Pursuant to Ind. Appellate Rule 65(D), this Memorandum Decision shall not be regarded as precedent or cited before any court except for the purpose of establishing the defense of res judicata, collateral estoppel, or the law of the case.
J.R.H. (Mother) appeals the trial court's custody order awarding primary physical and legal custody of her children to O.M.H. (Father). Mother raises two arguments on appeal, which we combine and restate as an argument that there is insufficient evidence supporting the trial court's order. Finding the evidence sufficient, we affirm.
Father and Mother married in 2003. The union produced three children born in 2006, 2009, and 2011. The marriage gradually broke down and resulted in an acrimonious separation in 2014.
Mother's alcohol consumption and abuse of prescription medications increased dramatically during the marriage. By Mother's own admission, she is a recovering alcoholic. She has stated that at one point she was consuming "a fifth" of vodka every day. Tr. Vol. 2 p. 48. She admitted to drinking while supervising the children, frequently to the point of unconsciousness, and admits that her alcohol consumption hindered her ability to parent.
After the parents separated in 2014, Father often needed to leave his farm to check on the children and make sure they were safe while in Mother's care. One of the children, while participating in play therapy, drew an unprompted picture of Mother passed out, with the child running over to his siblings to take care of them. The therapist testified that this picture indicated that the child had experienced trauma as a result of Mother's substance abuse.
In October 2014, Mother and Father agreed that she should receive treatment for alcohol addiction. Father transported Mother to Fairbanks, an addiction treatment center in Indianapolis, where she was admitted to the inpatient program. After Mother completed the inpatient program in November 2014, Mother relocated to Indianapolis to undergo outpatient treatment through Fairbanks. Mother had very little contact with the children between October 2014, when she began treatment, and May 2015; Father has had physical custody of the children since October 2014. Mother has not consistently exercised all the parenting time to which she is entitled.
Mother alleges that throughout their marriage, Father repeatedly physically abused her. Father denies these allegations and claims Mother was physically violent toward him. He further states that her injuries were caused by falling while she was heavily intoxicated. Neither parent faced criminal charges during the marriage.
Father has stated that he believes Mother is a neglectful parent and he has communicated to her that he does not want the children to have a relationship with her. Unfortunately, the children's relationships with both parents have been strained by the conflict. Nonetheless, the children thrive in school and enjoy living on Father's family farm. They are also strongly bonded to nearby extended family members. Mother admits that the children want to remain with Father.
While at Fairbanks, Mother engaged in a romantic relationship against treatment recommendations. Her partner was a fellow patient and the relationship resulted in pregnancy. Mother, the child, and the child's father currently live together in Indianapolis. The custody evaluator testified that Mother's decision to become involved in this relationship while in treatment showed "very poor judgment" and having a child soon after leaving treatment, while still married to Father, concerned the evaluator. Tr. Vol. 2 p. 76-77. The Guardian ad Litem noted that the children are not close with Mother's boyfriend, and that the rapid progression of that relationship suggests a lack of stability.
Mother has found stable employment in Indianapolis but has moved multiple times since completing treatment at Fairbanks. Mother initially lived in a one-bedroom apartment, then a three-bedroom townhome, then another apartment. At the time of the final custody hearing, Mother planned to move to yet another residence in Indianapolis.
Father filed a petition to dissolve the marriage in December 2014. An evidentiary hearing regarding custody of the children took place on August 23 and 24, 2016. On October 14, 2016, the trial court issued a custody order awarding sole physical and legal custody of the children to Father and ordering that Mother is entitled to unsupervised parenting time in accordance with the Parenting Time Guidelines. The trial court was dismayed by Father's behavior with respect to Mother, but still found that it was in the children's best interests to remain with him:
Appealed Order p. 7-8. Mother now appeals.
Discussion and Decision
Mother argues that there is insufficient evidence supporting the trial court's order granting physical and legal custody of the children to Father. We afford trial courts a great deal of deference in family law matters because of their extended face-to-face interactions with the parties. Best v. Best, 941 N.E.2d 499, 502 (Ind. 2011). Trial judges are able to assess the credibility and character of the parties involved, and, because of this evidence, they are in a superior position to determine the best interests of the children. Id. In reviewing a trial court's order in a family law matter, we neither reweigh evidence nor reassess witness credibility, and we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the judgment. D.C. v. J.A.C., 977 N.E.2d 951, 954 (Ind. 2012). We will only reverse the trial court's judgment if it is clearly against the logic and effects of the facts and circumstances. L.C. v. T.M., 996 N.E.2d 403, 407 (Ind. Ct. App. 2013).
A court must award custody in accordance with the best interests of the child. Ind. Code § 31-17-2-8. The trial court must consider all relevant factors, including the following:
Id. In this case, the trial court noted that it considered all of the above factors but placed "significant weight" on factors four and five. Appealed Order p. 2.
There is a wealth of evidence in the record supporting the trial court's conclusion that primary physical and legal custody should be granted to Father. Among other things, the record reveals the following evidence:
We find that this evidence supports the trial court's conclusion that, while legitimate concerns have been raised about Father's behavior, it is in the children's best interests to remain with him. They are bonded to him, well adjusted to their community and school, and generally doing well. To uproot them at this time could be detrimental to their well-being. Under these circumstances, we find sufficient evidence supporting the trial court's order.
We acknowledge the evidence in the record tending to support Mother's allegations that Father has been physically abusive to her in the past and emotionally abusive to her during the divorce proceedings. Arguments along these lines, however, amount to a request that we reweigh the evidence and second-guess the trial court's assessment of witness credibility, which we may not do.
Mother correctly states that Father may not "sow the seeds of discord and reap improved custody rights." Pierce v. Pierce, 620 N.E.2d 726, 731 (Ind. Ct. App. 1993). However, the trial court awarded custody to Father not because of discord in the family, which Father has undoubtedly exacerbated, but because it determined that Father's home is a stable and familiar environment for children. Indeed, the record indicates that the trial court acknowledged and criticized Father's combative behavior. Nonetheless, the trial court found that it would be in the best interest of the children to award Father custody, and we have found sufficient evidence supporting that conclusion.
In a custody dispute, the trial court's duty is to act in what it deems is the best interest of the children. The trial court determined that it is in the best interest of the children to remain in the home and schools to which they are accustomed. We find sufficient evidence in the record to support the trial court's conclusion. This Court does not sanction any parent's attempt to punish the other parent through their children, and we strongly echo the trial court's caution that Father's manipulative, toxic behavior must cease. We urge him not to interfere with Mother's court-ordered parental access and to adhere strictly to the trial court's order. Nonetheless, we find that the trial court did not err in granting physical and legal custody to Father.
The judgment of the trial court is affirmed.
Mathias, J., and Altice, J., concur.