By itself, it’s not definitive regarding fathers’ rights in custody matters, but it points a direction in which I suspect courts will go more and more in future cases. In a nutshell, the Supreme Court of West Virginia ruled that false allegations of child abuse can be used to terminate custodial rights.
Now, the reasons the decision doesn’t control fathers’ rights is that it involves grandparents. Likewise, it’s based only in part on their false allegations of abuse. Still, the reasoning is there to give falsely accused parents a leg up in custody cases.
Melissa Arnold was married to Jonathan, apparently back in the 90s. They had a son they named Jon and divorced at some point that’s not stated by the court. In 2000, after their divorce, Jonathan was killed in a car accident. In 2003, Melissa remarried and her new husband, Warren Lee Arnold adopted Jon.
But Melissa’s parents opposed Jon’s adoption by Warren. According to the court, they did so “viciously.” The adoption was approved by the court, but the grandparents didn’t let up. At some point in 2007, Jon’s grandfather noticed a bruise on the boy’s stomach. He decided this indicated child abuse and asked for and received an order of protection keeping Warren out of Jon’s life for a period of 90 days. That apparently required some vigorous coaching of Jon by his grandparents.
The allegations were investigated and found to be baseless. Jon, who has some form of cognitive impairment, said he got the bruise playing air hockey in a particularly strenuous way. Other than the bruise there was no evidence of abuse.
More importantly, Dr. Timothy Saar, a psychologist, examined Jon on four separate occasions, on every one of which, Jon said he’d been coached and intimidated by his grandfather into lying to the police and others about how the bruise occurred. Dr. Saar further stated that being forced to lie about his stepfather placed Jon in a difficult emotional position.
However, Dr. Saar also reiterated that the false abuse allegations by the grandparents resulted in Jon being alienated from his father, which resulted in Jon feeling emotions of self-blame that were psychologically damaging to him.
Jon was coached by his grandparents into accusing his father of abusing him. The manipulation of this cognitively impaired child by his grandparents should be considered emotional abuse and should call into question the [grandparents”] ability to care for this child.
Based on the continuing conflict between, on one hand, Melissa and Warren and the grandparents on the other, Jon’s parents went to court to terminate the grandparent’s visitation rights. The trial court denied the request but the Supreme Court overruled it and rendered judgment for the parents.
So what we have is the assertion of rights by parties who aren’t the child’s parents, i.e. the grandparents. Opposing them are the child’s biological mother and stepfather, i.e. a man with no biological connection to the child.
In West Virginia, the only consideration in deciding the custodial rights of grandparents is the best interests of the child. And it was on that basis that the court decided that these particular grandparents should no longer associate with their grandson, not even with third-party supervision.
The Supreme Court made its decision based on two factors only.
The particular facts of this case, including the vicious nature of the grandparents” actions to forestall Jon”s adoption proceedings, as well as their baseless pursuit of abuse allegations against Jon”s adoptive father, illustrate a relationship in constant conflict with that of Jon”s parents.
When the court refers to the “particular facts of this case,” it’s saying that its opinion does not mean that false abuse allegations prohibit grandparent visitation rights as a matter of law. But what it does mean is that false allegations of child abuse can be used as a factor in the termination of those rights.
Parental rights to children are more serious matters than those of grandparents and so we’re still a long way from a ruling that any false allegation of abuse must result in a change of custodial rights.
But where we are is the clear acknowledgement by the highest court in a state that false allegations of abuse can be damaging to the child caught between two loved relatives. Those allegations can be alienating and can cause psychological harm. As such, courts will in future consider them as factors militating against the parental rights of false accusers.
That’s well within established law; it’s also well within established social science. As such, it should send a message to parents who might be inclined to make false allegations in order to achieve an advantage in custody decisions.
If this case is any indication, false allegations of abuse made solely for the sake of gaining an advantage in custody cases will no longer be a free shot, devoid of adverse consequences for the accuser.
For reasons I’ve never understood, courts have always been loath to punish these exercises in blatant perjury. Well, now they don’t have to. Simple recognition that false allegations that tend to separate a child from a loving and fit parent themselves constitute a form of child abuse will go a long way toward better custody decisions and in the end fewer false allegations of abuse.