This case is excellent, not only because of its result, but mostly because of its sound analysis. It should serve as a template for courts not only here in the U.S. but in other countries as well.
It comes to us from the Supreme Court of New Hampshire and analyzes a situation in which false allegations of child sexual abuse were used by a mother to deprive a father of contact with his children. It’s a familiar pattern of facts and altogether too rare an outcome.
In 1999, James Miller met Janet Todd online. They developed a relationship and, although they never married, had two daughters. Laurel was born in 2002 and Lindsey in 2003. Ultimately, a New Hampshire court awarded joint custody with Todd as primary custodian and Miller with visitation rights.
But early on, Todd’s mother claimed she had seen Miller sexually abusing Laurel. Thus began a long series of allegations of child sexual abuse against Miller. They were still going on as late as March, 2009, some five years after the first one.
Each and every claim was investigated; each and every claim was determined to be unfounded. As part of the investigations, the girls were subjected to invasive pelvic examinations at least twice each.
False though the allegations were, they served a purpose; they caused the New Hampshire family court to suspend Miller’s parenting time with his children throughout the course of the proceedings. That meant that, for over two years, he had no contact with his daughters and they none with him.
Eventually, in July, 2006, the court ordered psychologist Dr. Peggie Ward to thoroughly examine Miller, Todd, the girls and the family situation to determine issues of custody, alienation, sexual abuse, etc. It took Ward 17 months to produce her 88-page report which the court found to be “extraordinarily thorough.”
What Ward concluded was that there was no reliable evidence of sexual abuse by Miller. She also concluded that Todd had probably not set out to deliberately alienate the girls from their father; that probably originated with Todd’s mother. The problem stemmed not only from the various claims of abuse, but from Todd’s almost total inability to accurately process everyday occurrences.
[p]sychological testing shows that Ms. Todd has a “serious
impairment in her ability to accurately process the information she takes in from her surroundings and the degree of misperception she demonstrates has major implications for her adaptive functioning. Ms. Todd”s level of distortion is substantial and predisposes her to misunderstanding and misconstruing intentions, motivations and actions of other people. This places her at great risk for faulty judgment, for errors in decision-making, and for behaving in ways that are based on inaccurate information. These data indicate that Ms. Todd will not only fail to recognize or foresee the consequences of her actions at times, but that she will also become confused at times in separating fantasy from reality.’
In other words, Todd was unable to sort out false allegations from real ones. Into the bargain, Todd failed to protect her daughters from her own feelings and fears about what she thought may be happening, thereby perpetuating the girls’ own confusion about the nature of what daddy had or had not done.
So, given years of false allegations against Miller and the manifest inability by Todd to (a) distinguish fantasy from reality and (b) promote a healthy relationship between Miller and his daughters, the trial court did what so many of them do; it gave custody to the children’s mother.
That violated New Hampshire law which requires parents to promote positive relationships between the opposite parent and the children. It also ignored the rather startling fact that Todd’s emotional problems posed obvious risks for any child in her care.
So why did the court give her custody? Because the kids had been with her for several years during which time they’d had no contact with Miller. They’d developed friendships at school and so, according to the court, their “best interests” required them to see little or nothing of their father, depending on the decisions of their clearly unbalanced mother.
If that makes sense to you, please explain it to me.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court squashed that one like a bug. Its opinion grasps what so many courts do not – that continuing, deep and rich relationships with both parents are in the child’s best interests. The mother’s obstruction of such relationships between the children and the father is per se not in their best interests.
Why that should be so difficult to understand is beyond me. The statutes of New Hampshire make it clear as do the statutes and courts of other jurisdictions. The court said:
“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.’
And yet time and again, courts ignore statute and case law and look only at the fact that the child has been separate from the father for a certain period of time. They then conclude that the he cannot have future contact or that it must be limited, without ever noticing how his lack of contact came about.
The New Hampshire court specifically objected to the concept that Todd had “benefitted from her own misbehavior.” That’s a concept I’ve waited many years to hear a court articulate. For as long as I’ve been a student and advocate of fathers’ rights, I’ve been astonished at courts’ willingness to ignore mothers’ wrongdoing in order to grant them custody. That happens as a matter of routine in adoption cases.
What Miller v. Todd does is to show that the requirement on the part of each parent to promote the child’s relationship with the other parent is necessary and beneficial to the child. It also shows that courts will not reward the alienating behavior of parents.
And that, in a nutshell, is how courts should rule in these cases. They should make it clear that false allegations of abuse are not acceptable and that they will not be used to benefit the alienating parent.
It’s a simple concept that more courts need to grasp.
Thanks to Timothy for the heads-up.