This Opinion is subject to motion for reargument or formal revision before publication. See V.R.A.P. 40
On Appeal from Superior Court, Orleans Unit, Family Division. Robert R. Bent, J.
The decision to order a divorce is affirmed. The decision with respect to parental rights and responsibilities and visitation is affirmed, except that the court's custody and visitation award concerning father's stepson is reversed and remanded for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Bryce Breton of Breton & Simon, PLC, Stowe, for Plaintiff-Appellant.
Daniel LeBlanc, Defendant-Appellee, Pro se, East Hardwick.
Present: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund and Robinson, JJ., and Crawford, Supr. J., Specially Assigned
[¶1] Mother appeals from the trial court's final divorce order. She asserts that the court erred in granting the parties a divorce because the statutory requirements for divorce were not satisfied. She also challenges the court's award of primary legal and physical custody of the parties' five children -- including her son, but father's stepchild -- to father. Finally, she argues that the court abused its discretion in its award of parent-child contact. We affirm the court's order in all respects with the exception of its decision to award father primary parental rights and responsibilities in his stepchild. On this issue, we reverse and remand.
[¶2] Mother and father married in 1998, and mother filed for divorce in January 2011. Mother and father are the biological parents of four children, born in January 2005, April 2006, February 2008, and January 2010, respectively. Another child, born in May 2002, is mother's child and father's stepchild. Following a multi-day trial, the court granted the parties a divorce; awarded father primary legal and physical rights and responsibilities with the exception that mother have primary authority as to medical decisions; and set forth a visitation schedule.
[¶3] The court made oral findings and also issued a written order, which was prepared by mother's attorney. Its findings include the following. The parties did not have a smooth marriage. Throughout the marriage, father was generally passive and docile, but he would occasionally become angry. Mother was more hot-tempered than father, and at times she became very volatile.
[¶4] Mother became pregnant while married to, but separated from, father. Father was present at his stepson's birth, and mother and father resumed living together when the stepson was one year old. The child, for all intents and purposes, has been parented only by mother and father.
[¶5] Mother was the primary caregiver for all of the children until shortly after her youngest child's birth in January 2010. Mother developed post-partum depression and became less functional. She had a significant psychological breakdown in April 2010 and was hospitalized for three weeks. She later suffered an overdose and returned to the hospital in late May for several weeks. She returned to the hospital for several weeks again in July 2010. She tried to commit suicide while in the hospital, which resulted in a longer stay.
[¶6] Mother entered a six-week outpatient program at Fletcher Allen in August 2010 where she made significant progress. When mother was released from the hospital, she was unable to return home. She was suffering from depression with psychotic features and could not care for the children. Mother began living in North Troy with a man she met at the Fletcher Allen program. The court found the nature
of mother's relationship with the man unclear.
[¶7] In November 2011, mother stayed at a crisis bed for three to four weeks. She is considered disabled due to her depression for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits. Mother continues to take medication for her depression and sees a counselor weekly.
[¶8] Due to mother's illness, father became the children's primary caregiver. Father was also trying to earn a living during this time. Father was living in East Hardwick in a house rented to him by his aunt. Father and the family had lived there for seven years. The court regarded father's living situation as relatively stable. While there was a discussion about the house possibly being sold, the court noted that it had been on the market for seven years, and it found father's living situation unlikely to change.
[¶9] Father was not as natural a parent as mother, but the evidence indicated that he was learning. Although the children and the house were not always clean, no harm resulted. The children were all together in a stable environment. Father had family support that was both convenient and functional. Father's mother helped with the children, and the children were close to her.
[¶10] Father was a longtime marijuana smoker who had four convictions for marijuana offenses. Father testified that he did not keep marijuana in the house and did not smoke in front of the children. Mother stated that the children were familiar with marijuana paraphernalia, and knew that father smoked a pipe. The court was unable to determine if father smoked in front of the children; there was no finding on that issue. It noted, however, that father's convictions spoke for themselves, and observed that father might have an incipient substance abuse problem.
[¶11] While living in North Troy in early 2011, mother removed her eldest child from school and brought him to North Troy where she was homeschooling him. This did not work out well. The child missed his siblings, became restive, and ultimately returned to father's home. Both parents saw the need for the child to return to father's home. Although mother was the child's sole custodian pursuant to a parentage order, she realized that it was in his best interests to be with his siblings.
[¶12] Also in early 2011, mother stopped living with the man in North Troy and had no place to go. She proposed moving back into father's home and did so by agreement. Mother was increasingly capable of caring for the children and frequently became their daytime caretaker. There was some debate, however, given mother's illness, as to how much responsibility she should have. A doctor had opined that mother should not be left alone with the children. Father needed help, however, and found it useful to have mother living in the home. Despite progress, mother continued to suffer some ongoing depression, and father still saw in her some degree of instability. Mother told father that she had multiple personalities. She often slept late and frequently needed to be alone. Mother was seeing a counselor weekly and was still taking certain medicine, including an antipsychotic drug called Seroquel. The court expressed concern that mother might have undiagnosed mental illnesses beyond depression.
[¶13] Mother initiated divorce proceedings while the parties were still living together. The main issues in the divorce involved parental rights and responsibilities for all the children, including the child for whom father is the stepfather. The court found that, while the parties were
living together in April 2012, father pushed mother and also struck the wall next to her, which scared her. This conduct was the subject of a relief-from-abuse order. The court noted that by the time of the court's divorce order, mother was no longer living with father. She was living in temporary housing in St. Johnsbury. The court viewed the incidence of violence cited above as a boiling over of emotions due to living together in a confined space rather than reflective of any pattern of behavior. Now that the parties were separated and did not plan on living together, the court found no likelihood of further abuse.
[¶14] Based on the findings above and others, the court evaluated the situation of each party under the statutory best-interest factors. See 15 V.S.A. § 665(b)(1)-(9). The court found both parents equally able to provide the children with love and affection, and to meet their material needs. The court found mother better able to meet the children's developmental needs. The court concluded that father's housing situation was more stable than mother's, which it found significant. The children were well-adjusted to father's home. They had extended family nearby, who they were close to and ...