was “wrestling with himself because he had lied during some of them because he felt like that was the right thing to do for” Mother. Therapist testified that D.M. was “having a lot of shame towards himself” and that D.M. told her that he felt like he had “to say that these things have happened in order to make [Mother] happy.” Therapist said that H.M. told her that he was “tired of all the asking stuff with [Mother].”

¶46      From January 2022 through the termination trial in July 2022, Mother was only allowed to have supervised visits with the Children. Therapist later testified that H.M. was initially “very, very vocal about not wanting to do the visits.” H.M. told Therapist that Mother “just—she comes at me and comes at me. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to deal with it.” After a March 2022 visit, H.M. reported to Therapist that he “didn’t like it and it didn’t feel safe.” H.M. said that “it sort of made [his] stomach hurt and like maybe she was going to take [him] again.”

¶47      Lead Caseworker later affirmed Therapist’s view that H.M. was initially hesitant to have visits with Mother after the January 2022 incidents. She subsequently testified that H.M. refused to attend one visit with Mother and that when he had visits with Mother early on, he was “emotionally dysregulated.” But Lead Caseworker also testified that H.M. eventually warmed up to the visits and that by the time of trial, he would sit in Mother’s lap and hug her. Lead Caseworker testified that D.M. was “very good” with Mother and that they “like to play together.”

¶48      The GAL was still concerned, though, and requested that Mother’s supervised visits be suspended. The court held a hearing in May 2022 to consider this request. At the close of the hearing, the juvenile court found that there was “no evidence whatsoever of any harm or trauma being caused to D.M. from the visits with [Mother] that have occurred subsequent” to January 2022 and that “[s]upervised visitation is in the best interest of the Children.” The court emphasized that it intended “for the visits between the Children and [Mother] to occur, regardless of whether the Children want to go or not.” Shortly before trial, D.M. indicated that he wanted visits with Mother to “last longer,” and H.M. indicated that he wanted the visits to be at Mother’s house.

Trial

¶49 In July 2022, the juvenile court held a four-day trial on DCFS’s petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. The court heard testimony from 17 witnesses, including numerous professionals.

¶50      The State called Mother as a witness on the first day of trial. During her testimony, Mother claimed that she hadn’t personally seen the letter that D.M. wrote to the sheriff in January 2022 and that she was now seeing it in court for “the first time”; Mother also claimed that she didn’t know what its contents were. But the State introduced evidence showing that Mother’s assertions about the letter were not true. For example, the State introduced a video of Mother’s interview at the sheriff’s office, and this video showed Mother reading the letter. The State also introduced an email that Mother had written to her father (the Children’s maternal grandfather) after the incident that showed that she was aware of the letter’s contents.

¶51      As for the long-term allegations of abuse that had been made against Father, Mother testified twice that she didn’t know if Father had actually abused the Children. And with respect to the allegations she’d made against Father, Mother testified that she had “followed the rules” and that she had “made sure” she didn’t talk to the Children about their disclosures to authorities.

¶52      Lead Caseworker testified at trial. She testified that the Children had been traumatized by “the fear of them being taken,” noting that H.M. has “dreams about a commander coming into a hotel room,” which Lead Caseworker linked to the incident in 2020 in which law enforcement retrieved the Children from the hotel. Lead Caseworker also testified that DCFS sought termination of parental rights instead of another round of protective supervised services because DCFS had “exhausted all options.” She said that while Mother “in her own testimony has said that she learned a lot [from the protective supervision services case] and that she . . . knew at the time what to do in that situation,” Lead Caseworker didn’t “know what more we could provide.”

¶53      Therapist testified at trial too. According to Therapist, when she began seeing the Children in January 2022, the Children “expressed a fear” about “what possibly may happen again,” wondered if Mother “would take [them] again,” and asked whether they would “have to go to the hotel again.” When Therapist was asked whether she thought there was “anything less significant than the complete termination of [Mother’s] rights that can adequately protect these Children,” she responded, “if we look at adequate protection coupled with normalcy, the answer to that is no.” Therapist further testified that her recommendation for terminating Mother’s parental rights “was based on the cumulative therapy [she] had done with the [Children] in the last few years” and that she thought that termination was in “their emotional best interest.” Therapist testified that H.M.’s “exact words” to her were, “How would you feel if this were always happening to you? I just want a normal life.” When she was asked how Mother could be stopped from continuing to traumatize the Children, Therapist testified, “We stop the interaction.” She also testified that although DCFS “may have talked about the possibility of supervised visitation,” “that’s not really along the normal, natural developmental means, and so I didn’t feel like that was the best option.”

¶54      In the GAL’s closing argument, she emphasized that “[c]ontact that isn’t highly structured and supervised, holding [Mother] accountable, results in trauma to these Children. They’ve expressed discomfort about the idea of being in [Mother’s] presence without a protective third party present.” The GAL further asserted that Mother “cannot be trusted to follow a court order. She cannot be trusted to act in the best interest of her children. Supervising visits for the rest of these Children’s childhood is not feasible, it’s not in their best interest, it’s not appropriate. Nothing less than termination of this relationship can adequately protect these Children now and into the long term.”

¶55      After the GAL’s closing argument concluded, Mother’s counsel asserted in her own closing argument that “[t]o presume that—first of all, that there’s no other choice but termination in this case, I don’t think it’s a reasonable position.” Mother’s counsel argued that

there were no specific reasons given during trial as to why these other options were not possible. Some of these less—you know, short of termination options would be to reopen the [protective supervision services] case and to implement . . . a reliable source for the kids to contact directly as to eliminate . . . the possibility of them making reports to either parent, to implementing a high-conflict therapist/family counselor . . . . Or start a new [protective supervision services] case . . . . Or permanent legal custody and guardianship with the dad, but which would allow the mom to remain in the kids’ lives and continue playing an active role in that. There are other options that would—that are short of termination that would preserve—that would enable the kids to continue having a relationship with their mother.

Mother’s counsel asserted that Mother had “worked hard and earnestly” to “be a better mom” and “did everything she was asked to do.” Mother’s counsel admitted that after the close of the protected supervision services case, “not all of the recommendations made by the therapist were followed,” but counsel suggested that if there had been “an assigned family therapist in place . . . we wouldn’t be here today.” Counsel concluded her argument by requesting that the court reopen the prior protective supervised services case and “require the parties to comply with the recommendations as given by the service providers.”

Termination Decision

¶56      The juvenile court subsequently issued a written decision terminating Mother’s parental rights to the Children.

¶57      Early in this ruling, the court found the testimony of Therapist to be “both credible and helpful in provid[ing] understanding of the harm done to the Children due to the actions of [Mother].” By contrast, the court found that Mother’s testimony at trial “was not credible and at times was simply untruthful.” Specifically, the court contrasted Mother’s testimony that she had never seen D.M.’s January 2022 letter and that she was unaware of its contents with the video showing her reading the letter at the sheriff’s office. The court also found that Mother had given “different versions of her story of how [D.M.] wrote the letter and how the letter was then mailed to the sheriff’s office.”

¶58      Addressing the January 2022 letter, the court found that D.M. “first lied to the sheriff deputy and stated that he wrote the letter without the help of his mother and rode himself to the post office to mail the letter,” and the court opined that it “cannot find any other reason for [D.M.] to lie about how the letter was written and delivered to the post office other than [Mother] telling him to do so.” The court found that “the allegations stated in the letter were false and were contrived by [Mother] to cause harm to and further alienate [Father] with his Children.”

¶59      The court then found that six grounds for termination had been established: abuse, neglect, unfitness, failure to provide care, token efforts, and “other.” As part of its unfitness analysis, the court found that “[a]fter years of unsubstantiated allegations of abuse against Father,” Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the Children. She simply testified that she ‘doesn’t know’ whether or not the Children have been or are being abused by” Father. The court found that “[a]fter years of therapy and services by DCFS, [Mother] refuses to take any responsibility for her behavior.” The court concluded that Mother “has shown that she cannot stop her destructive behavior regarding false allegations and refuses to take any responsibility regarding the Children’s statements to DCFS and law enforcement.”

¶60      The court then determined it was in the Children’s best interest to terminate Mother’s rights and that it was also strictly necessary to do so. In its best interest determination, the court found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” The court found that Mother

has not demonstrated the ability to sustain progress in treatment that shows that the Children would be safe in her care. Her actions taken less than a month after the protective supervision services case closed demonstrates that she has not responded to the extensive services provided to her. [Mother] has shown that when she is not subject to the strict oversight of DCFS and this Court, she reverts to allegations of abuse against [Father].

¶61      Under a separate subheading devoted to the strictly necessary determination, the court found it had “considered less-restrictive alternatives than termination of [Mother’s] parental rights” and that a “permanent custody and guardianship arrangement is unworkable and not in the best interest of the Children.” The court found that Mother “has made or caused to be made a multitude of false allegations of physical and sexual abuse against [Father] throughout a period [of] seven years, causing the Children to be interviewed repeatedly and examined and having their lives investigated.” The court further found that “[a]ny contact” that Mother has with the Children “is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment of the Children.” Finally, the court found that even when it “ordered [Mother] to be restricted to supervised visits by DCFS with the children, [Mother] absconded with the children. The Court cannot perceive a less-restrictive alternative which would protect the Children from further trauma without terminating [Mother’s] parental rights.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶62    Mother challenges the termination order on two primary grounds. First, she argues that in its best interest analysis, the juvenile court “failed to consider all the facts” and improperly relied on past events rather than engaging in a present-tense inquiry. Second, she argues that the court “did not make findings as to why supervised visitation was not feasible.”

¶63      This court applies “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. “A best interest determination involves neither a pure finding of fact nor an abstract conclusion of law. This is a mixed determination of law and fact—in which the abstract law is applied to a given set of facts.” Id. ¶ 17. “The juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 31 (quotation simplified).[2]

ANALYSIS

¶64      The Utah legislature has determined that “[a] child’s need for a normal family life in a permanent home, and for positive, nurturing family relationships is usually best met by the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). In light of this, a “juvenile court should only transfer custody of a child from the child’s natural parent for compelling reasons and when there is a jurisdictional basis to do so.” Id. “When the [juvenile] court considers a child’s welfare and best interest, the court’s focus should be firmly fixed on finding the outcome that best secures the child’s well-being.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64, 472 P.3d 827.

¶65      To terminate a parent’s rights, a court must find that (1) a statutory ground for termination exists and (2) termination is in the child’s best interest. See id. ¶¶ 19–20. With one minor exception that we address below in Part III, Mother’s appeal does not challenge the court’s determination that there were grounds to terminate her parental rights. Rather, Mother’s appeal is focused on the best interest portion of the court’s ruling.

¶66      “The best-interest inquiry is wide-ranging and asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances of a child’s situation, including the physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 26, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified). By statute, a court can only find that termination is in the best interest of a child if it also finds that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1); accord In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66. The “statutory language uses the verb ‘is,’ indicating that the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion.” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 13, 500 P.3d 94. Moreover, Utah law presumes that “Lilt is in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). In light of this, a juvenile court “must determine whether a feasible option short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights exists, and if it does, the court must choose it.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 34, 523 P.3d 1159 (quotation simplified).

¶67      As noted, Mother advances two main challenges to the court’s ruling. First, Mother argues that the court did not properly account for the present-tense best interest of the Children, but that it instead improperly relied “on outdated information.” And second, Mother argues that the court erred by not determining on the record whether an order of ongoing supervised visitation was a feasible non-termination option. We reject both challenges.

  1. Present-Tense Best Interest of the Children

¶68      Mother argues that the court’s conclusion that it was in the best interest of the Children to terminate her parental rights was “based on outdated information.” In Mother’s view, the court failed to properly account for the fact “that between January 2022 and July 2022, Mother had supervised visits without incident.” We disagree.

¶69    Again, it’s settled that “the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion.” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 13. “Because children inhabit dynamic environments in which their needs and circumstances are constantly evolving,” the best interest inquiry must “be undertaken in a present-tense fashion, as of the date of the trial or hearing held to decide the question.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 34, 518 P.3d 993 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). “In a best-interest inquiry, the relevant question is almost always this one: what outcome is in the child’s best interest now?” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 12 (emphasis in original).

¶70      The juvenile court’s order in this case was properly couched in present-tense terms. In its findings on unfitness, for example, the court found that Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the children.” (Emphasis added.) The court also found that Mother “has shown that she cannot stop her destructive behavior regarding false allegations and refuses to take any responsibility regarding the children’s statements to DCFS and law enforcement.” (Emphases added.) Then, in a subsection that was specifically directed at the best interest determination, the court found that Mother’s “intent and the effect of her actions is to disrupt any semblance of stability the children might enjoy regarding [Father] while in his care,” and it further found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” (Emphases added.) And in another subsection that was specifically devoted to the strictly necessary determination, the court found that “any contact [Mother] has with the children is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment of the children,” that “Mother has not shown that she can stop the false allegations” against Father, and that Mother “fails to even acknowledge that the allegations are false or that she is in any way responsible for them.” (Emphases added.) In these and other instances in the ruling, the court made it clear that it was making a determination about the present-tense best interest of the Children.

¶71      Given this, Mother’s argument is ultimately focused on the alleged lack of evidentiary support for that conclusion. Mother asserts that although the court’s ruling may have been written in the present tense, the information that it relied on was so old or stale that the court had no valid basis for concluding that termination was in the Children’s present-tense best interest. We disagree.

¶72      In virtually any decision that’s made in law or life, questions about the present must in some measure be answered through consideration of relevant events from the past. As famously put by Faulkner, the “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun 92 (1951).

¶73      Our cases have recognized as much in this very particular legal context. Although it’s true that the best interest determination is made in the present-tense, it’s also true that “considering what a child’s best interest is at the time of trial does not require ignoring historical patterns.” In re A.K., 2022 UT App 148, ¶ 8 n.3, 523 P.3d 1156 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). Rather, “a juvenile court judge conducting a best interests analysis must weigh evidence forecasting future events in order to predict what course of action will best protect and nurture the child.” In re C.L., 2007 UT 51, ¶ 22, 166 P.3d 608 (quotation simplified). Since neither judges nor expert witnesses are soothsayers, the evidence that a court would rely on to “forecast[] future events” would naturally include evidence of things that had happened in the past between the parent and the children. In this sense, a court is tasked with “weigh[ing] a parent’s past conduct with her present abilities” in order to make the statutorily required determination. In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 13, 171 P.3d 435.

¶74    Mother recognizes this, but she nevertheless argues that there must be some point at which the evidence is too distant to support a determination about a child’s present-tense best interest. In concept, we agree. But in application, we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that the evidence in this case was so remote that it could not be relied on.

¶75 Mother first points out that much of the court’s ruling was based on events that had occurred years before trial. And she’s right—the court did make repeated reference to events that had occurred years earlier. But even so, we think it significant that the court was not focused on an isolated event or two that had occurred in the far distant past. Rather, the court was focused on a pattern of events that had unfolded over the course of several years. As recounted at some length above, Mother began making allegations of sexual and physical abuse against Father in 2015, and she kept making such allegations over the course of the next five years. Mother kept doing so despite the apparent lack of any corroborating evidence. And she repeatedly encouraged her young children to make allegations against Father as well, even though this resulted in the Children being subject to repeated interviews and even physical examinations, and she also did so despite the transparently imaginative nature of some of the allegations.[3] Given that the juvenile court’s inquiry in this case was in some measure predictive, its focus on a pattern of behavior that had extended over several years would of course have probative value.

¶76    Even so, Mother points out that her behavior had improved enough by the later months of 2021 to prompt the juvenile court to close the protective supervision services case in December 2021. But as the juvenile court stressed in its termination order, within just a few weeks of that case being closed, Mother encouraged D.M. to write a letter to law enforcement with yet another allegation of abuse, Mother lied to authorities when questioned about her involvement in that letter, and Mother publicly accused Father of attempting to kidnap the Children during a confrontation at a school (and she did so in front of other children, no less). These events certainly gave the court some basis for reassessing its conclusion from December 2021 that Mother’s pattern of troubling behavior had come to an end.

¶77      This leads to Mother’s final assertion, which is that the January 2022 events could not support the termination order that was entered in July 2022 because no further incidents occurred during the January-to-July interim. As an initial matter, we have some skepticism about Mother’s suggestion that events that occurred five months before trial are indeed so remote that they could not inform the court’s present-tense best interest determination. And our skepticism of this argument is particularly warranted here, where the events that occurred in January 2022 are consistent with a prior pattern of events that had stretched out over the course of several years. After all, even during the 2015 through 2020 period, there were several stretches of several months in which Mother didn’t make any allegations. Yet each time, the period of dormancy was later interrupted by new allegations of abuse.

¶78      But more importantly, we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that nothing of note had occurred in the January-to-July interim. In reviewing the juvenile court’s termination decision, two things stand out.

¶79      First, at the time of the July trial, the court now had access to new information (primarily from Therapist) about the harm that Mother’s long-term behavior had inflicted on the Children. On January 24, 2022, Therapist wrote that D.M. reported “feeling very confused because [Father] never did that stuff” but that D.M. did not want to disappoint Mother. Therapist said D.M. felt “sort of unsafe” because of the events surrounding the January 2022 letter and “all the question asking.” And Therapist also said that H.M. reported feeling “tired of all the asking stuff” with Mother and that H.M. thought that life felt “sad and mad and scary” as a result. In a June 2022 letter, Therapist then informed the court that after a March 2022 visit with Mother, H.M. told her that he “didn’t like it and it didn’t feel safe.” She said that H.M. told her that “it sort of made [his] stomach hurt and like maybe she was going to take [him] again.”

¶80      Therapist’s testimony at trial gave the court even more insight into these harms. Therapist testified that D.M. was tearful in his January 2022 session and that he was “wrestling with himself because he had lied during some of [the interviews] because he felt like that was the right thing to do for [Mother].” Therapist testified that D.M. was “having a lot of shame towards himself” and that D.M. had told her he felt like he had “to say that these things have happened in order to make [Mother] happy.” Therapist also testified that after the January 2022 incidents, H.M. was “very, very vocal about not wanting to do the visits” with Mother. She testified that H.M. told her that “[m]y mom just—she comes at me and comes at me. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to deal with it.” She further testified that H.M.’s “exact words” to her were, “How would you feel if this were always happening to you? I just want a normal life.”

¶81      The court didn’t have this information when it closed the case in December 2021, but it did have this information at trial. And this information could properly inform any decision about what was in the best interest of the Children moving forward.

¶82      Second, the court also had new information about Mother’s mindset. In its order, the court found that Mother’s trial testimony “was not credible and at times was simply untruthful.” For example, the court noted that Mother testified twice that she was seeing D.M.’s January 2022 letter for the first time in the courtroom, even though a video of an earlier interview with law enforcement showed Mother reading that letter then. The court also highlighted Mother’s contrasting stories about how D.M. had written the letter. And the court further determined that Mother’s “statements that she has no opinion on whether she believes” that Father abused the Children were “not credible[,] taking into account the history of her actions in this matter.”

¶83      Based in part on Mother’s July 2022 trial testimony, the court found that Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the Children.” And the court found that although Mother “believes it improves her standing to now say that she ‘doesn’t know’ or has no opinion on whether or not the Children have been abused,” she “continues to deny responsibility for the continuous harm of false allegations.” Mother’s testimony and the court’s observations of her mindset were, of course, new information. And this new information would have some proper bearing on the court’s assessment of whether it was presently in the Children’s best interest to terminate Mother’s parental rights.

¶84      Pushing back, Mother points to some contrary evidence showing that there had been some improvement in her relationship with the Children. For example, Lead Caseworker testified that while H.M. initially showed some hesitancy at the visits, by the time of trial he would “sit in mom’s lap now where he wouldn’t do that before. You know, he’ll hug her. Things like that.” Lead Caseworker also testified that “D.M. is very good with his mom. I mean, it seems like they like to play together. And they just have fun when he’s there.” And at trial, Lead Caseworker said that she could not remember any time since January 2022 that the Children expressed to her “any concerns or anxiety about contact with their mom.” Also, minutes from a March 2022 hearing indicate that Mother had “been appropriate on her visits.” And in a DCFS Progress Report written a month before trial, D.M. “report[ed] that he wants the visits to last longer and [H.M.] asked to have the visits in [Mother’s] house.”

¶85      But again, a “juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). Here:

  • The events that occurred from 2015 through 2020 gave the court ample reason to find that Mother had a long-term and persistent desire to make allegations of abuse against Father, that she was willing to directly involve the Children in those efforts, and that she was willing to ignore court orders (such as those she ignored when absconding with the Children on two occasions in 2020).
  • The events of January 2022 and Mother’s non-remorseful testimony at trial gave the court reason to believe that Mother’s good behavior in late 2021 had been temporary, rather than permanent, and that Mother still persisted in her beliefs about Father and her willingness to manipulate the Children or court processes to support her views.
  • And the new evidence that the court received leading up to trial and then at trial gave it additional information about the harm that was being done to the Children by Mother’s behavior.

¶86      In short, the court was tasked with making a present-tense determination, and its decision reflects that it did. In making that determination, the court could properly consider past and present events together. Although the court had concluded in December 2021 that the protective supervision case should be closed, more recent events had given the court reason to reassess its conclusions about Mother’s ongoing danger to the Children. Given the evidence that was before the court at trial, we see no basis for concluding that the court’s decision was improperly based on stale evidence. We therefore reject this argument.

  1. Supervised Visitation

¶87      A court may only terminate a parent’s rights if it finds that termination is in the child’s best interest and that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1). “The strictly necessary language is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 69. “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary” and “the court cannot order the parent’s rights terminated.” Id. ¶ 66. Moreover, when a juvenile court is presented with a readily apparent non-termination option, the court must “state, on the record, its reasons for rejecting feasible alternatives.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 43 (quotation simplified). This “leaves no room for implicit rejection.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶88      As noted, the court heard both evidence and argument suggesting that supervised visitation was not a viable solution moving forward. Therapist testified that although DCFS “may have talked about the possibility of supervised visitation,” “that’s not really along the normal, natural developmental means, and so I didn’t feel like that was the best option.” And in closing argument, the GAL argued that “[s]upervising visits for the rest of these children’s childhood is not feasible, it’s not in their best interest, it’s not appropriate.” As also noted, the juvenile court then made a series of findings about why it was strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights. Despite these findings, Mother argues that the juvenile court “erred as a matter of law when it did not make findings as to why supervised visitation” was not a feasible alternative to termination. We disagree with Mother’s claim that the ruling was lacking in this respect.

¶89      The cases in which we’ve found that a court erred by not addressing a feasible alternative have involved termination orders that were far less clear than the one at issue here. In In re K.Y., for example, the court’s best interest analysis was just two paragraphs long. See 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 28. After the State asserted on appeal that the juvenile court had at least “implicitly” rejected a potential guardianship within those two paragraphs, id. ¶ 42, we rejected that assertion, explaining that it was unclear to us “which conclusion” the court would have even reached about a potential guardianship, id. ¶ 44. The order at issue in In re J.J.W. had similar infirmities. There, “the court’s best-interest analysis consisted of a single paragraph.” 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 16. And while we agreed that the court had “by necessity” implicitly rejected guardianship as an option, id. ¶ 32, we still reversed because we still saw no explanation for why the court thought that guardianship was not a viable option, id. ¶ 35.

¶90      The ruling at issue in this case is decidedly different. The court devoted nearly three pages of analysis to the best interest inquiry alone, and it then devoted an additional page and a half to the strictly necessary determination. In addition, the ruling as a whole spans over 40 pages, and many of the court’s findings and conclusions from the other sections were interconnected and had obvious bearing on the best interest and strictly necessary determinations. Thus, unlike the orders at issue in prior cases where we’ve found this kind of error, the court here issued a detailed order that gave clear insight into its thinking about the relevant questions.

¶91      This leads to the question of whether the court’s ruling left any room for ongoing supervised visits as a non-termination option. Here, the subsection on the strictly necessary determination began with the court’s declaration that it “ha[d] considered less-restrictive alternatives than termination of [Mother’s] parental rights” and its conclusion that a “permanent custody and guardianship arrangement is unworkable and not in the best interest of the Children.” Under the same subheading, the court recounted the incidents in which Mother had previously absconded with the Children. The court specifically highlighted the fact that the second absconding incident had occurred when Mother “abducted the children from a division-supervised visit at the Division’s offices in July 2020.” The court then stressed that “[e]ven when the Court ordered the mother to be restricted to supervised visits by DCFS with the children, mother absconded with the children.” With this as something of a springboard, the very next sentence read, “The Court cannot perceive a less-restrictive alternative which would protect the children from further trauma without terminating mother’s parental rights.” The court’s focus was thus explicit and clear: the court had concluded that the only way to protect the Children from Mother inflicting “further trauma” on them by absconding with them again was to terminate her parental rights.

¶92      Mother nevertheless stresses that she had not absconded with the Children recently, and in light of this, she suggests that it’s unclear why, or perhaps even whether, the court was ruling out supervised visits as a viable option moving forward. But in cases such as In re K.Y. or In re J.J.W., we were left guessing at the court’s ruling or rationale. Here, however, it requires no guesswork to see that the court had indeed rejected ongoing visitation as an option, nor is there any question about why the court had done so. Again, in the subsection of its ruling that addressed the best interest determination, the court found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” And in the subsection that more particularly addressed the strictly necessary inquiry, the court found that “Mother has not shown that she can stop the false allegations against” Father and that “[a]ny contact the mother has with the children is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment to the children.”

¶93      This ruling thus foreclosed the possibility of ongoing supervised visits as a viable alternative to termination. Taking the court at its word, the court’s express finding that “any contact” carried the risk of causing potential harm to the Children by definition ruled out ongoing supervised visits. And the court’s focus on the prior absconding events, coupled with its findings about Mother’s current lack of remorse, collectively explained why the court thought that even supervised visits would still present an unacceptable risk—whether it be of Mother absconding with the Children again or of using any visits (even supervised ones) to raise new allegations of abuse against Father. All of this is drawn directly from the court’s ruling.

¶94      In short, the juvenile court was sufficiently clear about its finding that termination was in the best interest of the Children and that termination was also strictly necessary, and the rationales given by the court directly foreclosed ongoing supervision as a feasible option. We see no basis for reversing the decision.

III. Mother’s Additional Arguments

¶95      Mother briefly raises three additional issues on appeal. But none of them warrant reversal.

  1. Adoption

¶96      At the back end of the best interest section of its ruling, the juvenile court found, “It is in the children’s best interests to terminate the parental rights of [Mother] so they may be free from abuse and neglect, so they may receive the proper safety, parenting, bonding, love, affection and stability they need, and so they may be adopted where they are safe, secure and stable.” Mother now argues that the court should not have relied on adoption in its best interest analysis because “adoption by a stepparent is wholly unnecessary” since “Father has sole custody.”

¶97      Our best interest cases have suggested that a court should not terminate a parent’s rights based on the “categorical concern” that adoption provides more stability to children than some other non-termination option. See, e.g.In re J.A.L.2022 UT 12, ¶ 25, 506 P.3d 606. But we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that the ruling here was categorical in nature. The court’s ruling was not only extensive, but it was focused on particular findings of the harm inflicted on the Children by Mother. We see no basis for overturning the decision based on the court’s stray reference to adoption in a single portion of the ruling.

  1. “Piling On”

¶98 Mother also argues that the court “piled on its grounds rulings by basing all six of its grounds-related findings on the same ‘emotional abuse.’” Mother argues that this practice violated “the spirit of the ‘grounds’ statutes, if not the letter,” because “[p]iling on multiple grounds based on the same subset of facts simply renders the additional ‘grounds’ superfluous.”

¶99      But Mother concedes that this practice “do[es] not provide independent grounds for relief on appeal.” And while Mother points to some caselaw from the attorney discipline context that might suggest that it’s problematic to “pile on” multiple overlapping charges, Mother provides no authority that supports her view that a juvenile court cannot base a termination decision on multiple grounds if the statutorily defined elements of those multiple grounds have some or even substantial overlap. We’re aware of no such authority either, and we therefore see no basis for overturning this ruling as a result of this alleged problem.

  1. Mandatory Reporting

¶100    Finally, Mother argues that “the court’s findings of emotional abuse are not supported by Utah law, where parents have both a right and a responsibility to report perceived abuse to authorities.” In Mother’s view, the “court’s decision sets up a scenario that fails to protect” children from “physical abuse and instead deems them ‘emotionally abused’ if one parent reports repeated, suspected abuse by the other.” Mother thus argues that the “court’s decision faults” her “for protecting [the] Children as she thought best.”

¶101    But the juvenile court’s extensive findings in this case leave no room for the conclusion that Mother’s rights have been terminated for anything like a good faith effort to protect the Children. The juvenile court found, with ample support, that Mother has engaged in a years-long campaign of filing unsupported or false reports of abuse against Father, that Mother has co-opted her children into being participants in this campaign (despite the fact that doing so caused them to be subjected to multiple police interviews and even physical examinations), that Mother has defied court orders and absconded with her children on two occasions, and that Mother lied to law enforcement and the court during the course of official interviews and proceedings.

¶102    We thus emphasize that a parent’s rights should not be terminated for making a good faith report of suspected abuse. But we likewise emphasize that nothing like that happened here. Rather, under the terms of the court’s order, Mother’s rights were terminated because of her years-long pattern of abusive behavior toward her children, not because of a good faith attempt to protect them.

CONCLUSION

¶103 The juvenile court did not err in relying on past events to support its present-tense best interest analysis, nor did it fail to account for the possibility of ordering ongoing supervised visits in its strictly necessary determination. Its decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights is accordingly affirmed.

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


[1] It’s appropriate at the outset to explain some of the word choices and information gaps in our recitation of the history of this case. As indicated in the introductory paragraphs of this opinion, this case centers on a years-long history of reports of abuse that were made against Father. The reports themselves are not in the record, so the record is limited to descriptions of those reports that came from others (most commonly the juvenile court in its various rulings).

In many instances, the passive voice was used when describing who had made an individual report—i.e., the record would say something like, “a referral was made.” To be faithful to the record, we’ve proceeded similarly. Also, the record sometimes says that a report was made but doesn’t then say what DCFS or law enforcement did with that report. And in some instances, the record makes passing reference to a reason a report was unaccepted without then providing much (or even any) explanatory detail. Our silence reflects those omissions too.

While acknowledging these caveats upfront, we note that the clear implications of the record generally and of the juvenile court’s termination decision more particularly are that (1) with the exception of the reports that were made by the Children themselves, it was Mother who was making most (if not all) of the reports of abuse against Father and (2) none of the reports of physical or sexual abuse that were made against Father were corroborated or accepted by DCFS or law enforcement.

[2] Mother also advances a few additional arguments relating to the grounds for termination and the broader scope of the allegations against her. These arguments are subject to this same standard of review, and we address them together in Part III.

[3] 3. As noted, the allegations included such things as an exploding car, Father allegedly punching a child in the bottom with a hammer, and Father somehow assaulting and even breaking a child’s neck in the middle of a church service.

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2023 UT App 65 – State v. Meyer – Parent Charged With Child Abuse

2023 UT App 65 – State v. Meyer

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,
Appellee,

v.

ELIZABETH LYDIA MEYER,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210718-CA

Filed June 15, 2023

First District Court, Brigham City Department

The Honorable Spencer Walsh

No. 181100556

Wendy M. Brown, Debra M. Nelson, and Benjamin Miller, Attorneys for Appellant

Blair T. Wardle, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Elizabeth Lydia Meyer’s[1] ex-husband (Father) discovered bruising on their daughter (Child) after picking her up from Meyer’s home. The State charged Meyer with child abuse and, at a bench trial, used a process-of-elimination approach to argue that Meyer was the only possible cause of the bruising. The district court convicted Meyer, and she now appeals. Meyer asserts that the court erred in admitting the preliminary hearing testimony of her now-husband. We agree that this action was erroneous and prejudiced Meyer, so we vacate her conviction.

BACKGROUND

¶2          One Wednesday in July 2018, Father picked up Child, then two years old, from Meyer’s home for a regular midweek visit. Meyer and Father had been through a “fairly contentious” divorce, and their relationship was sometimes “volatile,” so Father had made it a habit to record via cellphone his pickups of Child. His video recording from this day shows marks on the upper portions of both of Child’s arms. But Father did not notice the marks until later, when he was at a restaurant with Child. Father exchanged texts with Meyer about the marks:

Father: I noticed that [Child] has what looks like bruises on her arm. Is she okay?

Meyer: Yes, she’s fine.

Father: How did she get those marks?

Meyer: How do children get the majority of their bruises? What direction are you trying to go with this?

Father: I’m just concerned because the bruising pattern is not consistent with normal childhood injuries.

Meyer: Since when did you become an expert in that matter? I understand that you want to pretend to care about my daughter, but I do not wish to have you go on a third witch hunt and falsely accuse someone like you already have done twice, even though we both know you’re dying to. You do not make any of her medical appointments. And the last I knew you have not completed any courses in the direction. So please leave your harassing comments to yourself.

¶3          After dinner, Father drove to the police station and asked for an officer to examine Child’s arms. An officer (Officer) and a caseworker (Caseworker) from the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) met with Father and photographed Child’s arms approximately two hours after Father had picked up Child.

¶4          Officer and Caseworker then visited Meyer’s home. Outside, they met Michael Glenn, Meyer’s then-boyfriend whom she married before the case went to trial. Glenn was initially “defiant” and did not want them to enter the house, but when they showed him photos of Child’s bruises, he was concerned and let them in.

¶5          Officer and Caseworker entered the house and spoke with Meyer, who was very upset. Officer asked Meyer what could have caused bruising on Child’s arms, and Meyer gave multiple possible explanations, including Child falling out of the car when she arrived home from daycare, Child playing with hair ties that were like rubber bands (which she snapped on her arms), or Child playing roughly with her older brother and sometimes getting rug burns from the roughhousing. Caseworker asked Meyer how she had picked Child up when Child fell out of the car after returning from daycare, and Meyer responded along the lines that she picked Child up like any mother would and cleaned her face. Meyer also reported that she had caused a mark on Child’s upper arm when Child ran into the street and Meyer pulled her back. Caseworker showed Meyer photos of Child’s bruises, and Meyer was very surprised, saying, “They were not like that.”

¶6          Glenn gave Officer contact information for Child’s daycare provider (Daycare Provider). When Officer spoke to Daycare Provider on the phone, she confirmed that Child had been in her care that day. Daycare Provider also confirmed that she had asked Meyer about a mark on Child’s arm when Meyer picked Child up that day and that Meyer told her she had grabbed Child to prevent her from running into the street.

¶7          The next day, Father took Child for a physical exam, which was completed by a forensic nurse examiner (Nurse). In her report, Nurse identified “[p]ositive physical findings of injury to bilateral upper arms and left forearm” and described the upper arm injuries as “circumferential and linear with equal spacing between” them and stated that the bruises were “highly indicative for a squeezing mechanism and physical abuse.” Child was not returned to Meyer’s care.

¶8          The case was transferred to a detective (Detective), who called Meyer two days after the alleged incident and recorded the phone call. During the call, Meyer implied that Father was the source of Child’s bruises because, according to her, Child had no bruises until she was in Father’s care and Meyer believed that “[h]e [was] trying to get [her] daughter away from [her].” Meyer was very upset during the call and indicated that she had been previously accused of child abuse, presumably by Father. Meyer also stated that she did not see any bruises or marks on Child— other than the mark from the incident she reported of grabbing Child to stop her from running into the road—before giving Child to Father. But she explained that Child would sometimes scratch herself, leaving marks, and hit and bite things. Meyer also spoke about Glenn’s whereabouts on the day of the incident, indicating that Glenn was asleep when Child came home and remained asleep until after Father had picked Child up.

¶9          Detective wrote in his police report that Child’s older brother, then four years old, “was asked where his sister got the marks on her arm and he said that it was from someone who had power and squeezed hard.” Detective spoke to Daycare Provider, though he did not inspect her home; perform a background check on her; or speak with the parents of other children she babysat or with the three children she had living with her, who were ages fourteen, ten, and eight and may have had access to Child. Detective later testified that he didn’t really consider Daycare Provider a suspect after speaking with her. He also ruled out Glenn as a suspect based on Meyer’s statement that Glenn had been asleep between the time Child came home from daycare and the time Father picked up Child. However, in his report he wrote that he told Meyer he didn’t think the incident causing the bruising had happened on that day. But at trial he testified that, based on his investigation, the timeline he established was that there were no visible bruises—other than the one caused by Meyer stopping Child from running into the street—until the time between Meyer picking Child up from daycare and Father picking her up from Meyer within the next forty-five minutes.

¶10 In August 2018, another officer (Sergeant) interviewed Meyer in person at Detective’s request. Meyer’s statements were consistent with those she had made previously. Specifically, Meyer again stated that Glenn was asleep when Child returned from daycare and did not wake up until after Child left with Father.

¶11        In December 2018, the State charged Meyer with one count of child abuse, a class A misdemeanor.

¶12        The district court held a preliminary hearing in May 2019. Among other witnesses, the State subpoenaed Glenn to testify at the hearing. When he was called to testify, he was hostile, and the court threatened to hold him in contempt and take him into custody. But Glenn ultimately did testify. While he first declared that it was “100 percent incorrect” that he told Officer and Caseworker that the marks had not been on Child in the morning, after reviewing Officer’s bodycam footage, he admitted that he did say that. He also testified that after waking up that morning, he went straight to the car and didn’t notice any marks on Child’s arms, but he said he was busy “concentrating on driving and getting to and from.” He described how he went with Meyer to drop Child off at daycare in the morning. He testified that he was asleep when Meyer brought Child home. And he declared that he did not cause Child’s bruising.

¶13 Sometime after the preliminary hearing, Meyer married Glenn, and Meyer’s defense counsel (Defense Counsel) informed the State via email that Glenn intended to invoke his spousal privilege related to testifying at trial. The State told Defense Counsel that Glenn was “still required to show up to court to produce evidence that he [was], in fact, married . . . and take the stand to actually invoke the privilege.” The prosecutor insisted, “This is important because then he will become an unavailable witness. As an unavailable witness, I will then be able to play his preliminary hearing audio in lieu of his testimony.” Defense Counsel indicated that she “had anticipated that [the State] would be able to get Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony in at trial.”

¶14        When Defense Counsel later informed the State that Glenn would be on bed rest following surgery on the date of trial (which had been continued multiple times), they discussed the possibilities of Glenn testifying via video during trial or of filing stipulated facts related to his testimony. But Glenn filed a motion to quash the subpoena against him. The State then sent Defense Counsel a transcript and redacted audio file of Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony that it intended to have admitted at trial, and Defense Counsel responded, “I would absolutely object to both the transcript and the audio coming in at trial. . . . Glenn’s testimony is hearsay[,] and to introduce it would also be a violation of my client’s confrontation rights.” Defense Counsel explained, “The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that because there is a different motive for examining witnesses at a preliminary hearing than that at a trial, said testimony is inadmissible.”

¶15        The State then filed a motion to admit Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony. After receiving briefing and hearing oral argument, the court found that Glenn’s testimony fell under the exception to hearsay in rule 804(b)(1) of the Utah Rules of Evidence for former testimony of an unavailable witness. The court acknowledged caselaw indicating that defendants are restricted in developing testimony at preliminary hearings, see State v. Goins, 2017 UT 61, ¶¶ 32–33, 423 P.3d 1236, but it distinguished that caselaw from the facts of this case and admitted the testimony.

¶16 The court held a bench trial in May 2021. In its opening statement, the State indicated that “through the process of elimination,” it would “show beyond a reasonable doubt that it was . . . Meyer who committed child abuse.”

¶17 In addition to Glenn’s testimony, Daycare Provider testified at trial that Child had been in her care from roughly 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. that day. She stated that she did not see any marks or injuries on Child when Child was dropped off and she never saw marks like those photographed, but she did notice a different mark on Child’s arm later in the day, and this was the mark she asked Meyer about. She also testified that on the day of the bruising, she did not take Child to the park, she did not know of any equipment Child could have accessed that would have caused the injuries, Child did not get injured playing with toys, Child did not receive any injuries while in her care, and Child did not cry or appear to be in pain while in her care. She admitted, though, that she was aware that Child had been “kicked out of her previous day care . . . for playing too rough” and that Child “play[ed] really rough with toys and hit[] dolls a lot.”

¶18        Nurse testified that after examining Child, she “speculated . . . that because of the spacing, and the shape, and the location of the injuries, the colors that [she] saw, they were most definitely bruises,” the spacing of which “could fit a hand.” She said, “I’m not telling you it’s fitting a hand because—you know, I can’t say it was a hand unless I watched it happen, but I can tell you that those are bruises that are in a linear form that you don’t just get from falling down.” She further testified that based on the location, direction, and shape of the bruising, she did not believe that the incidents Meyer had described as possible accidental sources of injury had caused Child’s bruises. She also testified that the marks were “fresher bruises” that, based on coloration, could have been caused within hours of when Officer and Caseworker photographed Child’s injuries. But she acknowledged that “there’s no scientific way to date a bruise” and said that while it was “likely that it occurred” that day, “literally there is no way to determine when it happened.”

¶19 The State played a clip from the recorded interview between Meyer and Sergeant, in which Meyer stated that Child had a temper tantrum after arriving home from daycare and that Child tried to get out of being held and Meyer needed to grab her arm from the side.

¶20        In its closing argument, the State asked, “[W]ho caused the abuse?” and answered that “this is where we get into the process of elimination.” The State then explained its theory that the evidence proved that no one else could have caused the bruising, including Glenn, who “slept through the whole thing.”

¶21 The court ultimately found Meyer “guilty of a lesser-included offense of [c]lass B misdemeanor, child abuse, for having inflicted this injury on [Child] in a reckless manner.” The court provided its rationale, explaining in part that it “found highly credible the testimony” of Nurse that the “bruising was consistent with the types of bruising she has seen in her child abuse conferences and trainings.” The court ruled out Glenn as a potential source of the injuries by saying, “You know, . . . Glenn is asleep by the time [Child] gets home and doesn’t really interact at all. And then we know for a fact that the injuries took place . . . definitively prior to when [Father] arrive[d] based off of the video.” The court concluded, “And so there’s just no doubt in the [c]ourt’s mind that Mom, you lost your cool, you crossed a line, you squeezed your daughter’s arms, and it left that injury. It couldn’t have been anyone else.” The court sentenced Meyer to 180 days of jail but suspended 179 days. It also ordered a fine and probation.

¶22        Meyer subsequently filed a motion for a new trial through Defense Counsel. Defense Counsel then withdrew from representing Meyer. Meyer appeared pro se and asked the court to appoint counsel, but the State objected, and the court decided that Meyer did not qualify for appointed counsel based on her income. The court ultimately denied Meyer’s motion for a new trial. Meyer now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶23        Meyer argues on appeal that Glenn’s “preliminary hearing testimony should not have been admitted at trial” under an exception to the bar on hearsay.2 “When reviewing rulings on hearsay, [appellate courts] review legal questions regarding admissibility for correctness, questions of fact for clear error, and the final ruling on admissibility for abuse of discretion.” State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 31, 473 P.3d 218 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021). But even “if we determine that the hearsay testimony should not have been admitted, we will reverse only if a reasonable likelihood exists that absent the error,

  1. Meyer also argues that the district court “committed plain error by failing to obtain a valid waiver of counsel before having [Meyer] represent herself on her motion for a new trial.” Because we rule in her favor on the first issue, we need not address this argument.

the result would have been more favorable to the defendant.” Id. (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

  1. Similar Motive and Opportunity

¶24 Meyer argues that the district court erred in admitting Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony. She asserts that Glenn’s testimony fails to qualify for the rule 804 exception to the evidentiary bar on hearsay. This exception applies when “the declarant is unavailable” and the declarant’s testimony was “given . . . at a trial, hearing, or lawful deposition” and is now “offered against a party who had . . . an opportunity and similar motive to develop it by direct, cross-, or redirect examination.” Utah R. Evid. 804(b)(1). Meyer argues that caselaw on this point “compels the conclusion that the admission of Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony was erroneous” because that caselaw indicates that the motive to develop an adverse witness’s testimony at a preliminary hearing differs from the motive to do so at trial.

¶25        In State v. Goins, 2017 UT 61, 423 P.3d 1236, our supreme court discussed the effect of the 1994 amendment to Article I, Section 12 of the Utah Constitution, which limited “the function of preliminary examination to determining whether probable cause exists,” id. ¶ 31 (cleaned up) (discussing Utah Const. art. I, § 12). The court stated that, “by and large,” this provision “places most credibility determinations outside the reach of a magistrate at a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 33. Therefore, “[o]ur constitution specifically limits the purpose of preliminary hearings in a manner that can undercut defense counsel’s opportunity to cross-examine witnesses at a preliminary hearing and thereby modify the interest counsel has in developing testimony on cross-examination.” Id. ¶ 41. But the court “eschewed a blanket rule” of inadmissibility for preliminary hearing testimony because it could “envision scenarios where, for whatever reason, defense counsel possesses the same motive and is provided the same opportunity to cross-examine as she would have at trial.” Id. ¶¶ 36–37. However, the court indicated that “such cases might prove rare.” Id. ¶ 36.

¶26 The Goins court then analyzed the motive for cross-examining a witness at the preliminary hearing by considering the facts of the case, which included the defendant allegedly brandishing a knife and accusing the later-unavailable witness of stealing his phone, after which the witness fled and the defendant assaulted the witness’s acquaintance. Id. ¶¶ 3–6. The court held that it was “apparent on the record . . . that [the defendant’s] counsel did not possess the same motive to develop testimony at the preliminary hearing that she would have had at trial” because the witness’s “testimony referenced concerns with [the defendant] and a prior incident between” the pair, so the defendant’s “counsel had a motive to develop this testimony and question [the witness’s] credibility” at trial “that went beyond a preliminary hearing’s constitutionally limited purpose.” Id. ¶ 46.

¶27 Subsequent cases have reached similar conclusions. In State v. Ellis, 2018 UT 2, 417 P.3d 86, a defendant faced a charge of aggravated robbery for allegedly robbing a cupcake shop at gunpoint, id. ¶¶ 1, 4. The store clerk testified at trial as to the events within the store, id. ¶ 19, but another witness—a witness who saw the perpetrator leave the scene, run across the road, and get into a car whose license plate she then reported—was not able to be in court on the day of the trial, id. ¶¶ 7–8, 16. The court admitted her preliminary hearing testimony, id. ¶ 19, but our supreme court held that this was improper, id. ¶ 40. It stated that in Goins, it had “conditioned the admissibility of preliminary hearing testimony on a showing that defense counsel really did possess the same motive and was permitted a full opportunity for cross-examination at the preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 39 (cleaned up). And it said that “Goins foreclose[d] the admissibility of the . . . preliminary hearing testimony” because, “as in Goins, . . . [the court had] no basis to conclude that [the defendant’s] counsel’s preliminary hearing motive to cross-examine was similar to what would have existed at trial.” Id. ¶ 40 (cleaned up).

¶28        Similarly, in State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, 473 P.3d 218, cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021), this court applied the holding of Goins where a defendant faced charges related to the alleged kidnapping of two men and murder of one of them, id. ¶¶ 22–24. The court considered the admissibility of preliminary hearing testimony from a man who helped tie up the victims, drove the group to the murder site, supplied the gun, and observed the murder. Id. We noted that “whether the defense had a similar motive to develop prior testimony for purposes of rule 804(b)(1) will often turn on the nature of a witness and her testimony.” Id. ¶ 40 (cleaned up). Where the witness in question “was not only a critical eyewitness, but also an accomplice to each of the crimes,” we determined that “[t]he opportunity to cross-examine this type of witness at a preliminary hearing will likely be a poor substitute for confronting the witness at trial, where the jury can observe [the witness’s] demeanor and assess . . . credibility firsthand.” Id. Accordingly, we held that “the State did not demonstrate that [the defendant] had an adequate opportunity and similar motive to cross-examine [the witness] at the preliminary hearing as he would have had at trial.” Id. ¶ 41.

¶29 The district court believed that the present case was distinguishable from Goins because that case involved an “incident that could have caused motive for [the witness] to fabricate or fashion . . . testimony in such a way that would be damaging to [the defendant].” See Goins, 2017 UT 61, ¶ 46. On the other hand, the court stated, “in the case before the [c]ourt, there’s nothing that has been pointed to specifically that would indicate that there is a similar motive for . . . Glenn to have fabricated any of his testimony.” But the court’s analysis on this point was inadequate, as a witness’s motive for fabrication is not the only circumstance that might impact a defendant’s motive for questioning a witness at a preliminary hearing. This is obvious from Ellis, where the witness had no motive to fabricate testimony and our supreme court still held that it had “no basis to conclude that [the defendant’s] counsel’s preliminary hearing motive to cross-examine was similar to what would have existed at trial.” 2018 UT 2, ¶ 40 (cleaned up).

¶30 The district court erred in concluding that the motives at the preliminary hearing and at trial were the same. The court stated that during the preliminary hearing “there was an opportunity to cross-examine [Glenn] as to whether he was the source of . . . the injuries, whether he abused [Child].” “In fact,” it pointed out, “the State specifically questioned him on that.” It continued, “[The preliminary hearing judge] would have never shut that down and said, ‘No, even though the State had questioned specifically, did you cause the injuries, [d]efense you’re prohibited from going after him to follow up on that question.’ Certainly that would have been permitted by . . . the [j]udge.” But this analysis does not align with our supreme court’s in Goins. The Goins court specifically addressed the reality that a per se rule of admissibility for preliminary hearing testimony of unavailable witnesses “places magistrates in the uncomfortable position of choosing between conducting preliminary hearings in fidelity with article I, section 12 and permitting the type of examinations” that were standard before the constitutional amendment limited the scope of preliminary hearings. 2017 UT 61, ¶ 34. The district court fails to accept that, as the supreme court suggests, Defense Counsel could have reasonably expected the court to limit questioning to that which was necessary for probable cause and prepared to cross-examine Glenn accordingly. See id. We reasoned similarly in Leech, where the defendant’s “counsel admitted that he did not pose a question during his cross-examination of [the witness] that was objected to and sustained, but he maintained that he did not have the same opportunity and motive to cross-examine [the witness] as he would have had at trial because he understood the limited scope of the hearing.” 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 28 (cleaned up). Accordingly, the district court erred in determining that Meyer had the same motive and opportunity to question Glenn in the preliminary hearing as she did at trial because the judge would— presumably—not have prevented follow-up questions to those that were asked.

¶31        Instead, the court should have recognized that the motives changed with respect to questioning witnesses at the preliminary hearing versus at trial. The State was clear that its case was based on a process of elimination. This point is hardly significant at a preliminary hearing, which seeks to determine if there was probable cause—a low standard—for a jury to conclude Meyer caused the bruising. See id. ¶ 20 (reciting the magistrate’s explanation at the defendant’s preliminary hearing that “different standards of proof apply at a probable cause hearing than apply at trial” and that “probable cause means enough evidence that the court is convinced that a reasonable jury could find, not that they necessarily would, but that they could find the offenses charged were committed and that [the defendants] were the individuals who committed them” (cleaned up)). Moreover, at a preliminary hearing, the facts are construed in the light most favorable to the State’s case. See id. (indicating that the magistrate informed the defendant that “one of the most important [differences] is that any doubts or questions about evidence at a preliminary hearing get resolved in favor of the State and against the defendants” and explained that “the benefit of the doubt goes to the State in a preliminary hearing” (cleaned up)). On the other hand, at trial the State must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, see, e.g.id. ¶ 64, and here the State needed to eliminate all other possible suspects beyond a reasonable doubt during trial. So the motive in questioning each witness at the preliminary hearing was to show lack of probable cause that Meyer was the source of Child’s bruises, while the motive at trial was to introduce reasonable doubt as to Meyer causing the bruises by convincing the court that someone else may have done so. In other words, with respect to Glenn, the motive shifted from showing that Glenn was the more likely source of the bruising to showing that Glenn could have caused the bruising such that there was reasonable doubt that Meyer caused it. Therefore, we hold, as did the Goins court, that it was “apparent on the record . . . that [Meyer] did not possess the same motive to develop testimony at the preliminary hearing that she would have had at trial” because at trial Meyer “had a motive to . . . question [Glenn’s] credibility that went beyond a preliminary hearing’s constitutionally limited purpose.” See 2017 UT 61, ¶ 46.

  1. Prejudice

¶32 “A determination of error in admitting [Glenn’s] preliminary hearing testimony is not alone enough to sustain a reversal. We must also find that error prejudicial. Prejudice in this setting requires a showing of a reasonable likelihood that the decision to admit [Glenn’s] preliminary hearing testimony altered the . . . verdict.” See State v. Ellis, 2018 UT 2, ¶ 41, 417 P.3d 86 (cleaned up).

¶33 The relevant caselaw indicates that errors in admitting preliminary hearing testimony are sometimes harmless. In Goins, the court held that the error was prejudicial as to one charge but harmless as to another because on the first charge, the “testimony was the primary evidence admitted in support of” that charge but on the second charge, the testimony did not address the major underlying facts and the guilty verdict was supported by other witness testimony and corroborating photographs. State v. Goins, 2017 UT 61, ¶¶ 50–51, 423 P.3d 1236.

¶34        Similarly, in Leech, this court identified prejudice with respect to one count but not as to three others. State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 48, 473 P.3d 218, cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021). For the first, we determined that the “charge could not be proven without crediting” the testimony of the kidnapping victim who wasn’t killed and “there [was] a reasonable likelihood that the jury would not have believed” this person “without the corroboration [the unavailable witness’s] testimony provided.” Id. ¶ 63. But we held that two of the convictions were independently supported by three other witnesses. Id. ¶ 52. And for the final charge, one of its elements “was not disputed at trial” and the other two elements “did not depend on the veracity of the [unavailable witness’s] account of the murder itself.” Id. ¶ 62.

¶35        In Ellis, the court found prejudice where “the preliminary hearing testimony in this case was central to the prosecution’s case on this charge.” 2018 UT 2, ¶ 2. The court so concluded because the witness “provided key pieces of evidence that the jury likely credited,” including her being “the only witness who could testify that the robber fled in a car”—making her “the crucial link for what occurred after [the clerk] lost sight of the robber.” Id. ¶¶ 43, 45.

¶36 Here, the court’s error in admitting Glenn’s testimony prejudiced Meyer because there is a “reasonable likelihood that the decision to admit [Glenn’s] preliminary hearing testimony altered the . . . verdict.” See id. ¶ 41 (cleaned up). The State’s presentation of the case against Meyer as a “process of elimination” impacts the fact-finder’s weighing of the evidence such that, for Glenn’s testimony to have been prejudicial, Meyer need show only that without the testimony, the court would have had a reasonable doubt that she was the source of the injuries. Meyer points us to this helpful insight offered by the Supreme Court of Illinois: “[I]f [the prosecution] intend[s] to obtain a conviction by the process of elimination by showing that no one else but [the] defendant could have been guilty, the burden [is] upon it to show that there was no one else in the other room.” People v. Boyd, 161 N.E.2d 311, 315 (Ill. 1959).

¶37        We agree with Meyer that removing Glenn’s erroneously admitted testimony makes a finding of reasonable doubt as to Meyer’s guilt much more likely. While Meyer’s own testimony corroborated Glenn’s account from the preliminary hearing that he was sleeping during the time Child was home from daycare until Father picked her up, that is not the only information Glenn provided. Glenn also testified that he did not cause the bruising. And he testified that, on the morning in question, he woke up and went directly to the car to drive Child to daycare, giving him no opportunity to interact with Child such that he could have caused her bruising that day.

¶38        The court, in providing the rationale for its conviction of Meyer, explained that it “found highly credible the testimony of” Nurse that the “bruising was consistent with the types of bruising she has seen in her child abuse conferences and trainings.” And it said, “You know, . . . Glenn is asleep by the time [Child] gets home and doesn’t really interact at all. And then we know for a fact that the injuries took place . . . definitively prior to when [Father] arrive[d] based off of the video.” The court clearly found that the bruises were caused before Father arrived, but it did not make a specific finding that the bruises could not have been caused earlier in the day. And Nurse, whose testimony the court found “highly credible,” testified multiple times that she could not provide a timeline for the cause of the bruising. When asked if it was “possible to at least rule out certain time frames,” Nurse responded, “What we were trained was that a fresher bruise is red or purple. . . . Red or purple means that this happened probably fairly close to the time that I saw her because of the darkness of the color, but . . . there’s no scientific way to date a bruise.” Nurse agreed that the bruises could have been caused “within hours.” But when Defense Counsel pressed, asking, “You testified a minute ago that you—it’s your opinion that with bruising, from what you observed, it’s more likely that it occurred like four hours before?” Nurse answered, “That day.” Defense Counsel stated, “That day. Two hours before, five hours before.” Nurse responded, “Purple-red is the colors you see first with bruising and there is—literally there is no way to determine when it happened.”

¶39 Given that removing Glenn’s testimony would have heightened the possibility that Glenn caused the injuries at some time outside the window between Child’s return from daycare and Father’s arrival, we conclude that Meyer was prejudiced. The State’s process-of-elimination approach makes Glenn’s preliminary hearing statements that he did not cause the bruising and did not have the opportunity to cause the bruising before Child went to daycare all the more significant. The State admitted as much when it argued for the admission of Glenn’s testimony, saying that “his testimony [was] necessary to the State to prove the case at trial.” We are hard-pressed to conclude that the testimony’s faulty admission was harmless when the State was so adamant that the testimony was essential in the first place. And the State fails to argue that Meyer was not prejudiced by the faulty admission or to point us to other evidence corroborating these key points of Glenn’s testimony. So without the preliminary hearing testimony, Glenn was not excluded—or at least not as easily excluded as he would have otherwise been. The State’s theory required it to eliminate all other possible suspects; without Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony, it did not do so, and it is likely that the court would have concluded as much. In this respect, Glenn’s testimony is like that at issue in Ellis, because it was “central to the prosecution’s case” and “provided key pieces of evidence” under the State’s process-of-elimination approach. See 2018 UT 2, ¶¶ 2, 43. And this testimony is unlike that deemed nonprejudicial in Goins and Leech because Meyer’s conviction did “depend on the veracity of [Glenn’s] account.” See Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 62. Accordingly, the court’s error in admitting Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony prejudiced Meyer.

CONCLUSION

¶40 The district court erred in admitting Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony, and Meyer was prejudiced by that error. We therefore vacate Meyer’s conviction and remand this matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

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

 

[1] Since the time of her charges, the defendant has remarried. She uses a different last name but still accepts the use of “Meyer.” We continue to use “Meyer” for simplicity and for consistency with the case name.

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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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What are some ways to make the divorce rate drop?

First, some marriages need to end in divorce. That is why divorce exists. But divorce is not always the answer when one or both spouses is/are miserable. Far too many divorces are not only unnecessary, but take things from bad to worse. For those marriages that need not end in divorce, teach and exemplify: 

  • belief in God; 
  • trust—humbly—in God; 
  • that God’s plan for His children includes marriage and family (so He will help you when you and your spouse turn to Him for guidance and strength to overcome); 
  • love for and service to God;
    • Loving and serving God leads us to loving and serving others (especially your spouse and children). Loving and serving others leads us to love and to serve God. You cannot sustainably have one without the other; 
    • Go to church together and with your children. Associate with other families and learn from and support each other. It’s soothing and encouraging to see you’re not alone in the struggles couples and families face. It’s good to have others in your community to whom you can turn for support in good times and bad. 
  • mercy and forgiveness for human faults and frailties; 
    • Don’t demand perfection from your spouse or yourself—that’s impossible—but strive to be your best. Don’t exploit your spouse. 
    • This does not mean that wrongs go unpunished and unrestituted, but it does mean that “the punishment fit the crime,” as the saying goes; 
    • This does not mean that punishment be “curative”; See C.S. Lewis’s “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment 
  • specifically in marriage and family: 
    • Marriage and family is a major purpose of our lives—it’s part of God’s plan for each of us; 
    • Marry because you want “us” to be happy, supported, and fulfilled together. If you marry merely for “what’s in it for me,” you’re not ready or worthy to marry; 
      • Being equals in marriage does not mean that you and your spouse are the same in every respect. Accept it. Adapt to it. Celebrate it. Don’t forget it. 
    • Be honest in your dealings with your spouse and worthy of trust. 
    • Accept that certain aspects of a good married life and of single life are incompatible, so those aspects of single life must be left behind and replaced to serve your role as a spouse and parent; 
    • Accept the bitter aspects of married and family life with the sweet; 
      • “Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he’s been robbed. The fact is that most putts don’t drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to just be people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is like an old time rail journey…delays…sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling burst of speed.” — Gordon B. Hinckley 
    • Learn to make the compromises in your habits and lifestyle that marriage requires. 
      • Don’t die on the hill of whose responsibility it is to take out the trash, whether “breakfast for dinner” is untenable, etc. Go to movies and restaurants you don’t like sometimes, if going is something your spouse enjoys (he/she needs to make the same accommodations for you too). 
      • It will seem as though you are “making sacrifices” when in reality you are continuing to grow and mature as a person. You are developing dormant talents and new skills that a successful marriage needs to thrive. 

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

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-ways-to-make-the-divorce-rate-drop/answer/Eric-Johnson-311 

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Can being a noncustodial parent improve the child-parent relationship?

Can being a noncustodial parent improve the child’s relationship with the noncustodial parent?

Recently, a reader on Quora, where I comment regularly, commented on a post of mine with this: 

Anecdotally: When my parents separated I felt I saw my father more because when they lived together simply being in the house was considered fathering. This is something I’ve heard from many fellow adult children of divorce. Suddenly Dad was actually doing something with us and having full conversations. 

I responded with this:  

Thank you for reading and for commenting. I don’t know you, your father, or your collective circumstances, but assuming generally that a father was neither abusive or neglectful (most fathers who become “noncustodial” parents in divorce are in this category), but the children were nevertheless deprived of being in the equal care and custody of their father and mother and Dad was deprived of equal custody of the children, how often do you think that a divorce awarding “sole” or “primary” custody of the children to one parent results in the children’s relationship with the other parent improving? To what degree did any aspect of the children’s lives improve? Right. Not often, not much. Indeed, just the opposite is the case.  

While there are some abusive, neglectful, and/or indifferent fathers out there, they are few and far between compared the vast majority of fathers. When fit, loving fathers (not perfect fathers, mind you) are cut off from their children by court order for even a few days, it is heartbreaking to father and children alike.   

Few parents had children without wanting to be there for them as much as possible and for them to be with that parent as much as possible. Although parental rights are not earned from the state or conditioned upon the state’s approval, that’s essentially how custody policy and law have come to function.  

Marginalizing a fit parent in a child’s eyes by reducing that parent to visitor, second-class, “backup” status necessarily marginalizes the child. “You don’t get the equal (i.e., the maximum) love and care of both parents, boy.” By depriving him/her of equal custody of his/her children with the other parent is to deprive the children of each parent exercising equal responsibility for the children, and to deprive the children of what is in their best interest. 

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

https://www.quora.com/From-a-lawyer-s-perspective-why-do-women-get-child-custody-almost-90-of-the-time-Is-there-really-a-bias-What-factors-come-into-play-when-deciding-about-it/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Should I get sole custody of my children if the dad does not want custody?

Should I get sole custody of my children if their dad does not want to be involved with them? Or try to talk it out before I go through with it?

Your children deserve a loving, salutary relationship with both of their parents, so it is morally right to urge and encourage the father in this situation to love and care for his children. Yes, have that talk with the father. It’s pointless, however, to nag or try to guilt a father into loving and caring for his children when he doesn’t want to love and care for his own children. And it’s plain irresponsible and wrong to try to involve a father in his children’s lives if that father is a danger to the children, whether physically or emotionally/psychologically.  

But where a father is not abusive, not a danger to the life or health of his own children, it’s not a bad idea to leave the door open. One day Dad might wake up and want to walk through it for the children’s benefit. Leaving open the possibility does not, of course, mean that the children will be receptive to repairing (or in some cases forming) their relationship with their father, but why slam that door and nail it shut if you must not? Do unto others as you would have them do for you. Don’t needlessly deprive the children of an opportunity to bond with their father.  

That stated, this does not mean that you must ask the court for a joint child custody award. “Leaving the door open” does not require you treat Dad like an involved parent when he’s not. If Dad’s not around, not interacting with the children, not playing with them, bathing, feeding them, etc., not financially supporting the children, then there’s no good reason to act as though he is when the child custody awards are made. There’s no reason to “leave the door open” in a way that sets the kids up to have their hopes dashed and their hearts broken. If an absentee parent (father or mother) says that he or she recognizes the error of that absentee parent’s ways and wants to make amends, there must needs be a price to be paid by that parent. There will be hard words to hear from the other parent and child. He or she should expect caution and hesitancy, even skepticism, from the children and the other parent. There will be hard work and sacrifice ahead as well (and not just for Dad). Easier said than done. I get it. But if the children are willing to give Dad a second chance and he’s proven he can and wants to make good, it would be tragic and frankly inexcusable to deny the children that. 

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

https://parenttoparenttalk.quora.com/Should-I-get-sole-custody-of-my-children-if-their-dad-does-not-want-to-be-involved-with-them-Or-try-to-talk-it-out-befo?__nsrc__=4  

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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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My estranged father keeps asking me for money, what do I do?

My parents are divorced, my father has no savings, he didn’t work for the entire period of their marriage, we were estranged for a while and now we are back, but now he keeps asking me for money, what do I do? 

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I fully acknowledge that is easier said than done, but that doesn’t excuse any of us from doing the right thing.  

If your father is a moocher, he has not right to mooch and you have no obligation to enable him in his mooching, just as you have no right to mooch. 

If your father is in real need and you have the ability to help him, help him. He is your father, and we are commanded by God to honor our parents, and that commandment is not qualified to apply only to good parents. I can’t claim to understand why this is (just as I can’t always understand the “reason” behind every one of God’s commandments in every situation), but I believe it. Honoring our parents does not mean turning a blind eye to their faults and misconduct. 

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

https://www.quora.com/My-parents-are-divorced-my-father-has-no-savings-he-didnt-work-for-the-entire-period-of-their-marriage-we-were-estranged-for-a-while-and-now-we-are-back-but-now-he-keeps-asking-me-for-money-what-do-I-do/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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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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Christmas/Winter Break for Parents Under the Utah Code

Christmas/Winter Break for Parents Under Utah Code § 30-3-35 or (§ 30-3-35.5 for a child 18 months and older)

If your Christmas/Winter break starts December 17, 2021 and ends January 2, 2022 (i.e., school starts back up on Monday, January 3, 2022), then that means the period between December 17 and January 2 and 17 days (an odd number of days in the holiday break parent-time period). This is how the holiday would be divided:

§ 30-3-35(2)(f)(viii): the first portion of the Christmas school vacation as defined in Subsection 30-3-32(3)(b), including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, continuing until 1 p.m. on the day halfway through the holiday period, if there are an odd number of days for the holiday period or until 7 p.m. if there are an even number of days for the holiday period, so long as the entire holiday period is equally divided.

The day halfway through the period between December 17 and January 2 would be 1:00 p.m. December 25.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Dec. 17

(day 1)

Dec. 18

(day 2)

Dec. 19

(day 3)

Dec. 20

(day 4)

Dec. 21

(day 5)

Dec. 22

(day 6)

Dec. 23

(day 7)

Dec. 24

(day 8)

Dec. 25

(day 9)

Dec. 26

(day 10)

Dec. 27

(day 11)

Dec. 28

(day 12)

Dec. 29

(day 13)

Dec. 30

(day 14)

Dec. 31

(day 15)

Jan. 1

(day 16)

Jan. 2

(day 17)

 

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Are mothers being treated “worse” by the legal system these days, with more and more states leaning toward awarding joint custody to fathers more and more?

No, mothers are not being treated “worse” by the legal system these days, with more and more states leaning toward awarding joint custody to fathers more.

Mothers do not have an inherent or presumptive right to be awarded the sole or even the primary custody of their children. This idea is known (was known) as the “tender years doctrine,” which has been determined to be sexually discriminatory in most jurisdictions in the U.S.A. (perhaps all jurisdictions, I don’t know for certain).

It is undeniable that fathers today are generally being treated more fairly in the child custody award analysis, and that trend appears to continue, but as a general matter fathers are still presumed to be second class parents and discriminated against accordingly.

To be sure, there are children whose best interests are ignored in favor of the court indulging personal and cultural biases. And this mistreatment sometimes includes (but is not limited to) when the child custody award is made. I cannot deny that there are mothers and fathers who are mistreated by the legal system, but it is my experience and opinion that–with the exception of a current large but slowly decreasing number of jurisdictions–for every mother who are cheated by the system, there are dozens of fathers who suffer the same unfair fate.

Some people believe that their lawyers “know” that their clients “obviously” want sole custody of their children when a child custody battle arises. Not true. Tell your lawyer what kind of custody arrangements you want and why. Your lawyer, if he/she is a good lawyer, will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your position and tell you whether he/she believes you can get what you want or whether you’re setting your sights too high or even too low.

Some people believe that if both parents have no history of spousal or child abuse that the court will “automatically” award the parents 50/50 legal and physical custody of their children. Not true. Not even usually true.

Some people believe that unless you or the other parent wants to fight over child custody, that the court will award the parents joint equal legal and physical custody of their children. That is not true of all jurisdictions. In my estimation, most jurisdictions do not presume that joint equal legal and/or physical custody is best for children, and even in those jurisdictions that do have such a presumption, if one of the parents objects to such a presumptive custody award, the court will hold hearings and/or a trial to determine whether the presumption has been rebutted.

At the time I write this, I’ve been practicing divorce and family law for 24 years, and it’s simply a fact that while it is getting easier for men to get a fair shake in the child custody fight, in most jurisdictions it is easier for a mother to win primary physical custody of the children than it is for a father to win primary physical custody of the children or even joint equal physical custody of the children.

In my experience as a divorce and family lawyer in Utah, most courts never even give a father seeking merely joint equal physical custody so much as a losing chance to prove he can exercise joint equal custody in the children’s best interest. Such courts just presume that for whatever reason(s)—real or imagined—the father can’t hack it, and then they make their child custody awards accordingly.

Some courts subconsciously discriminate, not even realizing what they are doing, just taking for granted that “children belong with their mother” and “children don’t need more than a few weekends and holidays and a few hours each week with their dads” and/or “dads don’t really want their kids to be reared equally by both parents”. Courts that deliberately discriminate will selectively cite to the facts and/or fabricate facts to support their foregone custody award conclusions. I’ve witnessed these scenarios personally time and again as a lawyer. And I represent both men and women. I don’t have a personal stake in my observations. I’d like nothing more than to say, “The system doesn’t discriminate against fathers anymore,” but at this point in my career, I cannot honestly say so.

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

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Pro-fairness and Pro-child

Pro-fairness and Pro-child

Recently, public service YouTube channel I run (UFTLV – Utah Family Law TV – not run by or run to support Utah Family Law, LC) received a comment on this video:

Do you think it’s fair that Brad Pitt got joint custody of his kids?

The comment:

“I’m pretty convinced this channel is a pro fathers [sic] rights movement channel. Its [sic] not surprising at all he got joint custody. Its [sic] an automatic presumption nowadays for mother and father to share joint custody.

My response follows below:

Thank you so much for watching and for commenting. You are mistaken on both counts. 1) This is not a pro-father’s rights channel (nor is it a “pro-mother’s rights” channel). It is a pro-fairness, pro-child, pro-due process, and pro-common sense channel. 2) It is not automatically presumed everywhere that child custody will be awarded to both parents on a joint custody basis.

1) For generations mothers were (and still remain in most jurisdictions) presumed to be “the better parent” simply by virtue of their being mothers/women, without evaluating the parental fitness of each parent to determine whether the children would be best served by a sole or joint child custody award. It was (and still is in many jurisdictions) believed that children need to spend more time in their mothers’ care than in their fathers’ care, even if and when the father is ready, willing, and able to share joint equal custody of the children.

2) While there are more and more states in the U.S. passing laws that presume the parents will be awarded joint legal and joint physical custody of their children, many states have no such presumption and many states still treat fathers as second class parents when it comes to making the child custody award. I myself have been told by a judge just this year that “it’s not the quantity of time the children spend with their father but the quality that matters.” But quality of time parents and children spend together is a factor of quantity. Where both parents are fit parents, the “best parent” is both parents. Children deserve no less than joint equal custody in such situations. Fit parents deserve no less as well.

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

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How to Explain to Your Kids You Are Getting Divorced (Guest Post)

Author Bio: Cristin Howard runs Smart Parent Advice, a site that provides parenting advice for moms and dads. Cristin writes about all of the different ups and downs of parenting, provides solutions to common challenges, and reviews products that parents need to purchase.

Divorce isn’t easy on anyone, and navigating this hurdle won’t come without conflict. That makes it all the more important that when you talk to your children about it, you remain a united front, explain it calmly, and be loving parents first.

There are plenty of extra steps you can take to make this reality easier to handle. Prepare for the conversation, and don’t shy away from it or the feelings that will result. Make sure you’re both on board with helping your children overcome this obstacle along with you.

Tell Them Together

Once you and your spouse reach this conclusion, it’s still important that you remain a united parenting front. After all, while your marriage may have changed, your role as parents will always be the same.

This is not the time to place blame or argue about whose responsibility it is to break the news. Using personal pronouns like “we” instead of “I” will ensure that your children understand it’s what both of you want. They don’t need to see the ins and outs of a crumbling relationship. What they need is two parents who still love them, no matter what.

Your children also need to know that it’s not their fault and you’ll work to make sure their lives change as little as possible. They need as much assurance as you can give them that even though you won’t be living together anymore, you’ll both be as involved as possible in everything they do.

It helps to have a plan before you have this conversation so you can answer questions like where you will live, where they will be going to school, and the timeline in which all of this will be finalized.

Give Them Time to Process Their Feelings

Remember that once you conquer what seems like the most overwhelming hurdle, the process is far from over. Your children may not want to talk right now, but over the next few months (or even years), they’ll continue to process their feelings in a variety of ways.

Make sure they know you’re always there for them when they need to talk about how they feel or what they’re thinking.

After all, not all children have matured enough to handle their feelings in reasonable ways. They may lash out, blame you, throw tantrums, cry, or become reclusive. They’ll find the only way they know to process their feelings, and it’s important to allow them to do so.

It will be difficult on you, it may seem like you’re the only parent dealing with it, and it may even come at a time in which you feel like you’re the one who had to deal with abuse or infidelity.

However, remember that your children didn’t see any of that (hopefully), and they’re getting a pretty raw deal as well. They need help coping with their anger, sadness, and everything else they’re feeling.

Spouses who can’t seem to work things out between each other can still be excellent parents. Remember that whatever you’re feeling toward your ex, that person is still a beloved parent to your children, and they need your support more than anything else right now.

Prepare to Deal with Trauma

Divorce is a traumatic event for children that can cause behavioral or academic decline. As you process your emotions, you may be blind to the grief your children are experiencing. As hard as it may be, keep your children out of adult arguments and present a united front for them.

Expressing contempt for your former spouse will just make it harder for your child to trust either of you and will add to their confusion. They can’t understand what went wrong in the first place, and need to feel safe with both parents.

Work Hard to Create Two Households

Your children should feel comfortable, safe, and at home with both parents, so working together to create two households, unified in the way you treat your children is incredibly important.

If you’re still living close to one another, it makes it easy to stay involved, share holidays, and keep some semblance of normalcy in their lives. They can stay at the same school, see their friends, and keep the same extracurriculars.

It’s no mystery that this will make the adjustment easier on them. However, that’s not always possible. Make sure both parents are on board with how your children can communicate with one parent while they’re staying with the other.

Put forth the effort to ensure your children have the tools they need to stay in touch while you’re far apart. Do everything you can to agree on the rules in each new household to make the transition smoother.

Remain a Family Unit

You may now be a single parent, but you can still remain a united parenting team in a lot of ways. Putting aside any animosity you have for each other and understanding what your children are going through will help you make better decisions moving forward.

Just like when you were married, you won’t always agree on everything, but if you can both agree that remaining a parent your children can rely on is the most important thing right now, you’ll make great strides to adjusting your life in a way that makes the transition easier on them.

Working together won’t be easy, but it’s definitely for the best, if you can make it work.

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

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Child refuses to leave noncustodial parent’s house. What happens now?

I am the noncustodial parent. Our child came to my house for parent-time and now refuses to leave because he wants to live with me. What happens now?

I will answer this question in the context of my experience as a lawyer in the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law, which is Utah.

This is a weird area of Utah law because you’ll hear the legislature and the courts tell you that children don’t get to choose where they live, and then when children do that very thing (i.e., refuse to live where the court orders them to live), the courts find themselves essentially powerless to change anything. At least that’s my experience over the 24 years I’ve been in practice.

Now before some of you start licking your lips and scheming, thinking, “I’m the noncustodial parent, but I can change that by simply telling our child to choose to refuse to return to the custodial parent’s house,” you need to be aware of the realities.

If you’re the noncustodial parent and your child or children are under the age of 14 or so, and they claim that they don’t want to live with the custodial parent, there’s a very good chance that the court is going to believe that you are a puppet master who coached the children or otherwise induced or coerced them into claiming they want to live with you. That may not be true, but you’re going to be met with that kind of skeptical presumption. So if you are the noncustodial parent with young children who you assert claim they don’t want to live with the custodial parent, you have an uphill battle ahead of you. If you are the noncustodial parent and a father, you have an almost impossibly uphill battle ahead of you.

If, however, your children are 14 years or older, and you are the noncustodial parent with whom your children say they want to live, it will be harder for your ex and/or the court to presume that the children are lying and/or don’t have good reasons for wanting to live with you. Again, if you are the father making this claim, your claim will be met with more skepticism than if you were the noncustodial mother making such a claim. Why is this? Because there is a pernicious belief in the legal system that fathers are generally worse parents than our mothers, that fathers don’t want custody of their children, and that the only reason fathers would seek custody of their children is to avoid paying child support. As a result of these beliefs, fathers who seek custody of their children are met with not just skepticism, but often derisive skepticism. Forewarned is forearmed.

So, if you are a noncustodial parent who is good and decent, and your child honestly and sincerely comes to you saying, “mom/dad, I can’t stand living with the custodial parent anymore, and I want to live with you,” how do you proceed?

First, if the child refusing to live with the custodial parent because the child just wants to spend more time with you and/or less time with the custodial parent, and the custodial parent is not neglecting or abusing the child in any way, then you as the noncustodial parent have both a legal and moral obligation to talk the child into going back to the custodial parent’s home, or if persuasion doesn’t work, imposing limitations and restrictions and punishments upon the child so that the child won’t get the impression that he or she is in charge. At the same time, the custodial parent needs to acknowledge the child’s desires to spend more time with the noncustodial parent as being a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed and resolved, and that usually means the custodial parent agreeing to give the child and the noncustodial parent more time together. If the custodial parent refuses to do the right thing, you may ask whether it’s wise to petition the court for a modification of the child custody award, so that you and the child get more time together. Unfortunately, odds are that if you file a petition to modify child custody and the only basis for your petition is the child’s desire to spend more time with you, you will probably lose. While it is technically and conceivably possible to win such a petition, usually the courts in Utah require more than just the child’s desire as the basis for a modification. And what form does this “more” take? Typically, you would have to show that the custodial parent is neglecting and/or abusing the child to get a modification of the child custody award.

Second, if the child is refusing to reside with the custodial parent because the custodial parent is truly neglectful and/or abusive, and if you have independently verifiable proof of this, you have the option of petitioning the court to modify the child custody award, changing the custodial parent from your ex to you. While that petition is pending, your child may refuse to return to the custodial parent’s home, and for reasons at least you and the child know to be valid. Whether the court allows your child to stay with you depends upon how your court views the situation and what is best for the child.

If you find yourself in this kind of situation, whether you are the custodial parent or the noncustodial parent, this is one of those situations where you need to seek good legal advice immediately, to help ensure that neither you nor the child is victimized.

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

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Father has 50/50 custody. Now ex is trying to take it away. What to do?

I am a father who has exercised at least 50/50 custody with my ex. Now she’s trying to take me to court for full custody and me getting every other weekend visits. How can I avoid losing 50/50 custody?

First, thank your lucky stars you are a father who currently has 50/50 custody of his children. Far, far too many fit and loving fathers who could easily exercise joint equal physical custody of their children and whose children would do nothing but benefit from the exercise of joint equal custody are needlessly and unjustifiably denied a joint equal child custody award by courts who simply cannot bring themselves to believe, much less conceive of, the idea that children being reared by both parents equally is better than relegating one parent to second class visitor status in his child’s life.

Second, the fact that you have been exercising at least 50–50 custody of your children for the past few years helps to make it much harder for your ex to build a case against you for modifying the child custody award in a manner that deprives both father and children of a 50–50 custody schedule. Again, be grateful this is the case, because if you were trying to win 50–50 custody of your children on the first go around during your divorce or other child custody legal action, the odds are grossly stacked against fit and loving fathers.

Third, if you are afraid that your judge is going to discriminate against you on the basis of sex, you need to understand this principle: “if it isn’t close, there cheating won’t matter.” Otherwise stated, you need to ensure that you win six ways from Sunday. you have to bring overwhelming amounts of evidence and proof into court, so that you leave the judge no option but to rule in your favor. Easier said than done, certainly, but now is not the time to become complacent or substitute hope for effort. Spare no expense to preserve your joint equal physical custody award. A necessary component of a winning case is that you are living a life beyond reproach. Get your house in order. If there is anything remotely amiss in your life, correct course immediately, clearly, and permanently.

Fourth, make sure you understand and that your attorney understands what statutory and case law factors and criteria govern the original child custody award and a petition to modify the original child custody award. It may be that your ex does not have sufficient grounds for a petition to modify child custody to survive a motion to dismiss.

Fifth and finally, do not take on a petition to modify child custody alone, without a vigilant and skilled attorneys assistance. There is an undeniable culture of bias and discrimination and prejudice against fathers when it comes to courts making child custody awards. This doesn’t mean that every judge in every court indulges in sexual discrimination against father, but it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between an impartial judge and a biased one, and so you need an attorney who will not suffer fools gladly, who will defend the joint equal custody award.

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

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