Child Custody, Visitation & Relocation

Mother Held in Contempt of Custody Order for Fostering and Enabling Son’s Estrangement from Father

In the family court, child custody contempt case of Boehler V. Boehler, PICS Case No. 15-0050 (C.P. Lebanon, Nov. 25, 2014), the Honorable Bradford H. Charles found the mother in contempt of court given that mother’s conduct and attitude had enabled and even engendered the parties’ oldest son’s refusal to obey the order granting father partial custody.

Father filed a custody modification petition alleging that mother had embarked on an intentional campaign to cause estrangement between him and the parties’ three children. Mother was granted primary physical custody. Father was granted legal custody and partial custody.

Father subsequently filed a petition for contempt, alleging that he had been denied his court-ordered time with his oldest son, Z.B., because of Z.B.’s refusal to comply with the custody order, which intransigence was due to mother’s campaign to estrange him from Z.B. The court concluded that mother was in contempt of court.

The court reviewed the legal principles governing contempt and then briefly reviewed the long and painful history of custody disputes between the parties. It noted that father had anger management issues and had lost his temper with his children and that the professionals appointed to work with the children as therapists or guardians ad litem had stated that the children were at times afraid of father.

Regarding mother, the court found that she sought to be in control of all aspects of custody and had made important decisions without communicating with father. She had been found in contempt on multiple occasions for failing to afford father his awarded custody time. In her interpersonal battles, her weapon of choice was manipulation and previous opinions had chronicled her use of manipulative tactics to create estrangement between father and the children.

The court concluded that Z.B’s oppositional and defiant behavior was the result of the culture of mistrust mother had promoted which father had in some ways ratified through his outbursts of anger.

Referring to a prior incident involving father and Z.B., the court said that while father had made a clear effort to avoid another physical confrontation with Z.B., mother had continued in court to paint father as a child abuser. The court expressed little doubt that she promoted the myth at home as well. It also said that her reaction to that incident provided Z.B. with several unfortunate lessons. Specifically, her refusal to even consider his conduct as misbehavior probably ratified this conduct in Z.B.’s mind; her unwillingness to punish Z.B. for his role in the incident reinforced that he could violate a custody order without fear of consequences; and her willingness to blame father for the incident and her use of the incident to cut off his custody rights effectively ratified Z.B.’s intransigence and taught him that father had no authority over him.

The court concluded that mother’s negative conditioning and indulgent parenting had played a primary role in the parties’ loss of control over Z.B. It said her animosity toward father, her long campaign of estrangement, her consistent unwillingness to involve father in the children’s lives, her habit of blaming him for all issues of concern, and her unwillingness to impose and follow through with meaningful sanctions for Z.B.’s behavior had combined to engender Z.B.’s overt defiance. The court concluded that her willful behavior had denied father of his custody rights, making a finding of contempt both necessary and appropriate.

The court provided mother with an opportunity to purge herself of contempt by cooperating with father’s choice for reunification counseling, including transporting Z.B. to counseling, by ensuring that the custody order was followed, and by facilitating and paying for a dinner between the guardian ad litem and Z.B. at which the former would bluntly communicate that Z.B. would not be permitted to comply with the custody order. The court said that mother’s failure to fulfill those conditions would result in further sanctions, including attorney fees, fines, or incarceration.

Reference: Digest of Recent Opinion, Pennsylvania Law Weekly, 38 PLW 65 (January 20, 2016)

Filed Under: Child Custody; Contempt of Child Custody Order: Family Law

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