Posts Tagged ‘guardian’

The “Other Factor” That Can Sink Your Custody Claim: Alienating Child Affection

Monday, August 20th, 2018

I was recently in trial in the northern part of our great state and had a unique case wherein I had the good fortune of securing custody of a four-year-old little boy for my client, the father. The case was one of the most difficult I have ever handled in 14 years- both legally and emotionally. It was a roller-coaster of facts and subjectivity of the law, to say the least. The opposing attorney was highly competent; a seasoned prosecutor from Lee County- one of the best I have ever faced.

My client was guilty of some degree of minor violence; domestic abuse which was relatively easy to prove, and yet he obtained custody of his son. How can this happen, you may ask, and rightfully so. It seems the long odds stacked against my client were impossible to overcome. This case lasted 23 months in total. The victory was by a razor-thin margin. I was on hanging on every word from the court and counsel opposite until the very end.

Any custody attorney will harp on the factors a court will consider in determining the best interests in a child’s physical placement. Mom no longer has a clear and plain advantage, due in large part to the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The “tender years” doctrine has been significantly eroded, to the point that only breastfeeding an infant child confers some advantage to mom. Dad now starts on equal footing in a custody battle for all practical purposes. As a single father with sole legal and physical custody of my son, I have reaped the benefit of the recent change in law.

Beginning January 10, 2018 our office began a series of articles outlining all of the Albright factors- the defined matters for a court to consider in a custody dispute. We did not write only one article on the only non-specific Albright factor which is the most subjective; the one that is most easily described as a “catch-all”. Up for grabs and potentially up-ending any custody case are “other relevant factors”. What could these possibly be?

In all of the custody experience I have, never did I imagine that I could win a custody case based on these mysterious and elusive “other factors” when my client lost more than half of the specified Albright issues. Not in a million years did I believe that some undefined, highly subjective issue would win the day. And then, exactly that occured. I am still somewhat surprised by the result– pleasantly surprised, that is. The ugly head of parental alienation was the “other factor” that swayed the balance to my client’s victory.

Parental alienation of a child has always been regarded as paramount to a Mississippi court- even more so lately. That said, I have increasingly witnessed first-hand that if the alienating parent’s behavior is severe, courts will likely deem it to be tantamount to child abuse, negating what would be an award of physical custody to the opposing parent. To be frank, a decade ago this “other factor” would have been considered as just another Albright issue. Today, it can upend an entire case. That is music to my ears. Times have certainly changed.

Alienation comes in many shapes and forms. Most often it is in the nature of passive-aggressive parental alienation; making it difficult to get a hold of a child by phone, making subtle comments about the other parent’s morals and character, or even stoking a child’s concern about whether their other parent cares about them. Other times parental alienation takes on an overtly aggressive form.

The case that prompted me to write this article involved mom, who had a bi-racial son, instructing him to call his father and his family a “bunch of n___ers”. And it was all caught on tape. It didn’t happen only once, this four-year-old little guy, half African American, had made the infamous N-word a part of his vocabulary, all thanks to mom. It was horrible to hear on tape, heartbreaking at the very least.

The focus of this article is not necessarily parental alienation, it is a forewarning to parents who engage in extreme behaviors to the psychological and emotional detriment of their child. Be it excessive shaming of a child, prolonged absence, or just plain verbal cruelty, beware of the “other factors”–they can flat sink what would have otherwise been a custody victory. Chancery courts have broad discretion in child custody matters, and anything you say-to your child or anyone involved-can and will be held against you.

My last piece of advice is relatively simple. Mother Theresa once said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great heart”. I couldn’t have said it better. When navigating the treacherous waters of child-custody litigation, do not forget that children need love, happiness, and innocence of adult issues as much as they need food and water. It is easy to lose sight of this fact when angry at an ex-lover. Keep sight of what matters most: protecting your child from turmoil and shielding them from despair.

If you are involved in a child custody case that requires a robust knowledge base and formidable experience, I will gladly attempt to point you in the right direction. Be forewarned- simple answers to complex issues, particularly those involving child custody, are elusive and require a high level of competency. If you need just that, contact us anytime.

Matthew Poole is a single parent of an eight year-old boy, Lucas. He is well-acclimated to the various challenges that face single parents, both professionally and personally. His practice has been focused on child custody matters for 14 years as a parental advocate.

Great, One More Lawyer: Guardians ad Litem

Monday, July 9th, 2018

It’s an age-old joke that the more lawyers are involved, the more confusing (not to mention expensive) a situation tends to become. Whether well-founded or not, there are many situations that having lawyers involved is simply a foregone conclusion. One of the most prevalent of these examples is a case involving the well-being of a child. In many of those cases, a separate attorney will be added to the case to act as a guardian ad litem (“GAL”, literally guardian at law) to represent the best interests of the child or children involved. While of course many parents have the best interests of the child in mind during litigation over custody, such an emotional type of litigation can make it difficult for the child to remain at the forefront of concern.

A Mississippi court will appoint a GAL when there is a claim of abuse or neglect of the child by one or both parents. This could be physical abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect such as failing to provide the child with proper shelter and food. Other situations where the appointment of a GAL is mandatory in Mississippi include:

If DHS seeks protective services for a vulnerable adult and that person lacks capacity to waive the right to counsel;

In eminent domain and condemnation proceedings for parties who are minors or otherwise incompetent and are without a general guardian;

In a divorce proceeding based upon incurable insanity, if the defendant otherwise has no legal guardian;

If the mother dies while a paternity case is pending;

In a guardianship action where an interested party wishes to establish an estate plan, and it is determined the ward will remain incompetent during their lifetime;

Termination of parental rights;

Contested adoptions; and

If an individual convicted of felony child abuse wants visitation the child.

This is not an exhaustive list, and therefore it is evident that in almost any situation where the possibility of the child playing second fiddle to an issue in a case, Mississippi courts will appoint a GAL. This is an attempt to ensure that the child is treated fairly, and, above all, not taken advantage of or used as a pawn in litigation. Unfortunately, the nefarious use of a child’s presence in a case to get the upper hand is not evident at the outset of the case to either the lawyers, judges, or even the parties themselves.

Mississippi attorneys who serve as guardians ad litem must undergo training in juvenile justice provided or approved by the Mississippi Judicial College, and must renew that certification every year. The appointment of a GAL is an important step in litigation, and parties to suits in Mississippi should feel comforted in knowing that the attorneys serving in that role are required to refresh their memory of how to properly serve as a GAL. It can be intimidating to feel as though a party has one more person to impress or convince during litigation, on top of the judge, their lawyer, their friends and family, and their child or children. However, a GAL is involved in the case to represent the child, and their involvement should be welcomed and their input appropriately considered. Their work truly is selfless.

Child custody cases are some of the most time-consuming, expensive, and stressful cases that come through our office. It is our primary practice area. While many times the events during litigation seem petty and trite, the outcome is one that will shape the course of the relationship with the parties and the child(ren) for years. Therefore, the presence of a well-respected guardian ad litem is a large boost in the confidence that the best result will be reached for the child. While many times it is true that the mere presence of lawyers will breathe life into a conflict, suits impacting children are ones that a better result can be reached by having another attorney join the fray. If you or someone you know has a question about child custody litigation and the role that a guardian ad litem plays in litigation, call the Law Office of Matthew S. Poole. We have the experience and knowledge to answer almost any question you may have about this process, and the benefits that come along with the appointment of a GAL.

Mississippi Child Custody Considerations: Preference of the Child

Sunday, March 11th, 2018

Perhaps one of the more daunting and trying considerations for parents involved in a child custody dispute is the preference of the child. Parents contesting child custody are often nervous that their child’s preference will not be favorable to them because of a number of different reasons manipulating that child’s decision making. Sadly, this could even include the other parent’s influence. However, the preference of the child is but one of many considerations that chancellor’s weigh in their analysis of the Albright Factors to decide the best interests of the child.

By statute, the preference of the child will not be considered by a chancellor unless the child is 12 years old or older. After the sufficient age of 12, a child in a child custody case could be allowed by the court to express their preference as to which parent they would prefer to live with. A chancellor, however, is not required to honor the wishes of a child as to whom he/she would prefer to live with, but will only make that decision based on whether the best interests of the child is served by allowing them to express a preference.

This consideration is considered dismaying by some because of a parent’s ability to manipulate the feelings of a child in regards to the other parent. For example, there unfortunately are parents that will promise their children a later curfew, a new phone, or even a new car, just to manipulate the child into wanting to live with that parent. Although offering favors to their child may sway that child to their side momentarily, ultimately, a chancellor deciding the case will see that for what it is and take that into consideration when making his final decision.

Even though there are parents who attempt to essentially “bribe” their own children to make them want to live with them, a court will not make a decision based on the child’s preference if their preference is not in their best interest. It is understandable that this factor can cause a sense of uneasiness and worry in parents when dealing with a child custody dispute. Our office handles child custody disputes every day, and can help ease those worries. If you have any worries or concerns involving your custody disputes, or just have any questions at all involving your custody related issues, please contact our office. Thank you for following this series and please continue to follow along each week as we explore the Albright Factors.

Mississippi Custody Considerations (Albright Factors: Moral Fitness of Parents)

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

Here in Mississippi, it is well settled that the best interest of the child must be the polestar consideration in all custody decisions. In deciding the best interest of the child in custody cases, it is the chancellor’s duty to consider that the relationship of parent and child is for the benefit of the child, not the parent. To determine where the child’s best interest lies, the court must weigh a slew of factors when deciding custody. Among these factors one of the most critical consideration is the moral fitness of the parents. Especially here in Mississippi, deep in the Bible belt, this factor is perhaps taken into consideration more than any other factor.

When weighing this factor, the chancellor will make a judgment on who he or she finds to be morally fit to receive custody of the child. The chancellor will question both parents’ morals to find who should be awarded custody based on the best interest of the child. For example, a court will take into consideration whether either parent had an affair or has a drinking problem.

When it comes to the moral fitness of the parents, how those morals impact the children is key. For instance, if a mother’s paramour had constant exposure to the child and was in the home for extended periods of time with the child, the court would perhaps weigh that negatively against the mother. Bad behavior on one of the parent’s part is essential to the court’s analysis, however it is whether that bad behavior is exposed to the child that will cause the court to weigh in favor of the other parent.

As with the factor of the emotional bond between the parent and the child, a guardian ad litem (GAL) will play a large role in determining which parent possesses the better moral fitness to raise the child. The GAL will use home visits to make this determination, often with a prescheduled home visit, and possibly with an unannounced visit. This helps the GAL determine whether the scheduled visit (which often goes well) was the real deal, and not just a gilded image of everyday life in that home.

Many of our clients have questions about this factor because it is such an influential consideration in the eyes of the courts of Mississippi. Although this factor is important to the courts analysis in child custody cases, it is but one factor among many that a chancellor weighs in awarding custody. If you or anyone you know has any concerns or is unsure about the moral fitness consideration, or any other considerations, please contact the Law Office of Matthew S. Poole. Our office is pleased to assist you and answer any questions you may have.

Albright Factors: Age, Health, and Gender

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

Many of you are probably thinking that, according to our last post, that the age of the child is no longer considered a major factor in child custody decisions. This is not true, as even though the tender years doctrine is no longer treated as a hardline rule, the age of the child is still a factor that courts weigh in these cases, along with the health and gender of the child. The Mississippi Court of Appeals noted that sometimes all three factors are grouped into one larger factor, and sometimes age is separated from health and gender as its own factor. Flowers v. Flowers, 90 So.3d 672, 679 (Miss. Ct. App. 2012). While these factors may seem rather cut and dry, there are many ways that an attorney can construe these factors in the favor of their client to swing the balance of the court’s decision on child custody.

While most parents are concerned and interested in the health of their child, not all of those parents can give the child the attention their health deserves. Children afflicted by serious illnesses require a lot of personal care, and that means a lot of doctor’s appointments. Courts may look to see which of the parents is more able to accompany the child to these health-related appointments in making their decision on custody. That parent may also be better able to spend more time with the child making sure they feel safe, loved, and often simply to take their mind off their illness. While a parent with a demanding job can feel a huge amount of concern for their child’s health, they also cannot be in two places at once.

As mentioned in our previous post, the age of the child was given large consideration in child custody decisions, and although it is not the only factor, courts still use it in their analysis. The age of the child often relates to breastfeeding, as the standard was that during the child’s “tender years” that the presumption lied with the mother being the best guardian until either parent could equally care for the child. Before the prevalence of formula, this factor would have all but certainly favored the mother, leaving fathers with an uphill battle for custody of their child.

Related to the application of the tender years doctrine is the factor of the gender of the child. This factor can play a part as the child grows older and enters adolescence. Mississippi courts have noted that growing and maturing boys could need guidance from their fathers, as well as maturing girls from their mothers, and that this needed help and direction should be considered when making a custody decision. Parker v. South, 913 So.2d 339 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005).

The health, age and sex of the child factors in child custody cases may seem like afterthoughts compared to some others that will follow in this series, however these can still play a pivotal role in a chancellor’s decision in awarding custody. If a parent is able to spend more time with a child affected by illnesses, a chancellor will consider that. If the child is entering a confusing and frustrating time in their lives and one parent is better suited to help them through it, a chancellor will consider that as well. Many people will probably skim over this factor because it is often not a “smoking gun,” but it is still worthy of consideration, because it can play a large role in the outcome.

Three Common Mistakes When Dealing with the Guardian Ad Litem Assigned to Your Mississippi Child Custody Case

Friday, November 18th, 2016

First of all, it’s important to understand the basic role of a guardian ad litem in a child custody matter (a.k.a. child custody lawsuit).  If a guardian ad litem has been appointed by a Mississippi Chancellor (often referred to as a Chancery Court Judge) to investigate facts that are relevant to your custody case and make a recommendation to the court as to what they believe is in the best interests of a child, there are three common mistakes that people can and will make that can adversely impact the result and report of the guardian ad litem.   It is important to know that guardian ad litem is a latin term for “guardian at law”.  These guardians are generally appointed by the court in order to perform a fact finding expedition and make a recommendation as to the placement of physical and legal custody of a minor child or children.  It is also crucial to note that the court does not have to follow the findings of the guardian ad litem, although deviations from the general recommendations of the guardian are rare and have to be supported by substantial evidence as presented to the court.

The most common mistakes we see in dealing with our client’s involvement with guardians ad litem are as follows; not sufficiently communicating with the guardian ad litem as to the issues that need to be investigated.  For instance, we have clients that have three or four (or sometimes half-a-dozen) issues that they wish to be investigated by the guardian ad litem, but they only communicate those to us—they expect all communication to go through their lawyer (which is not unreasonable, but impractical at best).  It is important that the client take an active role in speaking with the guardian in order to facilitate the investigation and keep costs down, and it is also important that the client be able to shine a light on all of the issues that they believe are relevant to the best interests of the minor child.  It is important to stay abreast of the guardian ad litem’s progress in their investigation and the various things (i.e. factual issues relevant to custody) that they are considering in making in a recommendation to the court.

It is also important, when possible, to communicate with the guardian ad litem in writing so that there will be a substantial, provable record as to the issues that you wish to be investigated.  It is crucial to know that the more issues and the more complex issues that exist, the guardian’s investigation will have to be more extensive and often this will require that you incur additional cost due to that additional work required in performing the investigation.  

Another very common mistake we see clients make is disparaging their spouse or ex to the guardian ad litem.  This is not well-founded, and we always advise against this ill-advised conduct.  Put simply, it does not cast the disparaging parent in a positive light.  If you have criticisms of your ex’s conduct as it relates to what is best for your child or children, then those issues need to be dealt with in a mature, rational way.

It is important though that the thrust of your argument doesn’t consist of disparaging or demeaning or name calling of your ex-spouse or your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend.  The child’s parent deserves respect regardless of the behaviors that you complain of.  But be objective, and make sure your focus is on what is best for your child or children, not winning the moral high ground.   Courts and domestic attorneys are very familiar in dealing with situations where the motive is not the protection of the child or children, but moral vindication—feeling that you “won”.  The long and short of dealing with your custody matter is essentially taking the objective approach; don’t be angry, don’t  be upset, don’t be overly emotional, just lay the bare groundwork  for the issues that you believe are important that the guardian ad litem consider in making in making their custody recommendation to Chancery Court.  Trust their expertise.  

The next common mistake that we see is failing to have a clear educational plan or path for your minor child or children.  You have to be engaged with your minor child in order to demonstrate to the guardian ad litem that you are the parent that is more involved in facilitating that child’s education and will continue to do so in the future.  It is not necessarily important that you have a college plan for a five year old, however it is important to actively monitor your child’s progress and address issues and short- comings where you are able to make a positive impact and help the child improve in their educational  performance.  It is also crucial to consider having a plan in place for children above seventh grade for their ultimate placement in college and potential course of study.  It is not say that you must have their entire future planned out, but addressing your child’s strengths and weaknesses in the classroom bit-by- bit is important, and will show the guardian ad litem demonstrably that you are the parent with the best ability to effectuate your child’s best interest and goals.  Most importantly, it shows that you care.

If you have a question about this article or would like to share your thoughts, please feel free to contact us at The Law Office of Matthew Poole (601) 573-7429 or matthewspoole@gmail.com.  We are best equipped to assess your situation and give you some practical advice on steps you can take to increase your odds on gaining custody of your child or children.

Adoption and Termination of Parental Rights in Mississippi

Saturday, November 5th, 2016

Adoption is a huge step in the lives of both the child being adopted and the adoptive parents. The child loses one family and gains another. The adoptive parents’ family grows, as does their responsibility and commitment to another life. However, to have a legal adoption, there must first be a termination of the birth parents’ parental rights. A termination of parental rights (TPR) has severe and permanent consequences for a biological parent; essentially, once their parental rights have been terminated, the child is no longer theirs.

A TPR is commenced when a petition is filed by any interested party, be it a relative, a family friend, or even an agency that is holding custody of the child or that has been made aware of circumstances that are cause for concern for the safety and well being of the child. The child is then appointed a guardian ad litem, whose role it is to protect the best interests of the child – the main consideration in a custody decision. Much like divorce, there are several grounds recognized in Mississippi for a termination of parental rights.

These grounds include:

A serious mental illness or physical setback that prevents the parent from providing adequate care for the child, even with assistance;

An addiction to drugs or alcohol, which the parent fails to seek help in overcoming;

An unwillingness or inability to provide necessary food, clothing, shelter, and/or medical care for the child;

A failure to reasonably visit or communicate with the child;

A deterioration of the parent-child relationship due to abuse and/or neglect; and

A criminal conviction of any of a long list of crimes against the child (or any other child).

Once the termination is complete, then an interested party may proceed with an adoption petition. If that party is not a relative or a stepparent, a home study will be conducted by the Department of Human Services to determine if the petitioners are fit to adopt, and if the adoption is in the child’s best interest.

While the decision to approve a TPR is largely the judge’s choice and highly subjective, if you have the means and the concern for the child, you can seek for that termination with relatively high confidence. The child’s best interests will be well-served between your concern and the presence of well-trained legal professionals, such as a guardian ad litem and a judge. If you have a reasonable belief that a child needs your help, and you are willing to give your help, there is a way to do it that will likely have a satisfactory outcome for the child’s well-being.

A decision as life-changing as seeking a Termination of Parental Rights (T.P.R.) and a subsequent adoption is always extremely stressful, and often, speaking with someone who has expertise in the matter is necessary. You likely have questions about whether a guardianship or permanent custody case is better under your specific circumstances, and we are equipped with the ability to If you need advice on how best to proceed with an adoption, or if you are a parent who would like to know how to protect yourself against false allegations, call the Law Office of Matthew Poole, and we will be happy to provide you with a free consultation.

Matthew Poole (601) 573-7429