In Raymond Knutsen v. Karen Cegalis, 2016 VT 2 (January 15, 2016), the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision denying mother’s motion to modify parental rights and responsibilities.
Issue: The Court was faced with the difficult issue of considering whether a minor child who is estranged from his mother should remain primarily with his father and step-mother when the actions of the father and step-mother were the direct cause of the child’s estrangement. The long procedural history of this matter began in 2012 when the minor child was age 7. Father sought a final Relief from Abuse Order against mother based on allegations mother and her boyfriend had sexually abused the child. These allegations were not substantiated and a final RFA order was not entered. After a forensic evaluation and seven additional days of hearings in 2013, the trial court held that it was in the best interests of the child, who by this time was significantly estranged from his mother, to engage in a reunification process overseen by a parenting coordinator. Finally, in 2015, the trial court was asked to determine an appropriate parenting schedule for the mother in light of a therapist’s decision to terminate the court-ordered reunification efforts.
Holding: The Court held that it was not in the child’s best interests to be re-unified with his mother at the present time, affirming the trial court’s decision. The trial court had found it was very clear father was “waging war against mother and making allegations of abuse that were not true.” It further found that the step-mother had acted “egregiously” and that both she and the father had indoctrinated the child to believe his mother was dangerous and had formerly abused him. Despite these damning findings, the trial court relied upon the testimony of two therapists who opined that it would cause significant trauma to the child, including the risk of severe depression or even suicide, if the child were forced to live with this mother. The Court agreed that despite the egregious behavior of the father and step-mother, the risk of damage to the child was too great at the present time for an order to be entered requiring he spend time with his mother.
Justice Robinson concurred with the majority opinion but stressed what she deemed to be very serious federal and state constitutional issues implicated by the decisions. Specifically, she warned that in her view the Court’s order survived constitutional scrutiny only if intended as a short-term solution to this difficult issue.