Wilson v. Wilson, 2010–CA–01361–COA.

CourtCourt of Appeals of Mississippi
Citation79 So.3d 551
Docket NumberNo. 2010–CA–01361–COA.,2010–CA–01361–COA.
PartiesLauren WILSON, Appellant v. Michael WILSON, Appellee.
Decision Date31 January 2012

79 So.3d 551

Lauren WILSON, Appellant
Michael WILSON, Appellee.

No. 2010–CA–01361–COA.

Court of Appeals of Mississippi.

Jan. 31, 2012.

[79 So.3d 553]

James D. Bell, Jackson, attorney for appellant.

Christopher A. Tabb, Brandon, attorney for appellee.


MAXWELL, J., for the Court:

¶ 1. Lauren Wilson 1 appeals from the Rankin County Chancery Court's grant of a modification of child custody to her husband, Michael Wilson. The chancellor found a material change in circumstances adverse to the children had occurred since the original custody order. He also found a change from Lauren having primary physical custody to the parties having joint physical custody was in their two minor children's best interests.

¶ 2. The chancellor found Lauren had filed a baseless child-abuse complaint against Michael, which had deprived him of visitation with his children for a number of months. The chancellor also concluded that Lauren had fostered an environment that caused the children, particularly the older child, to have severe anxiety about seeing their father. On appeal, Lauren primarily argues the chancellor was biased against her and that he entered a custody order clearly reflecting that bias. Though this issue is procedurally barred, we find no merit to her allegations of judicial impropriety. Finding no manifest error in the chancellor's judgment, we affirm.

I. Background

¶ 3. The chancellor granted Lauren and Michael an irreconcilable-differences divorce on August 17, 2007. The chancellor's final judgment incorporated the parties' agreement for the custody of their two minor children, Jane and Emily. At that time, Jane was three years old, and Emily was one year old. The chancellor awarded Lauren primary physical custody of the children with the parties having joint legal custody.

¶ 4. The agreement granted Michael extensive visitation. It provided that Michael kept the children every third week. Michael had the children every Wednesday night, except the third Wednesday night of each month, when Lauren kept them. Finally, the custody order provided that after August 1, 2009, Michael's visitation with the children would be reduced to every other weekend and every other Wednesday night.2

II. Youth Court Proceedings

¶ 5. On December 29, 2009, Lauren filed an “Abuse/Neglect Complaint” alleging that “[Jane] revealed in counseling [on] 12/28/09 that her father has been hitting her on the rear end, head, and kicks her.” On December 30, 2009, the youth court awarded temporary custody to Lauren and ordered that there be no contact of any kind between the two children and Michael. After a hearing on January 4, 2009, the youth court entered a “Shelter Order.”

[79 So.3d 554]

It continued the period of no contact between Michael and the children “until further Order of [the] Court after ... interviews have been completed and findings reported to [the] Court.” On March 24, 2010, the youth court vacated its no-contact order as to Emily only.

¶ 6. After investigating the alleged abuse, the Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS) recommended that the youth court take “No Action.” According to a DHS's report issued on May 17, 2010, “the agency did not [find] any evidence to support the allegations of physical abuse [of Jane]. The child didn't disclose any information that would verify ... any physical abuse.” Clinical psychologist Dr. Criss Lott also submitted a status report to the youth court on May 4, 2010. According to Dr. Lott's report, Jane claimed her father had “hit and kicked” her. But Dr. Lott added: “When asked to describe the hitting and kicking, [Jane] said that her father would play with her and would hit and kick her.” When Dr. Lott asked Jane what her father “could do to make things better with her,” Jane replied, “Pay your money.”

¶ 7. After meeting with Jane on several occasions and interviewing both parents, Dr. Lott concluded Jane had “not been abused.” He believed “her antipathy toward her father is primarily due to the conflict between her parents.” In his opinion, Jane's “comment that the father needs to ‘pay your money’ clearly reflects this fact, and reflects that this child is privy to information that should only be discussed by the parents.”

¶ 8. Based on the reports submitted by DHS and Dr. Lott, the youth court on May 17, 2010, dismissed the matter and vacated its previous custody and no-contact orders.

III. Chancery Court Claims

¶ 9. On January 1, 2010—shortly after commencing youth-court proceedings—Lauren moved the chancellor to modify the custody and visitation arrangement established by the August 17, 2007 order. Lauren alleged a material change in circumstances had occurred because “[d]ue to the actions of [Michael], the Youth Court of Rankin County, Mississippi[,] has entered a No–Contact Order, prohibiting contact between [Michael] and the children[.]” Michael filed an answer claiming Lauren had made “spurious allegations” in the youth court. He also contended she had denied him visitation with the children in violation of the custody order. Relying on these same allegations, Michael counterclaimed for a modification of custody.

IV. Jane's Mental and Emotional Health: Brenda Donald's Assessment

¶ 10. The chancellor heard the modification action over two days—June 23, 2010, and June 24, 2010.

¶ 11. Brenda Donald, a licensed social worker, testified as an expert in child, adolescent, and family therapy. She found Jane had developed severe anxiety since the original custody order and had been engaging in several types of self-harm. According to Donald, Jane “was pulling her hair out. She was picking at her skin to the point that there was bleeding[.]” Jane also “had pulled or broken teeth out, four teeth, in a very short period of time,” which Donald found was “very unusual.” Donald noted that Jane, “after being toilet trained,” had suddenly begun urinating on herself. She found this unusual because Jane is “very bright.... [S]he's fairly mature for her age in that I would think that it would embarrass her to wet in front of her peers, and ... this year in school she's had numerous wetting accidents.”

¶ 12. Donald was fairly specific in identifying relevant dates. She first saw Jane

[79 So.3d 555]

in 2007 in the aftermath of her parents' divorce. She then did not see Jane for over a year. On September 1, 2009—immediately following the reduction in Michael's visitation with the children under the original custody order—Donald received a call from Lauren informing her Jane “was extremely anxious again.” Jane had begun pulling her hair out, picking at her skin, breaking her teeth, and urinating on herself. In November 2009, Jane showed some signs of improvement and was responsive during therapy. But Donald explained that by the next meeting on December 3, 2009, Jane had significantly regressed and was so “upset” that Donald had to cancel the therapy session for that day. During meetings on December 8, 2009, and December 11, 2009, she thought Jane seemed to be improving again. But then on December 28, 2009, Jane “was absolutely hysterical. She would not look at [Donald]. She was screaming. She was grabbing at her mother. She was just stomping and carrying on.... [T]his child was an emotional wreck.” Donald testified that during this meeting, Jane was “in the same shape she was in when [Donald] first saw her ... in September of '09[.]” During the December 28 meeting, Jane allegedly revealed her father had physically abused her.

¶ 13. Donald explained that Jane became reluctant to speak with her during December 2009. Donald's “impression was that [Jane] seemed to think that there [were] some consequences [from] speaking to [Donald].” She described Jane's behavior as “silent avoidance.” Following the December 28 meeting, Donald did not see Jane again for over a month. Because communication problems persisted when therapy sessions resumed in mid-February 2010, she advised Lauren to look for another therapist with whom Jane felt more comfortable. Soon after, full responsibility for counseling the family was shifted to Dr. Lott. Donald's final session with Jane was on March 25, 2010.

¶ 14. Despite her communication difficulties during 2010 sessions with Jane, Donald testified Jane's anxiety improved while the youth court's no-contact order was in effect. But when asked if Jane's anxiety increased after the youth court lifted its no-contact order and visitation with Michael had resumed, Donald explained, “if there's been an increase, not to the level it was.”

V. Dr. Lott's Assessment

¶ 15. Dr. Lott testified as an expert in psychology. His conclusions were more specific than Donald's in identifying the problems underlying Jane's behavior. Dr. Lott explained that Jane's strong antagonism toward her father was “primarily due to the parents' hostile relationship toward each other.” Dr. Lott believed Jane had been “simply reflecting and mirroring the hostilities that she was seeing between Mom and Dad[.]” And his “clinical impression” was that Jane had been “internalizing a lot of the anger and behavior that she sees with Mom ... and the conflict that she's observed between Mom and Dad over time.” Dr. Lott further opined that Jane had been “basically defending and protecting Mom.... I think that's largely what this behavior is all about. It[ ] [has] less to do with her fear and anxiety of Dad than it [has] to do with her anger and defense of Mom. That's my opinion.”

¶ 16. Dr. Lott met with Jane and both parents on multiple occasions in 2010. But one particular interview stood out to Dr. Lott in his assessment of Jane's behavior. In response to a question about how her father could improve their relationship,

[79 So.3d 556]

Jane replied: “Pay your bills.” 3 Dr. Lott explained the significance of Jane's response:

I made a comment in my report that to me really sum[med] it up. When I asked [Jane—]and Mom and Dad were present[—]what could Dad do—and I think...

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