Renaud v. Renaud

Decision Date11 September 1998
Docket NumberNo. 97-366.,97-366.
Citation721 A.2d 463
PartiesDaniel M. RENAUD v. Gail E. RENAUD.
CourtVermont Supreme Court

Jan E. Bernasconi of Paul, Frank & Collins, Inc., Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Sandra M. Lee of Keiner & Dumont, P.C., Middlebury, for Defendant-Appellee.

Present AMESTOY, C.J., and DOOLEY, MORSE, JOHNSON and SKOGLUND, JJ.

JOHNSON, J.

Daniel Renaud (father) appeals from a divorce judgment of the Franklin Family Court. He contends the court: (1) abused its discretion in awarding Gail Renaud (mother) sole legal and physical parental rights and responsibilities notwithstanding the court's finding that mother had interfered with the relationship between the child and father; and (2) erroneously divided the marital estate. We affirm.

The parties were married in October 1989. They had one child, a son, born in January 1994. In May 1996, the parties separated following father's disclosure that he was having an affair with a co-worker and wanted a divorce. At the time of trial in April and May of 1997, mother was living with the three-year-old child in the marital home, and father was living with the co-worker and her children. Both parties worked full time in supervisory positions for the federal government. Before the separation, both shared in attending to the minor's childcare needs. Mother arranged her work schedule to have Fridays off to spend with the child. Father took the child to daycare in the morning, visited him there during the day, and brought him home at night. Mother generally took time off from work when the child was sick, purchased his clothes, and did his laundry. The court found that both parents provided the child with love, discipline, structure, and guidance, and that either would be fit to serve as the custodial parent.

Following the separation, father voluntarily moved out, and mother and child continued to reside in the family home. Almost immediately, mother began to impede father's contact with the child, forcing father to file a number of motions to establish an emergency visitation schedule. Following a hearing in July 1996, the court established a temporary visitation schedule. Thereafter, mother filed a succession of relief-from-abuse petitions, alleging that father had physically and sexually abused the minor. The allegations ranged from evidence of diaper rash, to sunburn, cuts and bruises, and inappropriate touching. These petitions further disrupted father's contact with the child, resulting in periods of noncontact and supervised visitation.

None of the abuse allegations was substantiated, and all of the petitions were ultimately dismissed. Indeed, the court found that father had never abused the minor, that the factual support for the "excessive number of motions and petitions" was "weak at best," and that mother had, in fact, "imagined abuse where there was no abuse." The court further found that mother's actions were the result of a heightened distrust of father because of his marital unfaithfulness, and that her "baseless suspicions ha[d] adversely affected [the minor] in that he is no longer as loving towards [father] as he once was." A team of psychiatric experts appointed by the court observed that the child interacted well with each parent, but noted that mother's repeated accusations had damaged the child's relationship with father, and warned that if such accusations continued they could seriously compromise the father-child relationship.

The court awarded sole parental rights and responsibilities to mother, albeit "with some hesitation." The court found that the child had an extremely close emotional relationship with mother and that "upsetting that relationship [was] likely to be detrimental to [the child]." The court further observed that mother had sought counseling to overcome her emotional problems resulting from the divorce, and concluded that she would be able "in a reasonable period of time ... [to] help repair the damage she caused to the relationship between [father] and [the child]," and could "actively encourage frequent and open contact" between them. To further ensure that this occurred, the court specifically ordered mother to encourage the child to develop a warm and loving relationship with father, forbade either parent from making disparaging remarks about the other in the minor's presence, and ordered extensive visitation with father totalling about fifty percent of the minor's time. This appeal followed.

I.

In light of the court's express findings that mother had undermined the child's relationship with father by filing excessive and baseless abuse allegations, father contends that the court's decision to award mother sole parental rights and responsibilities was a patent abuse of discretion. Like the trial court here, we are reluctant to condone any conduct by a parent that tends to diminish the child's relationship with the other parent. Indeed, in awarding parental rights and responsibilities, the court is statutorily required to consider "the ability and disposition of each parent to foster a positive relationship and frequent and continuing contact with the other parent, including physical contact, except where contact will result in harm to the child or to a parent." 15 V.S.A. § 665(b)(5). Across the country, the great weight of authority holds that conduct by one parent that tends to alienate the child's affections from the other is so inimical to the child's welfare as to be grounds for a denial of custody to, or a change of custody from, the parent guilty of such conduct. See generally Annotation, Alienation of Child's Affections as Affecting Custody Award, 32 A.L.R.2d 1005 (1953) (collecting cases).

The paramount consideration in any custody decision, however, is the best interests of the child. See Bissonette v. Gambrel, 152 Vt. 67, 70, 564 A.2d 600, 602 (1989); Lafko v. Lafko, 127 Vt. 609, 618, 256 A.2d 166, 172 (1969). Children are not responsible for the misconduct of their parents toward each other, and will not be uprooted from their home merely to punish a wayward parent. See Nickerson v. Nickerson, 158 Vt. 85, 90, 605 A.2d 1331, 1334 (1992) (attention should be directed to needs of the children rather than actions of parents). Nevertheless, a child's best interests are plainly furthered by nurturing the child's relationship with both parents, and a sustained course of conduct by one parent designed to interfere in the child's relationship with the other casts serious doubt upon the fitness of the offending party to be the custodial parent. See Young v. Young, 212 A.D.2d 114, 628 N.Y.S.2d 957, 958 (1995) (interference with relationship between child and noncustodial parent raises "`a strong probability that the offending party is unfit to act as a custodial parent'") (quoting Maloney v. Maloney, 208 A.D.2d 603, 617 N.Y.S.2d 190, 191 (1994)); see also McAdams v. McAdams, 530 N.W.2d 647, 650 (N.D.1995) ("[A] parent who willfully alienates a child from the other parent may not be awarded custody based on that alienation.").

This is not to say that evidence of alienation of affection automatically precludes the offending parent from obtaining custody. See Slinkard v. Slinkard, 589 S.W.2d 635, 636 (Mo.Ct.App.1979) ("[A]lthough alienation of a child's affections from his natural parent and interference with visitations rights may be grounds for change of... custody, they do not compel such a result."). The best interests of the child remains the paramount consideration. Courts should be wary, however, of over-reliance on such otherwise significant considerations as the child's emotional attachment to, or expressed preference for, the offending parent, or on such factors as stability and continuity. For as one court has observed, "The desires of young children, capable of distortive manipulation by a bitter, or perhaps even well-meaning, parent, do not always reflect the long-term best interest of the children." Nehra v. Uhlar, 43 N.Y.2d 242, 401 N.Y.S.2d 168, 372 N.E.2d 4, 7 (N.Y.1977). And although stability is undoubtedly important, the short-term disruption occasioned by a change of custody may be more than compensated by the long-term benefits of a healthy relationship with both parents.

Thus, where the evidence discloses a continual and unmitigated course of conduct by a parent designed to poison a child's relationship with the other parent, a change of custody from the offending parent may well be in the child's long-term best interests. See Begins v. Begins, 168 Vt. 3, ___, 721 A.2d 469, 473 (1998) (court abused its discretion in awarding custody to father where single most significant factor contributing to sons' estrangement from mother was constant poisoning of relationship by father); see also Lewin v. Lewin, 168 Cal.App.3d 1482, 231 Cal.Rptr. 433, 437 n. 4 (1986) (change of custody compelled where mother engaged in ongoing conduct intended and designed to interfere with development of healthy father-daughter relationship); Thurman v. Thurman, 73 Idaho 122, 245 P.2d 810, 815 (1952) (trial court abused discretion in refusing to award custody to mother where father had "by design and planning" interfered with mother's visitation rights); In re Leyda, 355 N.W.2d 862, 866 (Iowa 1984) (trial court abused discretion in awarding custody to mother where evidence disclosed that she had "sought to obscenely denigrate and deny the emotional relationship between [the child] and her father").

A more subtle, but no less invidious, form of interference in parent-child relations may take the form of persistent allegations of physical or sexual abuse. In Young, for example, the court reversed an award of custody to the mother where the trial court had inexplicably ignored uncontradicted evidence that the mother had filed numerous false accusations of sexual abuse by the father. As the court observed, "[t]hese repeated uncorroborated and unfounded allegations of sexual abuse brought by the mother against ...

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    • Vermont Supreme Court
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    ...she knew or should have known that the accusations were groundless. She relies particularly on our decision in Renaud v. Renaud, 168 Vt. 306, 311, 721 A.2d 463, 467 (1998). We discussed in Renaud the consequence when a parent engages in conduct intended to poison the other parent's relation......
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    ...with the other casts serious doubt upon the fitness of the offending party to be the custodial parent.” Renaud v. Renaud, 168 Vt. 306, 309, 721 A.2d 463, 466 (1998).¶ 43. Given the state and federal constitutional interests at stake, the trial court's findings in this case could not support......
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    • United States
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