Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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The superior court found that a father had a history of committing domestic violence, and it therefore established benchmarks for him to meet before he could begin supervised visitation with his children. The father did not appeal that decision. He nonetheless sought to relitigate the domestic violence finding in subsequent proceedings, but the superior court ruled that relitigation of the issue was barred by collateral estoppel. Following an extended evidentiary hearing, the superior court found that the father had met the benchmarks set by the earlier order and conditionally granted his request that he be allowed to begin supervised visitation. But the superior court also said that because of the “challenging” nature of the case it could not approve a visitation plan without more detail, such as the identity of individuals willing to act as counselors and visitation coordinators and how the parties would pay for their services. The father appealed the superior court’s order granting in part his motion for supervised visitation, including its application of collateral estoppel to the earlier finding of domestic violence. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the superior court did not abuse its broad discretion or otherwise err in this custody case, it affirmed the visitation order. View "Robert A. v. Tatiana D." on Justia Law

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An Alaska Native teenage minor affiliated with the Native Village of Kotzebue (Tribe) was taken into custody by the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and placed at a residential treatment facility in Utah. She requested a placement review hearing after being injured by a facility staff member. At the time of the hearing, the minor’s mother wanted to regain custody. At the hearing the superior court had to make removal findings under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), as well as findings authorizing continued placement in a residential treatment facility under Alaska law. At the hearing, the minor’s Utah therapist testified as a mental health professional. The minor, as well as her parents and the Tribe, objected to the witness being qualified as an ICWA expert, but the superior court allowed it. The minor argued the superior court erred in determining that the witness was qualified as an expert for the purposes of ICWA. Because the superior court correctly determined that knowledge of the Indian child’s tribe was unnecessary in this situation when it relied on the expert’s testimony for its ICWA findings, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Matter of April S." on Justia Law

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Edna K. appealed a child custody modification which declined to find a change of circumstance even though both parties sought to modify their joint custody agreement. Edna and Jeb S. never married but had one child together, G.S., in February 2012. The two had a “rocky” relationship and they separated permanently two and a half years after their son’s birth. Edna filed a complaint for primary physical custody with shared legal custody in October 2014. A private custody investigator met with the parties several times from June through August 2016. The investigator noted that the parties proposed nearly identical custodial arrangements. Rather than attempt to “substantiate or invalidate” the allegations of domestic violence raised by the parties, the custody investigator’s report stated that “50/50 custody . . . is what this investigator tried to reach.” The report briefly summarized Jeb’s criminal record and past reports of domestic violence, including a 2005 conviction for sexual abuse of a minor. The report contained only a half-page discussion on domestic violence, noting that although Jeb was the subject of a number of restraining orders, Edna’s 2015 motion stated that no domestic violence existed. The custody investigator also minimized the severity of Jeb’s conviction for sexual abuse of a minor because Jeb later obtained custody of the son born out of that relationship, so the investigator reasoned that “the court [did] not deem him a risk to his own children.” The report recommended shared legal custody and varying degrees of shared physical custody, depending on Jeb’s work schedule and location. With respect to the custody order at issue here, the superior court ruled that Edna was collaterally estopped from presenting evidence of Jeb’s history of domestic violence because the issue had been “adequately addressed” in the parties’ stipulated custody agreement. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court’s application of collateral estoppel was legal error and reversed the court’s application of collateral estoppel, vacated the court’s findings on changed circumstances, and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on issues of domestic violence. View "Edna K. v. Jeb S." on Justia Law

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A mother appealed a final order modifying custody of her three children, arguing the modification was to punish her and was not based on the best interests of the children. She claimed the superior court clearly erred in finding that she misrepresented information to third parties, including her son’s medical providers. She additionally argued she was denied due process because the superior court did not give her expert the opportunity to defend his methodology once the court determined that his psychological evaluation was outside the scope of its expectations. And she asserted the superior court erred in assigning no weight to her expert’s evaluation in making its credibility determinations. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court did not find the modification was made to publish the mother. The Court found the superior court based its underlying findings on the children's best interests, and the court did not clearly err in finding mother misrepresented information ot third parties. The Supreme Court also concluded mother was provided a meaningful opportunity to be heard; it was within the superior court’s discretion to decide how much weight to assign the psychological evaluations in making its credibility determinations. The Supreme Court therefore affirmed the superior court’s modification order. View "Burns v. Burns" on Justia Law

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The mother of an autistic child filed a petition for a protective order against the child’s father, alleging that the father kicked the child during an altercation that took place at the Extreme Fun Center in Wasilla, Alaska. At the hearing on the long-term protective order, the court admitted the mother’s recording of statements the son made to her approximately 30-35 minutes after the incident. The son stated that the father kicked him in the buttocks; the only disinterested witness with personal knowledge of the incident testified that the father did not kick his son. Relying on the recording and testimony from the child’s mother and therapist, the superior court found that the father committed assault; relying on the mother’s testimony, the court found that the father committed criminal trespass and granted the mother’s petition. The court also required the father to undergo a psychological evaluation and pay the mother’s attorney’s fees. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court vacated and remanded the superior court’s assault finding, and reversed the court’s trespass finding. The Court determined the superior court made its findings by a "bare preponderance" of the evidence. It was an abuse of discretion for the superior court to admit the recording without making threshold findings as to the child's competency and the recording’s trustworthiness. The protective order was vacated, as was the order for the father to undergo a psychological evaluation. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Stephan P. v. Cecilia A." on Justia Law

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At the end of a marriage marked by allegations of domestic violence and substance abuse, a couple sought protective orders as well as a divorce and custody decision regarding their young daughter. After a series of hearings over six months the superior court granted a decree of divorce and issued its custody, visitation, and support order. The mother appealed two aspects of the court’s order: (1) the court’s findings that she did not prove allegations that her ex-husband sexually assaulted her on two occasions; and (2) the court’s restriction of her use and possession of alcohol and controlled substances while she has custody of the child. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the trial court did not clearly err by finding the mother had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence the alleged sexual assaults occurred, it affirmed that decision. The Court also concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion by restricting the mother’s use of alcohol and controlled substances, and affirmed the superior court’s custody decision. View "Jill Y. v. Casey Y." on Justia Law

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The parents-parties to this appeal separated when their child was not yet two years old. Following contentious divorce proceedings, the superior court awarded equally shared physical custody and joint legal custody of the child. After trial, but before the court had issued its child custody decision, the mother filed a motion to relocate with the child. The court declined to address the relocation motion in its custody decision. Following evidentiary hearings on the relocation motion, a different judge awarded the mother primary physical custody. The father appealed, arguing the court made several errors when making its custody modification decision. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the decision. View "Ott v. Runa" on Justia Law

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In early December 2018, Jan K. gave birth to Ada K. in Anchorage. Within a few days the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took emergency custody of Ada and filed an emergency petition to adjudicate her as a child in need of aid. OCS identified Ralph W. As Ada's father. Jan had reported that Ralph was the "biological father" and that he "had intended to be at the hospital for the birth." Jan and Ralph did not live together, but both lived in Wasilla. According to OCS, Ralph said he had known Jan for “approximately one year”; Ralph “was aware of the pregnancy and was certain that he was the father and wanted the child to be placed with him.” OCS also asserted that Ralph said he had been present at all of Jan’s prenatal appointments and they planned to marry. According to OCS, Ralph explained he had not been present at the birth because Jan had been unable to call him, and no one else had called him. OCS noted that Ralph took a paternity test that day. While the parties concurred Ada should have been placed with Ralph, OCS declined until paternity test results were received. At the time of the hearing, the results were not in. The parties nonetheless stipulated, subject to the pending paternity test results, that Ada be placed with Ralph and that “if it turns out that [Ralph] is not the father, [OCS] will have the authority to immediately remove [Ada].” The Office of Public Advocacy petitioned for the Alaska Supreme Court's review of the trial court's appointment order. Within a week, the paternity test results excluded Ralph as Ada's father, and an order disestablishing paternity was entered. Despite the issue being moot, the Supreme Court granted OPA's petition for review to clarify the appointment of counsel in this context. The primary issue for review reduced to whether a putative father’s parentage could be judicially established by “sufficient evidence” presented to the superior court — or must be established by scientific, genetic testing — to allow appointment of public agency counsel to the putative father in a CINA proceeding. The Court concluded that a judicial determination of paternity did not necessarily need underlying scientific, genetic testing in this context, and affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Office of Public Advocacy v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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An Alaskan superior court terminated a mother’s and father’s parental rights based on a finding that they caused mental injury to their child. Relevant to this finding, the child in need of aid (CINA) statutes provided that a court may find a child in need of aid due to parental conduct or conditions causing the child “mental injury”; they also provideed that a “mental injury” exists when there was “a serious injury to the child as evidenced by an observable and substantial impairment in the child’s ability to function in a developmentally appropriate manner and the existence of that impairment is supported by the opinion of a qualified expert witness.” The primary issue before the Alaska Supreme Court in this case was one of evidence rule and statutory interpretation in the context of a judge-tried CINA matter: did the statutorily required expert witness have to be offered and affirmatively accepted as a qualified expert witness by the superior court? The Supreme Court concluded the answer was “yes”; that it would review a claim of error in this regard despite a lack of objection in the superior court; and that it would conclude any such error is harmless only if - considering the parent was not necessarily on notice to make an on-record challenge to the expert’s qualifications - the Supreme Court could conclude the putative expert clearly was qualified to render the specific testimony required by statute. View "C.G. v. Alaska, Dept. Health & Social Serv." on Justia Law

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Cleveland Karren and Jayda Roman had a daughter, born March 2012 in Washington, D.C. Jayda and the daughter moved in July to Mount Vernon, Washington, to live with Jayda’s parents. The family moved to Anchorage in April 2013. Cleveland later took a job at Joint Base Lewis-McChord; he moved to Washington in April 2014, and Jayda remained in Anchorage with the daughter. In May 2015 Cleveland took a different job and moved to Washington, D.C. Jayda filed the parties’ marital dissolution petition in Anchorage in May 2015. Jayda and Cleveland testified that they both had “live[d] in Alaska six continuous months out of the past six years.” Jayda appealed the Alaska superior court’s child custody order, arguing that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) or that it abused its discretion by failing to decline UCCJEA jurisdiction on inconvenient forum grounds. She also contended the court gave disproportionate weight to the custody investigator’s trial testimony and, under the statutory custody factors, to maintaining the father-daughter relationship. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the superior court had UCCJEA jurisdiction because Alaska was the child’s home state when the proceeding commenced; the Court also concluded that the court properly weighed the statutory inconvenient forum factors and did not abuse its discretion when it determined that deciding custody in Alaska was most practical. And because the court had broad discretion in making a custody determination — including the weight to give a custody investigator’s testimony — the Supreme Court concluded the court did not abuse its discretion when weighing either testimony or statutory custody factors. View "Roman v. Karren" on Justia Law