On Appeal from Superior Court, Rutland Unit, Family Division Nancy Corsones, J.
Robert P. McClallen, Rutland, for Plaintiff-Appellee.
Karen Cegalis (On the Brief), Pro Se, Waterbury, and Kevin M. Volz (Oral Argument), Rutland, for Defendant-Appellant.
PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.
¶ 1. Mother appeals pro se from the trial court's order on parents' cross-motions concerning their minor son. Father moved to terminate efforts to reestablish parent-child contact with mother, and mother moved to modify parental rights and responsibilities. The court denied mother's motion to modify, and it did not allow mother any rights of parent-child contact until August 2016, unless the child's trauma therapist recommended contact earlier. Mother argues that the court's findings are inadequate, and that the findings do not support the court's conclusion. We conclude that the trial court acted within its discretion, and affirm.
¶ 2. Mother and father are the parents of a son, born in August 2005. The parties never married and their relationship ended in February 2006. The court awarded father primary custody in 2009, concluding at that time that he had a superior ability to foster the child's relationship with the other parent, and a superior disposition to meet the child's developmental needs. We affirmed the court's decision on appeal. Knutsen v. Cegalis, 2011 VT 128, 191 Vt. 546, 35 A.3d 1059. Father has since married another woman.
¶ 3. This case has a long procedural history, which we set forth below.
I. October 2012 Decision
¶ 4. In September 2012, the court held a four-day hearing on father's petition on behalf of the child for a final relief-from-abuse order against mother, as well as on mother's cross-motion to modify parental rights and contact. According to father, in May 2012, the child related that over the prior few months, mother and her boyfriend had sexually abused him. Mother vigorously denied the allegations. The court found that, taking all of the credible evidence into consideration, father failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that mother abused the child. It thus denied his request for a final restraining order.
¶ 5. As to mother's motion, the court found that the ongoing dispute between parents had not abated over the years. Mother had created a website in which she posted intensely critical tirades about father. The court found that mother's behavior impaired the child's ability to have a good relationship with the three adult caregivers in his life. The court also had concerns about mother's parenting skills based on her in-court demeanor. The court did not believe that the child was deliberately lying about the alleged assaults, but concluded that he was making extraordinarily serious and very negative statements about mother because he lacked the ability to cope with mother's evident hatred of father, and he wanted it to stop. The court concluded that there clearly had been a real, substantial, and unanticipated change in circumstances based on mother's estrangement from the child. It determined that it was not in the child's best interests to simply return to the old schedule as the child had not seen or spoken to mother in five months. The court found therapeutic involvement essential to securely support the child in restarting his relationship with mother. It enlisted the services of a local psychologist to create and initiate a plan of contact. It also emphasized the need for forensic psychiatric evaluations of parents and the child.
II. October 2013 Decision
¶ 6. In an October 2013 decision, following seven days of hearings, the court considered what plan of reunification, if any, was in the child's best interests. Dr. Craig Knapp had conducted a forensic evaluation of parents and the child. The court found that father and stepmother saw the forensic evaluation as a vehicle to once again attempt to establish that the child had been assaulted by mother. Dr. Knapp participated in meetings between mother and the child and concluded that the description of the child being intensely fearful of mother was not at all borne out by what he observed. While the child appeared to genuinely believe the allegations he had made, his relationship with mother was rekindled, in a positive way, within minutes of seeing her. And, when the session with mother ended, the child's first fear was that his father and stepmother would be angry at him for enjoying his time with mother.
¶ 7. The court found that mother was loving and caring toward the child, and there was no indication that she would condone anyone harming the child in any way. Mother had difficulty restraining negative emotions, however, and she had a very concerning inability to manage feelings of resentment. Mother was engaged in therapy, which appeared to help with these issues, but mother continued to struggle with this problem. Father had a history of being able to care for the child physically and emotionally. Father had a tendency to withdraw from conflict, however, and as this conflict continued, father became increasingly stressed. He now exhibited paranoia that mother was going to kill him, his wife, and the child. He asserted that mother was a psychopath and a sociopath. The court found none of father's fears or conclusions supported by any credible evidence in the record. The court believed that father's fears were fueled by the very strong and demonstrated antipathy that stepmother had toward mother. Stepmother's antipathy became far more overt after November 2011. The court found no credible factual basis to support the child's allegations of abuse, much less to support any finding that mother was a homicidal psychopath.
¶ 8. The court did not have any psychological evaluation of stepmother, which it found extremely unfortunate. While stepmother was overwhelmingly committed to protecting the child's physical and psychological safety, she took actions that were not in the child's best interests. In January 2013, for example, she took the child to Canada, where mother's boyfriend lived, so that the child could tell the Ottawa police about the alleged abuse. The police chose not to talk with the child, and after several hours, the stepmother drove home. Her conduct revealed that she would stop at nothing to involve the child directly in her efforts to literally and figuratively prosecute mother and mother's boyfriend. Stepmother's insistence on putting the child in the middle of her crusade spoke volumes about the sources of the child's estrangement from mother. Stepmother was adamant, as was father, that the child's statements of abuse were entirely truthful and accurate. She was committed to preventing contact between the child and mother as she believed that the child would be killed if he saw his mother or her boyfriend again. The court viewed stepmother's actions with an extraordinary degree of concern given the intensity of this belief, combined with the total lack of any objective, credible facts to support it.
¶ 9. As to the child, the court found that he was a bright, engaging, and loving child. Except for the reactions he had displayed since May 2, 2012, he was mentally healthy. Before that date, the child had had a good time with mother and was not in any way afraid of her. The child's allegations about abuse had not been determined credible by the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations, by the Department for Children and Families (DCF), or by the court. Objectively provable aspects of his statements have been proven in fact to be untrue. Before May 2012, the child never made any statements to others about being abused; mother's relatives observed no acts of abuse; and the child never appeared to be uncomfortable or upset in any way when these relatives were present. Until after May 4, 2012, the child never expressed any fear to anyone that mother would harm him. Indeed, when he talked to law enforcement and DCF on May 4, 2012, he expressed that he was fine with seeing his mother that weekend. It was only when the allegations were repeated to a therapist on several occasions that he began to express fear and hatred of mother. It was only months later that he developed a fear that she was going to kill them all.
¶ 10. The court found the most likely explanation for the child making the statements was his attempt to adapt to the increasing hostilities between the two households. The court found that the child was indisputably affected by father's and stepmother's reactions to his initial statements. He had a strong bond with stepmother and did not want to disappoint her. The court determined that mother, father, and stepmother had not acted in a way to substantially advance the child towards having a safe and secure relationship with mother. In doing so, ...