In Clark v. Bellavance, 2016 VT 125 (Dec. 9, 2016), the Supreme Court found that where a mother falsely accused the father of their daughter of sexual abuse, the family court rightly awarded sole physical and legal custody to the father.
Issue: Mother had sole physical and legal custody, subject to father’s parent-child contact. When daughter was six, mother reported to the Department of Children and Families that father had sexually abused daughter. Three medical professionals examined daughter, including a representative of DCF, and found no evidence of abuse. The fourth—a child sexual abuse specialist—did report that daughter disclosed father’s abuse. The superior court found that specialist not credible and appointed its own psychologist, which did not substantiate the abuse. The court then found that mother’s behavior and psychological state represented a substantial, unanticipated change of circumstances and awarded father sole physical and legal custody, pursuant to the best interests of daughter.
Holding: The Supreme Court held that the family court’s decision that there was a substantial, unanticipated change of circumstances, given mother’s psychological change and the breakdown in the couple’s communication, was not an abuse of discretion. The Supreme Court held, too, that the family court did not abuse its discretion in awarding custody to the father, as the family court had considered all statutory factors and used reasoned judgment in light of the record evidence.