We are discussing a case from Michigan that may challenge many people's understanding of the best interests of the child doctrine. In most states, including Minnesota, a court must take a number of factors into consideration when making child custody and visitation (parenting time) decisions. Generally, no one factor outweighs the others; the doctrine is a holistic approach to custody, not a checklist.
This case involves a custody dispute that began in 2009. The husband had taken a job in Israel and wanted to take the couple's three children with them. The wife refused and accused the husband of hurting her and threatening her and the children (ages 15, 10, and 9). At a June hearing, the children refused to speak with their father. The judge took an unusual step.
Remember, when someone ignores or defies a court order, the court may find that person in contempt. In child support cases, for example, a parent who fails to comply with a court order to settle up the past due payments may land in jail. Contempt of court is a serious matter.
As the children found out. Upon their refusal, the judge chastised them, particularly the oldest, and charged them with contempt. They were sentenced to a juvenile detention facility for the remainder of the summer.
The court drew media attention and criticism for the sentence. A few weeks later, the judge set the contempt of court ruling aside; the children were removed to a summer camp. The children would not stay with their mother, the judge said, because she had poisoned them against him.
As we said above, a judge is not supposed to give any one best interests factor more weight than the others. There is one exception in Minnesota
A sustained course of conduct by one parent designed to diminish a child's relationship with the other parent is a factor that weighs heavily against the offending parent in a custody determination.
As far as the wife's claim of domestic violence, one of the reasons the 15-year-old would not speak with his father, he explained, was that he had seen his father hit his mother. The court's decision to penalize him drew stern criticism from advocates for abuse victims.
The case will go back to court in the next month or two. In the meantime, only the family and court officers will know of any new developments: The court has issued a gag order.
MLive!, "Children in bitter Oakland County custody battle to remain at summer camp; gag order issued," Gus Burns, July 24, 2015
MLive!, "Oakland County judge locks up kids in divorce case, gets national attention," Ian Thibodeau, July 9, 2015 (updated July 24, 2015)