Family Law Case Review: Paternity of A.S.

In Re: The Paternity of A.S.: Melissa Slansky v. Mary Doffin-Syler, and Bradley Howell
by Mike Kohlhaas and Tamara McMillian, Bingham Greenebaum Doll

HELD: Grandmother who sought custody of her grandchild, adverse to the child’s own mother, failed to overcome the strong presumption that a child’s best interests are served by placement with the natural parent.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
In February 2002, Mother gave birth to A.S and immediately moved into maternal Grandmother’s home in Crown Point, Indiana due to Mother’s postpartum depression. Until April 2007, Grandmother worked full-time and provided the primary care for both Mother and A.S. while Mother worked sporadically. In April of 2007, Mother and A.S. moved from Grandmother’s home to live with Mother’s husband and A.S.’s stepfather in Lowell, Indiana. In August of 2007, Mother was convicted of operating a vehicle while intoxicated and the court suspended Mother’s driver’s license. Mother, Grandmother, and Stepfather then agreed that A.S. would live with Grandmother during the school week to attend preschool in Grandmother’s school district. A.S. resided with Mother and Stepfather on the weekends. This school arrangement continued until May 2008.

After May 2008, A.S. primarily resided with Mother and Stepfather. From May 2008 until December 2009, A.S. frequently visited Grandmother during the weekends. On April 2, 2009, Mother delivered Mother and Stepfather’s first child, Av.S. In July of 2009, Mother became pregnant with Mother and Stepfather’s second child.

In December of 2009, Mother was hospitalized because of life-threatening complications. On the date Mother entered the hospital, A.S was already visiting Grandmother. Grandmother agreed to additionally babysit Av.S. while Stepfather visited Mother in the hospital. On December 28, 2009, Grandmother called Stepfather to pick up Av.S. who cried uncontrollably. On December 28, 2009, Stepfather went to Grandmother’s home intending to pick up both A.S and Av.S. However, Grandmother only allowed Stepfather to take Av.S. Grandmother and Stepfather disagreed on whether Mother authorized Stepfather to pick up A.S. On January 1, 2010, Mother picked up A.S. from Grandmother’s home and A.S. resumed living with Mother and Stepfather. Mother barred A.S.’s contact with Grandmother until January 2011.

On January 5, 2010, Stepfather filed a petition to adopt A.S. and a petition for temporary custody of A.S. because Mother was being treated for an unspecified medical condition and could not care for A.S. full-time. The trial court granted Stepfather temporary custody of A.S. pending an adoption hearing. On February 11, 2010, Father filed an Objection to Petition for Adoption of Minor Child. On February 5, 2010, Grandmother filed a petition for grandparent’s rights. On April 6, 2010, Grandmother filed a petition for custody based on her de facto custodian status.

The trial court joined the causes and ordered mediation. On November 18, 2010, the parties entered into a facilitation agreement. On December 6, 2010, the trial court determined that 1) Father was A.S.’s biological father, 2) Stepfather withdrew his petition for adoption and custody, 3) Mother was the custodial parent, and 4) beginning on January 2, 2011, Father would have supervised visitation with A.S. In a separate order, the trial court granted Grandmother supervised visitation and assigned a guardian ad litem for A. S.

On October 11, 2011, the trial court held a custody hearing where Grandmother and Father presented evidence regarding Mother’s treatment for schizoaffective disorder, her struggles alcoholism, and past gang involvement. The guardian ad litem recommended Mother maintain custody of A.S. The trial court awarded Grandmother physical custody of A.S. and granted Mother and Father visitation. On December 15, 2011, Mother filed a Motion to Correct Error and a Motion for Rehearing, which the trial court denied.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling which granted Grandmother custody of A.S.  The Court of Appeals reasoned that Grandmother failed to demonstrate that it was a substantial and significant advantage for A.S. to be in her custody. It was in A.S.’s best interest to remain in Mother’s custody because Mother’s schizoaffective disorder was controlled by medication, there was no evidence Mother would abuse alcohol again, it was highly unlikely Mother would return to a late adolescent gang-related life; further, A.S. was an articulate, well-mannered, above average student. The Court of Appeals determined that Grandmother failed to overcome the presumption that is was in A.S.’s best interest to remain with her natural parent, Mother.

The trial court’s award of custody of A.S. to Grandmother was reversed and remanded for further proceedings, including awarding custody to Mother and to determine appropriate parenting time orders.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: In Re: The Paternity of A.S.: Melissa Slansky v. Mary Doffin-Syler, and Bradley Howell

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The Indiana Family Law Update is a free service provided by Bingham Greenebaum Doll, LLP. While significant efforts are made to ensure an accurate summary and reproduction of each opinion, readers are advised to verify all content and analysis with a traditional case law reporter before relying on the content and analysis offered here.

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