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Stepmother wonders about legal strategy for her husband, whose ex repeatedly denies him time with his young daughter

Your Question:
I have been married to my current husband for almost two years (in August.) I have a 7 year old son from a previous marriage, and we have a 1 year old son together. My husband also has a daughter from a previous relationship, which is what I'm writing to you about. I'm sorry that it is long, but I wanted to make sure you had all of the details to get a better perspective of the situation.

When my husband and I first got married, he had no court ordered visitation schedule with his daughter and there was no court ordered child support. Occasionally, biomom would allow him to visit with his daughter in her home, but didn't allow him to take her anywhere (at the time, his daughter was 3 years old.) When my husband and I got married, and biomom found out, she filed a VPO against him claiming that he was harrassing her and had attempted to break into her car. Needless to say, this was nonsense and the courts found her request baseless, denied her request, and made her pay all the court fees.

After that, she filed for child support. For an entire year, we paid child support and had to save up money for an attorney, because we knew that we could do nothing about the visitation situation until we went to court. So finally, in October of 2004, biomom's lawyer made her agree to a graduated visitation schedule (because as he put it, going to court would just waste her money and time since he had a right to have visitation with his daughter.)

We were pretty elated and excited. Of course, since it had been over a year since he was allowed to see his daughter, my dh had to start out with eight weeks of supervised visits. Unfortunately, biomom used that as an opportunity to make my dh's time with his daughter miserable. She required the visits to be in her home (no going to the park or McDonald's or anywhere else.) She also had her mother there everytime. During visits, they would sit in the livingroom and make sarcastic comments, and so forth. Biomom even required them to stay in his daughters room for the entire visit (which of course, his four year old daughter hated.)

At any rate, biomom, unbelievably, managed to drag out this eight weeks into six months!! She denied a few visits here and there, and when the eight weeks was finally up, and she knew it, and daughter was to be released to my dh for visits at our home, biomom decided, as she put it, that, "I don't feel that daughter is ready for this yet." Well of course, we were outraged. Keep in mind, he'd been doing this for months, on her terms. Not only that, but daughter had never been able to meet me or her brothers. In fact, biomom insisted that dh not speak of her other brothers to daughter, because she felt it confused their daughter.

While all of this was going on, we put his daughter on our health insurance. The child support order required that the NCP carry his daughter on his health insurance. The insurance was provided through my work, so we added her to the policy and gave biomom a copy of the insurance card. She was so outraged that she filed a claim with the insurance commissioner's office. I also got a letter and an email from my office's human resource department. Apparently biomom had called them on several occasions demanding that my stepdaughter be removed from my health insurance. They sent me a copy of the letter which they sent to her stating that they had their legal department review her request and that they could not comply with her request because it is legally acceptable for me to carry her on my insurance. Still, bm would call us on many occasions to advise me that I'd be going to jail soon.

At any rate, we got so fed up with this that we contacted our lawyer and wanted to file contempt charges due to the denied visitation. Eventually, the two parties agreed to involve a parenting coordinator to mediate the dispute. So, my husband and I visited with the parenting coordinator first, then she visited with biomom. Then she evaluated my dh and daughter (I guess because biomom had indicated that my husband couldn't care for daughter on his own.)

Naturally, as the parenting coordinator explained in their final session together, she saw no reason or indication that daughter should be kept from her father any longer. She recommended that biomom immediately start sending daughter over to our house for unsupervised visits.

The first visit went great, or so it seemed. We had to take my stepdaughter to the store to buy her new shoes, because one of them broke while she was at our house. Biomom got really upset about this because we didn't ask her permission before we took stepdaughter anywhere.

Other than that, the visits have been great, but even though the parenting coordinator told biomom that she needs to give dh every other holiday, as per the visitation schedule (keep in mind that my dh has had ZERO holidays with stepdaughter.), she has consistently refused such, even up to the present.

Originally, we wanted to go back to the parenting coordinator regarding the issue, but our parenting coordinator had her license revoked for unknown reasons. So our lawyer told us that at this point, we would have to simply go to court. Due to the nature of biomoms hostility, her refusal to abide by the visitation schedule, and her inflexibility in cooperating with my dh, he decided to request joint custody. Here are the reasons we are citing:

-Most importantly, in talking to biomom, the parenting coordinator will be testifying as a witness to her hostility and lack of cooperation. In fact, she got in an argument with the parenting coordinator because she did not want to send daughter to our home and said she wanted a new parenting coordinator.

-As I stated previously, BM has denied all holidays (except Father's day and only because I think she had plans or something.) She even told the parenting coordinator that she feels that daughter should be with her on holidays since she knows her family best.

-Proven hostility on biomom's part toward me (which the parenting coordinator was first to identify) and toward my dh due to issues in their relationship long ago. I have the letter from the insurance commissioner's office advising me that she filed a complaint against me.

-Refusal of biomom to list my dh as an emergency contact at stepdaughter's daycare. In fact, she instructed them that he is not permitted to see or request information about her whatsoever.

-Refusal of biomom to give dh access to daughter's medical records or even advise him of who her primary care physician is. We had to obtain this info on our own. Also, when we reviewed the medical records, we found that daughter had been referred to a specialist for evaulation of possible ADHD, but biomom did not take her to the specialist.

These are the main points that we are arguing. Thursday is our pretrial hearing in which (from what I understand, all issues that will be addressed are brought to the table.)

My question is, what, if anything, I've listed above is relevant? Is my dh demanding too much by requesting joint custody with primary residential? Is there anything that we've forgotten? I have been told before that requesting primary is too much. But I've also been given advice that we should request sole custody.

Thanks so much for reading all of this!

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My Answer:

Thanks for writing.

In my opinion, Dad sat on his butt for far too long. I'm not sure why, whether he lacks strength or simply wasn't interested in his daughter for a while. I would hope that he's on base with as much or more enthusiasm and conviction than you present. Regardless of your heart and your devotion to your husband and his child, you really don't count much from a legal perspective. Dad has to be the one leading the charge for this to really succeed. I don't know anything about him, so I'm speaking generally, in case it applies.

I've got a two-part reply. One is about strategy that I, as a layperson, think would be good. The other is about the philosophy of what you face.

I think it's best for Dad to hammer on questionable mental health of the mother. The parenting coordinator will an awesome witness, provided the license wasn't revoked for a reason related to her ability to assess a custody matter.

The whole insurance thing and her hostility towards you should be downplayed or not mentioned unless she has physically threatened you with harm. Yeah, it's annoying. Yeah, it's poor behavior. But you're a stepmother, and the biological mother sees a bullseye target on your forehead, the same fate as millions of other stepmothers. The court won't care much about it, and it distracts from the bigger issues.

I think the biggest issue is the on-going interference with the father/child relationship, year after year. If Dad is an average parent or better, the mother is continuously acting against the child's best interest by keeping her isolated from her father.

The ADHD thing is a minor point perhaps worth mentioning, but you'll have to prove she didn't take the kid to a specialist and that it was urgent for her to do so. For the payoff, it's a large burden to prove.

In my state, I believe that a parent with sole custody controls all legal matters, including who is placed as emergency contacts, who has access to records, etc. I'm not clear if the mother has had sole legal custody up to now. While it may not show much cooperation, I don't know that it was unlawful or against court orders for her to do that.

So, if it were my case, and I'm speaking as a layperson, I'd be going for joint custody and seeking majority timeshare in my home. I don't think I'd try for sole custody because the judge hasn't seen you guys enough... you keep settling prior to reaching the judge, so the judge isn't repeatedly exposed to the problems that the mother creates. I'd be requesting orders that are very specific and clear as much as possible.... exact times of each parent's custodial time, exact times that each holiday period begins and ends, exact times that the parents may call the child in the other home along with a requirement that the parent exercising custody must answer the phone and/or return messages, and an exact description of how exchanges are to work.

Exchanges can be flashpoints for conflict. I've gone through a few rounds over the years of figuring out how to eliminate most opportunity for conflict at exchanges. My orders now state specifically that the parent receiving the child is responsible for transportation, that the receiving parent must remain at the curb, that the releasing parent must remain in the residence, that the child will walk from one parent to the other, and that parents will engage in no conversation at exchanges. It's ridiculous to have such asinine orders, but when dealing with an emotionally volatile person; it's a necessity. Above any other, the orders for this type of exchange, plus the court orders for email-only communication between parents, have been such a huge blessing for peace in my life.

So, going back to hammering that the mother has mental problems, I think there's enough in this case that would warrant orders for psychological evaluations. See what your attorney thinks of that.

Now, on to the second part, the philosophical part of what you and your husband face. See my answer to another person's questions HERE. I've found that managing a custody case takes more than mere legal tactics and strategies. Sometimes there are other forces at work that must be contemplated too. What you describe of the mother warrants that you and your husband should really read what I wrote to that other person and spend significant time discussing the validity of it. Ignore the first few paragraphs unique to that guy's situation, but the rest certainly applies to your challenge.

Good luck, and please let me know what happens.


This website gives common sense advice that is not intended to act as legal guidance nor psychological guidance. The author is neither an attorney nor licensed psychologist. For specific legal guidance or specific psychological guidance, consult with a licensed professional.

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