You’ll Want to Know Why This Grandmother Lost Custody
Posted by Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC on March 22, 2019
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It’s become more and more commonplace. If you attend any school meeting, you undoubtedly notice grandparents taking on parental roles. However, that doesn’t mean the arrangements are necessarily permanent. In fact, you may want to know why a grandmother lost custody in a recent court case.
The Court of Appeals issued a decision in Brown v. Farley on February 28, 2019. Dustin Brown and his child’s mother, “Keili J.” never married. Although the mother gave birth to A.W.J. in 2010, Brown didn’t attempt to establish paternity until 2014.
However before that, in 2012, Keili J. turned over temporary custody to her mother, the child’s maternal grandmother, Sarah Farley. The grandmother claimed that her daughter suffered from “severe mental illness and emotional illness.” According to Farley, she didn’t even know who A.W.J’s father was as she was sexually active with multiple partners.
In his petition to the court, Brown provided DNA evidence that showed he was the child’s biological father. Brown also informed the court that he enjoyed co-parenting the child until December 2014. He disputed the mother’s right to transfer custody to Farley without his permission.
Fast forward to 2018 when the court conducted a two-day bench trial. Brown petitioned the court for custody. This meant removing residential custody from the child’s maternal grandmother after a number of years.
Grandmother Lost Custody: Superior Parental Rights
Tennessee custody laws recognize superior parental rights. What does this mean exactly? Situations may arise where parents are temporarily unable to take care of their children. However, parents have the first right to custody and care of their offspring.
In this case, the mother’s decision to transfer custody to the grandmother amounted to her waiving her superior parental rights. However, Brown also had his own superior parental rights.
During court testimony, both the child’s mother and grandmother admitted that “there was a high likelihood” that Brown was A.W.J.’s father. Yet, they did not advise him of the change in custody and denied him due process.
In evaluating the child’s best interests, the court found Brown credible as far as his relationship with A.W.J. That said, the court determined that Farley was not credible. Something needed to be done to protect the relationship between Brown and his child.
The court’s decision granted the father custody and also changed A.J.W.’s surname to Brown. Meanwhile, Farley appealed the court’s decision.
Among the grandmother’s contentions was that the court did not use the proper legal standard in granting Brown custody. However, the Court of Appeals cited a Supreme Court case to explain the circumstances where superior parental rights exist:
(1) When no order exists that transfers custody from the natural parent;
(2) when the order transferring custody from the natural parent is accomplished by fraud or without notice to the parent;
(3) when the order transferring custody from the natural parent is invalid on its face; and
(4) when the natural parent cedes only temporary and informal custody to the non-parents.
The history of the case demonstrates that Brown did not transfer custody. Meanwhile, he was never notified of the mother’s intention to turn over custody to the grandmother.
In agreeing with the lower court, the Court of Appeals also reviewed allegations that placing the child with the father could represent the risk of substantial harm. Farley raised issues concerning alcoholism and domestic violence. However, testimony from counselors and others dismissed this as a concern. Even the trial judge acknowledged that the father would provide a stable environment.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling, granting legal custody to Brown.