Karen v. Christopher

Citation163 Md. App. 250,878 A.2d 646
Decision Date11 July 2005
Docket NumberNo. 2116,2116
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

878 A.2d 646
163 Md.
App. 250


No. 2116, September Term, 2004.

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

July 11, 2005.

878 A.2d 648
Monica L. Scherer (Silverman, Thompson & White, LLC, on the brief), Baltimore, for appellant

Jan O'Connor, Columbia, for appellee.

Panel: DEBORAH S. EYLER, MEREDITH and RAYMOND G. THIEME, JR. (Ret'd, Specially Assigned), JJ.


After a two-day trial, the Circuit Court for Baltimore County granted custody of Sebastian B. and Claudia B. to Christopher J. B., the appellee. Karen P., the appellant, is the children's mother. Christopher is the biological father of Sebastian, but not of Claudia.1

On appeal, Karen challenges the decision with respect to Claudia only, posing one question:

"Did the Trial Court err when it found the existence of exceptional circumstances sufficient to overcome the presumption that it was in Claudia's best interest to be in the custody of the appellant, a biological parent?"

For the following reasons, we shall affirm the judgment of the circuit court.


The trial in this case was held on October 1 and October 14, 2004. The witnesses were Karen; Karen's mother; Christopher; Christopher's mother; Jennifer N., whose child socializes with Sebastian; and Rebecca R., Christopher's fiancée. Relevant documents, including school and pre-school records for the children, were introduced into evidence.

Our recitation of the facts is based on the findings made by the trial court, and, when express findings were not made, a construction of the evidence most favorable to the court's decision.

At the time of trial, Karen was 43 years old. She was living in Avalon, New Jersey, where she had moved on May 26, 2004. For almost all of the 12 years before the move, she and Christopher had lived together in Catonsville. For the six years before Karen moved to Avalon, she had worked as a waitress at an upscale restaurant in Howard County. In 2003, she earned $33,000 from that work.

Karen has been married twice in her life. From those marriages, she had two children, one by each husband. At the time of the trial, those children were ages 22 and 19.

Christopher was 35 years old when the trial took place. He was living in Catonsville with Rebecca and her child. Christopher has never been married. He is employed by a loan consolidation company, at an annual salary of $35,000.

Karen and Christopher had a long and increasingly tumultuous domestic relationship. They met and became romantically

878 A.2d 649
involved in 1992. That same year, they moved into a single household, with Karen's two children from her marriages (who then were approximately ages 10 and 7)

On March 20, 1996, Sebastian was born. The parties' relationship started to deteriorate after that, and the parties constantly bickered and argued. Karen thought Christopher was self-absorbed and did not produce enough income for the family. Christopher thought Karen was unduly critical and demanding.

The parties experienced such discord that in early 1999 they separated for several months. Christopher left the family home and went to live with his parents. He continued to visit with Sebastian during the separation. The parties decided to attempt a reconciliation, and Christopher moved back into the family home.

On December 4, 1999, Claudia was born.

According to Karen, early in her pregnancy with Claudia, she read a sonogram report that gave the date of conception as March 13, 1999. When she saw that date, she realized immediately that Christopher was not the biological father of the baby she was carrying. She knew that another man, with whom she had had sexual relations during the parties' separation, was the baby's biological father. That other man, who did not know about the pregnancy, wanted to continue the romantic relationship. In what she described as a decision favoring the welfare of her family, Karen "blew [the biological father] off," figuring that "half a man was better than none."

During the pregnancy, Karen acted as if Christopher were the baby's father, and did not tell him otherwise. She did not let the biological father know she was having a child. It appears that he never learned that she was pregnant and that they had no contact after their sexual relationship in early 1999.

Christopher did not know that Karen had been sexually involved with another man during their separation. For that reason, and because Karen acted as if Christopher were the father, Christopher assumed he was the baby's biological father. He was present at Claudia's birth, as he had been at Sebastian's birth, and chose her name, as he had chosen Sebastian's name. At the moment of Claudia's birth, Christopher had a fleeting thought that he might not be her father, because she did not look anything like him. He put that thought out of his mind, however, and assumed from then on that he was Claudia's biological father.

Within 24 hours of Claudia's birth, Karen signed an affidavit of parentage, identifying Christopher as Claudia's father. Karen also named Christopher as Claudia's father on her birth certificate.

Karen, Christopher, Sebastian, and Claudia (and at times Karen's other children) lived together and functioned as a family. Christopher thought he was Claudia's biological father and treated her as such. Karen acted as if Christopher were Claudia's biological father, despite her knowledge to the contrary, and did not disclose to anyone that he was not. To Claudia, Christopher is her father, and she has never known any other father. Christopher and Claudia bonded as father and child, and Claudia and Sebastian bonded as siblings. The parties participated equally in child rearing. Karen's mother also helped out with the children. Christopher's parents and brother were active in the children's lives, although they were not as involved as Karen's mother was.

Eventually, the relationship between Karen and Christopher spiraled downward, becoming (in both of their words) "toxic" for everyone in the family. As

878 A.2d 650
Christopher put it, Karen was "prone to endless lecturing that would start whenever she felt like it needed to start. It would go on until she was exhausted . . . sometimes it would go for two or three hours at a time, [a]nd I would sit there in a chair and listen to her." Karen would curse, call him names, complain that he was a poor provider and an "Adult Child of Alcoholics" who was in denial about that situation, and that he was a bad father and a poor example to his children. Eventually he withdrew, avoiding Karen and "stay[ing] out of her way completely." He "was no longer interested in hearing her opinions of [him]."

For two months in the summer of 2003, the parties again separated, and Christopher left the family home. He visited the children during the separation.

On September 1, 2003, at Karen's suggestion (which Christopher took as a gesture of reconciliation), Christopher moved back into the family home. The next day, in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, Karen filed a complaint for custody of Sebastian and Claudia. She alleged that she and Christopher were the children's parents and asked the court to award custody to her.

The parties continued to live in the same house, which became something of a battleground. On February 23, 2004, Christopher filed a countercomplaint seeking custody of the children.

Sometime in late April, Christopher became romantically involved with Rebecca, whom he met through his activities as cub scout den leader for Sebastian's troop. Rebecca's son is Sebastian's best friend and belongs to the same troop.

On April 29, 2004, Christopher's 35th birthday, the parties got into a heated argument. Karen taunted Christopher, suggesting that she knew something that made her certain she would prevail in the custody case. When Christopher pressed her about what made her so sure of her position, she responded that Claudia was not his biological child. To Karen's thinking, for that reason, a court deciding the case would grant her custody of Claudia and also of Sebastian, in order to keep the children together.

On May 25, 2004, while Christopher was at work, Karen brought a moving van to the family home and removed most of the furniture and household items. That same day, she and the children moved to Avalon. For some time prior to the move, Karen had told Christopher she intended to move to New Jersey. However, she did not tell Christopher the date of the move or that it was about to occur. She also did not tell him that she intended to move the children to New Jersey as well.

Christopher found out that Karen in fact was moving when a neighbor called and told him that a moving van was in front of the house and that furniture was being moved out of it. He went home and confronted Karen. She would not tell him where she was moving or disclose the whereabouts of the children. Christopher went to Sebastian's school and discovered that Karen already had withdrawn him, even though the school year was not finished. Claudia already had been taken out of her daycare.

Karen did not give the children any advance word of the move. They learned about it when it happened.

As Karen readily conceded at trial, she did not move to Avalon for any particular reason, other than she thought it was a nice small town that had a healthy tax base and therefore provided ample amenities to its citizens. Karen did not move because of work. She quit her waitressing job in Howard County voluntarily and did not have a job or any job prospects lined

878 A.2d 651
up in Avalon. For three months after the move (during the entire summer of 2004), Karen did not look for work as a waitress. She did some part-time gardening work and lived on money she had saved

Karen did not have any family connections in Avalon. Her children from her prior marriages did not live there. Her adult daughter was living in Catonsville and her...

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