MARK WARREN ODOM v. KATHERINE LEIGH ODOM was an ongoing 1990-9? Louisiana divorce and child custody case. Mark W. Odom (1960-2013) was a self-employed accountant and a baptized Jehovah's Witness -- having been reared along with five siblings by domineering JW Mother, Charlsie Faye Odom, in Logansport, Louisiana. The parties were first married in 1981, but divorced childless in 1982. After their divorce, Katherine Odom married another man. Without having divorced her second husband, Mark Warren Odom and Katherine Leigh Odom remarried in August 1987. (The Odoms probably irrationalized that they were still married per WatchTower Cult theology due to the fact that their divorce had not been biblically based.) Of this remarriage, two children were born.
On April 4, 1990, Katherine Odom fled Logansport with the couple's two children. They entered a shelter run by the YWCA Family Violence Program in Shreveport, where Katherine Odom was documented to have had a black eye, and was bruised and battered. Eight-month-old Miranda Odom also had a bruise on her head. Katherine Odom explained that while trying to hit her, Mark Odom had struck the child.
On April 19, 1990, Mark W. Odom beat his wife to the courthouse and filed a petition for separation -- alleging abandonment and cruel treatment. He also sought custody of the children.
On May 2, 1990, Katherine Odom answered and reconvened, alleging physical and mental abuse by Mark Odom, as well as constructive abandonment. She sought a legal separation, custody and child support. Mark Odom filed a general denial to the reconventional demand. Thereafter, he also filed a peremptory exception of no cause of action to his wife's reconventional demand, asserting that Katherine Odom had never been divorced from her second husband, thus invalidating the couple's remarriage.
On May 22, 1990, Katherine Odom was granted temporary custody of the children with specific visitation rights being awarded to Mark Odom. The parties were also ordered to attempt mediation. However, the mediator later informed the court that it was unsuccessful due to Mark Odom's negative attitude.
On August 17, 1990, Mark Odom filed a motion in which he asserted that Katherine Odom was abusing son Gary Odom. Mark Odom stated that although he had caused the children to be placed in foster care pending their examination by a physician, the two children had been returned to Katherine Odom when their examination by a physician revealed no abuse. Mark Odom asked that the children again be placed in foster care pending the determination of custody. He also asserted that Katherine Odom was likely to flee the jurisdiction of the court. The motion was initially granted. However, it was rescinded on August 27, 1990, on the motion of the Department of Social Services, which found no evidence of any abuse. At the end of August 1990, Katherine Odom fled Louisiana with the children.
Mark Odom later amended his petition to seek an annulment of his marriage to Katherine Odom based upon her prior undissolved marriage. He also filed another motion on October 23, 1990, again seeking to have the children placed in foster care.
On October 29, 1990, on motion of Mark Odom, the trial court appointed a curator ad hoc to represent Katherine Odom, whose whereabouts were unknown. On November 20, 1990, a hearing was held at which the curator represented Katherine Odom. The court minutes stated that the matter had been fixed for trial as "an uncontested proceeding" with the agreement of the curator ad hoc. Using standard language, the court minutes further stated that "thereupon, case tried, evidence adduced and closed, and Judgment for Plaintiff, as prayed for, see Decree." The preamble to the judgment stated that the "matter came on for trial," and that "the law and evidence being in favor thereof, and for reasons this day orally assigned ... ," sole custody of the children was granted to Mr. Odom and the marriage was annulled. (No transcript of this proceeding is found in the appellate record.)
On December 20, 1990, Mark Odom filed a petition to hold Katherine Odom in contempt of court for her failure to return the children. By this time, Mark Odom had determined that Katherine Odom and the two children were receiving welfare assistance in Missouri where they were living in a shelter.
On January 23, 1991, Katherine Odom filed a petition to change custody. Katherine Odom alleged several specific instances of physical abuse against her by Mark Odom. Katherine Odom also alleged that on June 23, 1990, Mark Odom attacked her roommate while she was holding Miranda. She asserted that she fled the state because of reliable information that Mark Odom was planning to kidnap the children.
On or about June 21, 1991, Mark Odom obtained physical custody of the children. On July 22, 1991, Katherine Odom filed a rule for contempt, asserting that Mark Odom had refused to allow her to see the children for the past month.
On August 14, 1991, a hearing was held on the rule to change custody. The parties stipulated -- and the trial court agreed -- that joint custody was not in the best interest of the two children. Witnesses presented by Katherine Odom included social workers who had seen her battered and bruised condition when she entered the family violence shelter the day she left her husband. [Jehovah's] Witnesses for Mark Odom included his JW Mother and an otherwise unidentified "pastor". (Interestingly, Mark Odom claimed that he had "left" the Logansport Louisiana Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in late 1990 after the JW Elders began to investigate Katherine Odom's charges of repeated spouse abuse. Mark Odom likely had been disfellowshipped. Amusingly, in January 1991, Mark Odom immediately became an active, participating member of a local Methodist church which was attended by his non-JW relatives. Notably, at the time, Mark Odom was living with his 58 year-old JW Mother in her 3000sf home.)
At the conclusion of the evidence, the trial court found that neither party was psychologically unfit to have custody. Based upon the home studies ordered by the court, it also found that both parents could provide a suitable physical environment. The court characterized both parents as "shakey [sic], emotionally," noting that in the opinion of the psychiatrist appointed to examine the parties any problems they had were intertwined with the court proceedings. The court stated its belief that the relationship between the parents was so hostile that an award of sole custody to either one would effectively terminate the other's parental rights. The trial court ruled that the best interest of the children required that the prior award of sole custody to Mark Odom be continued, but it granted "reasonable visitation" to Katherine Odom. However, it declined to establish any specific visitation schedule. Costs were assessed against Mrs. Odom. On appeal, the Louisiana Court of Appeal reversed and remanded, stating in part:
... the social worker also included information gathered in April, 1990, when Mr. Odom made allegations of child abuse against his wife. An interview with a DeSoto Parish deputy sheriff familiar with the Odoms revealed a history of wife abuse in the family, and, due to the unpredictability of Mr. Odom's behavior, the deputy advised the social worker not to interview Mr. Odom alone at his residence. The social worker was unfavorably impressed by both Mr. Odom and his mother. Although they made exaggerated efforts to convince the social worker that Mrs. Odom was an extremely abusive parent, neither could give a satisfactory explanation of why they had not reported her alleged abuse or even sought medical aid for the children until after she left Mr. Odom. The social worker's impression was that Mr. Odom had not been "totally honest" about his role in the alleged abuse or neglect, that he was possibly hiding something, and that "his apparent immediate concern" for the children's safety was questionable.
... Based upon the record before us, it is abundantly clear that Mr. Odom will not allow the children to have any sort of relationship with their mother. His deep and bitter hatred of Mrs. Odom, which is obviously shared by his mother, is replete throughout the record in both the home studies and the testimony. (In particular, we note his sarcastic and hostile comments on cross-examination.) Furthermore, he has repeatedly made accusations of child abuse against her which have not stood up to serious scrutiny by the authorities.
These factors weigh heavily against Mr. Odom. The evidence in this record indicates that Mr. Odom is a manipulative and vindictive person who will not hesitate to use his children to punish his former wife. It further demonstrates that his mother, who will exercise great influence over these very young children if custody is maintained in her son, shares these sentiments. To raise Gary and Miranda in an environment in which their mother is so thoroughly vilified can only be deleterious to their emotional well-being.
Although Mr. Odom currently participates in the Methodist church, we note with interest that he left the Jehovah's Witnesses, the faith in which he was raised, because the elders wished to question him about allegations of wife abuse brought to their attention. ...
Although Mrs. Odom admittedly fled the jurisdiction of the court with the children, she did so because of her great fear of Mr. Odom. (Although the trial court made no findings on this issue, we find that the preponderance of evidence in the record demonstrates that Mr. Odom physically abused Mrs. Odom.) While we cannot condone this flight or completely ignore it, we can understand it in the context of this case. Furthermore, our purpose here is to determine what is best for these children, not to use custody as a means by which to punish a parent for past misconduct. Additionally, Mrs. Odom has expressed a willingness to allow the children to develop a relationship with their father, a courtesy he obviously would not extend to her.
We are also favorably impressed by Mrs. Odom's efforts to rebuild her life and improve her financial situation by obtaining a higher education. There is no competent evidence in the record that indicates that the children would be anything but well-cared for and loved in their mother's custody.
Based on the foregoing, we find that Mrs. Odom has carried her burden of proof and that the trial court judgment maintaining custody in Mr. Odom is manifestly erroneous. We find that the overwhelming indications in the record that Mr. Odom will prohibit the children from having any relationship with their mother constitutes a change in circumstances. The best interest of the children dictate that they be placed in the custody of their mother. Accordingly, the trial court judgment is reversed.
KAREN LYNN LAFLEUR UNKEL v. DR. STEVEN PATRICK UNKEL was a 1992-94 Louisiana divorce and child custody case. Dr. Steven P. Unkel, age 20, and Karen Lynn LaFleur were married in 1977, and thereafter had two sons. While Dr. Steven Unkel completed medical school and practiced medicine, Karen Lynn Unkel served the family as wife and mother. The Unkels were active Jehovah's Witnesses. Karen Ungel's divorce was granted in December 1993, but a separate March 1994 trial found her at fault in the breakup of the marriage and denied her permanent alimony.
Besides suffering from depression throughout her marriage, which eventually led to her Xanax addiction, the trial court found that Karen Unkel's spending habits were the primary problem between her and Steven Unkel, who had an annual income of only $200,000.00 in the early 1990s. Karen Unkel enjoyed spending money. She had a $1400 per month allowance for groceries. She often became overdrawn at the bank. She charged credit cards up to the maximum, and took out loans without her husband's knowledge. Each time she reached a financial crisis, Dr. Unkel bailed her out, paid off the creditors, and cut up her credit cards. Although her husband's embarrassment and displeasure over this behavior were known to her, Mrs. Unkel always obtained more credit and credit cards.
The trial court gave great weight to the testimony of Mary Vidrine, a close friend and fellow Jehovah's Witness of Karen Unkel. Mary Vidrine said Karen Unkel had never wanted to work out her marital problems in the four years she had known her. Karen Unkel often talked of leaving, only to be dissuaded each time by Mary Vidrine and Steven Unkel. Mary Vidrine said Karen Unkel's main complaint was the lack of funds at her disposal.
As a secondary complaint, Karen Unkel said Steven Unkel did not spend enough time with her and their sons, because when he was not working, he went to his hunting camp, or to Bible study, or to work out. She also complained Dr. Unkel refused to take her on a trip to Colorado, and wanted her to accept marriage counseling from the JW Elders. The trip to Colorado could not have been made because of Karen Unkel's fear of flying; her fear of driving on interstate highways; and her fear of bridges. Elders in the Jehovah's Witnesses are accepted by members as family counselors, notwithstanding their lack of secular certification. This practice is a part of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Karen Unkel left the matrimonial domicile without lawful cause, as she had threatened to do several times, filing her action for divorce four days after leaving.
HOWARD HARGRODER v. DR. STEVEN PATRICK UNKEL was a successful Louisiana medical malpractice court case. Plaintiff veterinarian became ill while visiting Farmersville, and was TWICE taken to the emergency room at Union General Hospital. Hargroder self-diagnosed himself as having had a stroke. There, he was treated by Dr. Steven Patrick Unkel, who ordered multiple appropriate tests, but did not diagnose a stroke. On his way home, Hargroder stopped at the emergency room of Savoy Medical Center in Mamou, Louisiana, where Dr. Oscar Rodriguez determined that Hargroder had suffered a stroke.
Hargroder filed a medical malpractice suit against Dr. Steven P. Unkel and Union General Hospital, claiming damages for Dr. Unkel's failure to diagnose and treat the stroke. In November 2000, a medical review panel found that Union General did not deviate below the applicable standard of care. The panel found that Dr. Steven Unkel deviated from the accepted standard of care, but the deviation did not affect the outcome of the patient's care.
Hargroder proceeded to jury trial against Dr. Unkel. At the close of the defendant's case, the trial court granted a directed verdict against Dr. Unkel finding that he breached the applicable standard of care, and finding that the plaintiff suffered the loss of a chance of a better medical outcome arising from the defendant's failure to diagnose and treat the plaintiff's stroke. The jury awarded Dr. Hargroder $150,000.00 in damages. On appeal, the Louisiana Court of Appeal affirmed the directed verdict, but reduced the damages to $75,000.00.
See also LUNSFORD v. REGENTS for Dr. Steven P. Unkel's role in that California blood transfusion court case.
UNINVESTIGATED DEATH OF NON-JW MINEL KINARD KOEHLER and KOEHLER v. KOEHLER. In April 1992, a 19 year-old Non-JW Mother of two infant daughters, named Minel K. Koehler, was permitted to bleed to death by two Wisconsin hospitals whose administrators seemingly failed to fully investigate Minel Koehler's background. Minel Koehler was RECENTLY DIVORCED, and was merely "studying" to become a Jehovah's Witness. Those two major life events probably were NOT coincidental. Interestingly, Minel Koehler, of Iowa City, Iowa, had only recently begun living with the Jehovah's Witness Couple who were "studying" with Koehler, James A. Hadar, age 45, and Bonnie Hadar, age 43, at their Coralville, Iowa home. (The then residence of Minel Koehler's two infant daughters, Jennesa Koehler and Christina Koehler, is unknown.)
On a Saturday in April 1992, Minel Koehler was riding with the Hadars to a WatchTower Assembly being held in Janesville, Wisconsin, when the FOUR MONTHS PREGNANT, RECENTLY DIVORCED Minel Koehler became ill near Beloit, Wisconsin. The Hadars took Minel Koehler to Beloit Memorial Hospital, where Koehler suffered a miscarriage and continued hemorrhaging. After Minel Koehler refused blood transfusions, she was air-flighted to St. Luke's Medical Center, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, after 2+ days of ineffective "non-blood" treatments, 19 year-old Minel K. Koehler, was permitted to DIE by hospital administrators and staff -- apparently without contacting Minel Koehler's step-father and mother, David Schroder and Diana Schroder, also of Coralville, Iowa, any other family members, OR the mysterious recent father of Koehler's four-month-old mis-carried child.
Interestingly, while Elder James Hadar refused to speak publicly regarding Minel Koehler's pregnancy or other medical matters, the WatchTower Society rushed in Spokesperson, Marvin Krueger, from Janesville, Wisconsin, to bullshit the media. Marvin Kruegar told one reporter that the JW religion did not require members to refuse blood transfusions. "Each individual has their own conscience. Each one has to make their own decision," stated Marvin Krueger.
DELORES KENNEDY v. MICHAEL M. KRAEMER and DELORES KENNEDY v. MICHAEL M. KRAEMER were two or more 1980s-90s ILLINOIS paternity actions filed only because such were required by the various government agencies paying public tax dollars for the birth and rearing of a Jehovah's Witness Minister's "bastard" children. Although reared as a devout, door-knocking Jehovah's Witness, while in his mid 20s, and while living in the greater Chicago area, Michael Kraemer fathered Adam Kennedy and Shiloh Kennedy without benefit of marrying their mother, Delores Kennedy. Those paternity actions were still pending in 1991.
Michael M. Kraemer had been reared as a Jehovah's Witness in northeast OHIO, by his Jehovah's Witness Mother, Viola M. Haight, and his chiropractor step-father, Dr. Clifford R. Haight, D.C. Jehovah's Witness Viola M. Kraemer aka Viola M. Haight reportedly had been DIVORCED MULTIPLE TIMES, thus had other previous surnames. The auto accident case below delved into the effect of Viola Haight's "multiple divorces" on Michael Kraemer during his formative years, and Mike Kraemer's treatment for depression during his high school years.
According to his 2003 obituary, Michael Kraemer, then age 43, died in Louisiana "as a result of an automobile accident" (denied blood transfusion???). Kraemer was living with a grandmother, Phyllis Howard, and was a FULL-TIME REGULAR PIONEER at the Amite Louisiana Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses at the time of his death. Apparently, this extended JW Family was scattered nationwide.
MICHAEL M. KRAEMER v. ALDRIDGE ELECTRIC COMPANY was a failed 1986-92 Illinois auto accident lawsuit which revealed many of the "skeletons" kept secret by this supposed "exemplary" Jehovah's Witness family. It is due to this Jehovah's Witness Family's GREED that the following "family secrets" became a permanent part of the public court record:
Next, we address plaintiff's contention that [Kraemer] was denied a fair trial by the introduction of certain allegedly prejudicial evidence. Specifically, plaintiff argues that the probative value, if any, of evidence relating to Kraemer's religious activities and beliefs, Kraemer's mother's prior divorces and their effect on Kraemer, and Kennedy's paternity actions pending against Kraemer, is outweighed by the prejudicial effect such evidence must have had on the jury. We conclude that plaintiff's arguments in this regard are without merit.
First, plaintiff argues that the trial court erroneously failed to adhere to its ruling on plaintiff's motion in limine regarding references to Kraemer's religion. Plaintiff contends that defendants were improperly allowed to question Kraemer and other witnesses regarding Kraemer's religious beliefs. We disagree. At the hearing on [Kraemer's] motion in limine, the trial court ruled that defendants were not to mention the name of Kraemer's religion, Jehovah's Witnesses; the name of the church publication, "Watch Tower"; or the phrase "servicing." The court ruled that defendants could question Kraemer regarding religious meetings he attended, whether he was involved in community activities for his church, and whether he read the Bible. In fact, plaintiff's attorney stated at the hearing on the motion that he had "no trouble" with questions about reading the Bible.
In her brief, plaintiff refers this court to several points in the record wherein the allegedly prejudicial questions were asked. We have reviewed the record and find that the complained-of questions, and answers thereto, revealed that when Kraemer was in high school he spent some time "knocking on doors"; that he attended religious services three times a week; and that he read the Bible. Defendants never mentioned the name of Kraemer's religion; never used the phrase "servicing"; and never mentioned the church paper "Watch Tower." Contrary to plaintiff's assertions, these innocuous questions did not inquire into Kraemer's religious beliefs. Rather, they inquired into his physical and mental capabilities before and after the accident. We agree with the trial court when, in ruling on plaintiff's post-trial motion, it stated:
"... to the Discussion of Mr. Kraemer's religious postulatizing [sic] activities before and after the accident, that was brought up by the defendants for the purpose of comparing what he was able to do before the accident compared to what he was able to do after the accident. The testimony did not violate my ruling on the motion in limine. That ruling was that his religion, Jehovah's Witness religion, could not be specifically mentioned because it might create prejudice. The fact that he was a Jehovah's Witness was never brought up during the testimony, and the attorneys adhered to my ruling. As to the postulatizing [sic] activity, I think it was fair comment to show what he was or was not able to do after the occurrence compared to what he was able to do before."
[Kraemer] also argues that the trial court erroneously allowed defendants to inquire into certain paternity actions brought against Kraemer by Kennedy. In this regard, plaintiff fails to provide citation either to pertinent authority in support of her position or to the record wherein the allegedly prejudicial material is to be found, and we find [Kraemer's] argument to be without merit. Rather, we agree with the trial court and defendants that Kennedy, who was a central witness on the issue of liability, may have had a financial interest in the outcome of this lawsuit. As such, inquiry into this area was both relevant and probative of her credibility. It was not unduly prejudicial.
[Kraemer] also argues that the trial court erroneously allowed defendants to inquire into the effect of [Kraemer's mother's] prior divorces on Kraemer and into the fact that Kraemer was treated for depression in high school. Plaintiff argues that, ...
... Here, the questions regarding Kraemer's depression in high school and his mother's divorces were an attempt to inquire into the same or similar emotional and personality conditions that allegedly afflict Kraemer at the present time. Moreover, as the trial court noted in ruling on plaintiff's post-trial motion, defendants' brief questions in this area were "simply a part of the background of the young man as to what his general conditions were to establish or disestablish promise for his entering into the work field and having various employment." The trial court did not err in allowing such brief testimony.
In reviewing the record, we also note that [Kraemer's] counsel questioned [Kraemer] on the same issues during direct and redirect examination. ...
To briefly summarize, plaintiff has alleged that the trial court erred in admitting testimony regarding Kraemer's religious activities, paternity actions, and general emotional condition. The arguments are grounded in the claim that the court erroneously weighed probativeness and prejudice. It is the function of the trial court to weigh the probative value and prejudicial effect of evidence in determining whether it should be admitted, and such rulings will not be overturned on appeal unless a clear abuse of discretion is shown. ... Here, we believe the trial Judge balanced the probative value of the evidence against the prejudice it might engender and determined that the evidence was admissible. Under the circumstances, we cannot say that the court abused its discretion.
DAVID SCOTT v. DONNA DUGAS was a lengthy 1989-96 Pennsylvania divorce/custody case which involved Donna K. Dugas and David M. Scott, both originally from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and their daughter, Ashley Scott (born circa 1985). After eight years of marriage, Donna Scott, whose mother's side of the family were JWs, finally converted to the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Scotts' marriage did not last long thereafter. (Interestingly, around the same time, Donna Scott's sister also converted to the Jehovah's Witnesses, and also sought a divorce from her husband. A similar divorce/custody battle with her non-JW ex-husband ensued.) Donna Scott's WatchTower religion became the focus of a seven years long heated custody battle, which Donna Scott eventually won with the help of FREE legal representation provided by local Pennsylvania JW Attorney Stephen Langton aided by lawyers from the WatchTower Society's Legal Department.
Initially, the local family court had ordered that Donna Scott receive primary custody, while David Scott received visitation privileges, along with Guardianship with respect to Ashley's medical care due to Donna Scott's admission that she would never consent to necessary life-saving blood transfusions. The family court also initially ordered that Ashley Scott not be taken in "field service" when she was younger. David Scott was reportedly an excellent father who did everything possible to stay in daughter Ashley Scott's life. He paid child support on time. He kept all visitation times. He took Ashley to doctor and dentist appointments. David Scott also continued to attempt to gain primary custody of Ashley.
Interestingly, in 1995, Donna Scott somehow become acquainted with and married a divorced/widowed Jehovah's Witness Minister living in Connecticut named DUGAS. The local Altoona family court then permitted Donna Dugas and Ashley Scott to relocate to Connecticut. David Scott fought the matter until he had exhausted all of his assets, but he finally lost. The WatchTower Cult initially cost David Scott his Wife, then his assets, and eventually his daughter.
David Scott was able to obtain a small amount of revenge by appearing in a television segment about JEHOVAH'S WITNESS DIVORCES featured on the 60 MINUTES television program back in 1992. Read the linked TRANSCRIPT to see how reporter Leslie Stahl caught JW Attorney Stephen Langton lying/deceiving on camera about an inconsequential matter.
SHIRLEY STEVENSON v. EDWARD LEE STEVENSON was a 1992-4 Texas divorce case. Edward and Shirley Stevenson became acquainted as "penpals" while Edward was serving in Vietnam in the 1960s. In 1967, after returning from Vietnam, Edward traveled to Tampa, Florida to meet Shirley, and they were married four days later. Sheila Stevenson Lott was born in 1968. Around this same time, door-knocking Jehovah's Witnesses, with their message that Armageddon was going to occur in October 1975, got their hooks in Shirley, and soon thereafter, Edward. Both were baptized around 1968-9, while the couple resided in Florida.
Shelley Stevenson was born in 1971. A third daughter was born in 1975. A son was born in 1978. The family were true followers of WatchTower dictates -- paying more attention to their spiritual lives than their physical lives. Edward and occasionally Shirley worked low paying jobs. The family relocated frequently in attempts to stay ahead of the bill collectors, eventually to Edward's home state of Texas, according to Sheila Lott. In the early 1980s, Shirley began "home-schooling" the four children per the WatchTower Society's advocacy of such during the late 70s and early 80s, despite the fact that Shirley allegedly had went only to the 10th grade. (The WatchTower Society did a 180 turn regarding such after the negative effects of "home schooling" performed by its' JW members became evident in the 1990s.) The family did not associate with non-JWs, and the children were not permitted to associate or play with neighborhood children.
Sheila Lott alleged that her mother "ruled the roost", and particularly dominated over the two younger children, despite exhibiting signs of physical and mental illness. Lott alleged that her mother claimed to have multiple-personality disorder and various undiagnosed diseases, and did strange, neurotic things such as insist she was pregnant when it was obvious she was not. Sheila Lott also alleges that her JW Mother claimed to have multiple sclerosis, and was wheelchair bound, for about four years of the early 1980s. Shelley Stevenson, the second daughter, compared growing up in the Stevenson home to living in a "terrible prison". She blamed her father as much as her mother.
The Stevenson separated in June 1992, and the "contested" divorce was finalized in February 1994. When it came to the custody of the couple's youngest child, then age 16, that son testified that he would rather kill himself rather than be made to have "visitation" with his father, must less his father have custody.
TEXAS v. EDWARD LEE STEVENSON (1997-2001). In November 1996, Shirley Stevenson, accompanied by her then 21 year-old third daughter and her almost 18 year-old son, told Arlington, Texas police that Edward had groped that third daughter on multiple occasions, and masturbated in front of her on ten occasions, during the Spring of 1992. Three weeks later, that third daughter told police that she had just remembered also being raped by her father during the same time period.
At trial, that third daughter testified that her father had both vaginally and anally raped her. A nurse testified that the daughter's hymen was still intact. That daughter also testified, that when she was about 5 or 6, that Edward had molested both Shelley and her on multiple occasions. She even related one specific time that her father took her and Shelley to a library, where Shelley was taken by a strange man, while she (third daughter) was taken to a motel and raped by Edward. The rape charges were dropped mid-trial by the prosecutor.
At the trial, Edward was denied free legal representation because he had been able to afford bail. However, unable to afford an attorney, the Texas court allowed Edward to represent himself -- and Edward did a terrible job, not even developing enough of a trial record on which a reasonable appeal could be lodged. Edward Stevenson was found guilty by a jury of fondling his daughter's breasts through her clothing, and exposing himself to her, and received a sentence of 18 years in prison. During the sentencing phase, Shelley Stevenson was finally called to testify, and she denied that she or anyone else in the family had ever been sexually abused by their father -- and Shelley did not even like her father. Given little record to appeal, a 2001 habeus corpus attempt was denied on the trial record, without a hearing. No other appeals could be located.
I ran across an article which discusses a 1994 custody case in England involving Jehovah's Witnesses, which I believe readers of this webpage will find extremely interesting. A British divorcee, who had custody of her two children, joined the JWs around 1990. She died in November 1994 from complications from a brain tumor, which possibly was the source of her longtime mental health problems.
... We conclude, however, that the evidence supporting the allegations of physical abuse of the children by excessive discipline was overwhelming ... . Both plaintiff and her daughter from an earlier marriage testified at length, and in detail, to defendant's acts of abuse. An evaluation of the family was done by a psychiatrist ... . After the evaluation, the psychiatrist reported the case to SRS because he concluded that the children were at risk of physical abuse from defendant and that it would be dangerous to allow the children to reside with defendant. His opinion was based in part on a meeting with the children where:It was also based on the fact that defendant admitted to him the conduct which the children characterized as physical abuse.
They spoke of explicit events where they felt as though they'd been physically abused. [One child] ... spoke of having a coffee can thrown at her back. [Another] ... said a rock was thrown at her. They spoke of being hit with the hand, the strap, the belt, and a paddle. They were being spanked in the face.
A social worker for SRS also testified about the family situation. She had a lengthy conversation with defendant about appropriate discipline, stating that SRS policy permitted spanking if done "with an open hand on clothed buttocks." She noted that in response to this policy, defendant expressed frustration. Defendant questioned how children could be adequately controlled, and stated that children need more discipline. SRS continued to maintain an open case on the family to protect the children.
In light of all the evidence, the trial court found that "[Danny] incredibly minimizes his over-discipline of the children." The court concluded that defendant was physically abusive to the children and to plaintiff. ...
"Whether the subject matter is religion, health care, or education, absent an agreement, the court will not interfere with the custodial parent's decisions regarding the children's upbringing. ... Only when moral, mental, and physical conditions are so bad that they seriously affect the health or morals of the children should the court be called upon to act with respect to a disagreement between the parents over the internal arrangements of family life. ... Upon searching the record, we find no evidence that the children are being harmed by their moral, mental, or physical conditions.
"Finally, we note that the scheduled unsupervised visitation by the father poses no risk to the children and is not against their best interests. Moreover, the father should be permitted to expose the children to his [Catholic] religious beliefs and practices during his visitation periods.
"... The real issue in deciding what is in the best interest of a child or children is whether the religious beliefs, teachings, and practices of the parents constitutes relevant evidence and if so, how should the jury be instructed to consider that evidence without doing violence to a party's rights under the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. The answer becomes more difficult if one recognizes that the particular beliefs, teachings, and practices are not part of the "main stream" religious practices where the case is tried. Certainly, the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses could not be classified as the beliefs of "main stream" religious denominations in El Paso County or even anywhere in the United States."The belief of the Jehovah's Witnesses that one should not salute the flag was an issue as to a father's custody of his daughter in Reynolds v. Rayborn, ... ;Chief Justice Jackson wrote:'The flag is emblematic of the justice, greatness, and power of the United States--these, together, guarantee the political liberty of the citizen, but the flag is no less symbolic of the justice, greatness, and power of our country when they guarantee to the citizen freedom of conscience in religion-- the right to worship his God according to the dictates of his conscience. Beyond my comprehension are the vagaries of people who claim and accept the protection of their government in order to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience, but refuse to salute their country's flag in recognization of such protection. Yet, however, reprehensible to us such conduct may be, their constitutional right must be held sacred; when this ceases, religious freedom ceases.'In Salvaggio v. Barnett, ... the father was considered to be a fit and proper person to have the custody of his daughter, except that he proposed, based on his religious beliefs, to teach her that it is wrong to salute the American Flag, and that it is wrong to celebrate and exchange gifts at Christmas, and that it is wrong to kill in defense of one's country. The Court said:'Under the American principle of separation of Church and State, the secular power is so shackled and restrained by our fundamental law that it is beyond the power of a court, in awarding the custody of the child, to prefer, as tending to promote the interest of the child or surround it with a more normal atmosphere, the religious views or teachings of either parent.'"In citing those and other opinions by courts of this state, in Frantzen v. Frantzen, ... Justice Barrow said that one's religious beliefs, teachings, and practices are not grounds for depriving a parent of his or her children, so long as such teachings and practices are neither immoral nor illegal. That standard was reiterated in Matter of Marriage of Knighton, ... . In that case, Justice Boyd wrote:'Thus, it is beyond the power of a court, in awarding the custody of a child or children to prefer the religious views or teachings of either parent, even though the beliefs and practices of one parent might be more 'normal' or more in accord with majority religious views or practices.'"Accepting the principles set forth in the cited cases and recognizing that a parent's religious beliefs, teachings, and practices are not grounds for depriving a parent of custody of his or her children if those beliefs, teachings, and practices are not immoral or illegal, did the court's instruction in this case instruct the jury on that fundamental constitutional right to religious worship and practices which some jurors might consider unusual or abnormal? We conclude the answer is "NO."
"... The instruction should have dealt with the rights of the parties before the jury based upon the evidence which had been admitted. There was evidence about the religious beliefs of the mother, but no standard was given to the jury on how to consider those beliefs when considering what was in the best interest of the children. The requested instruction was substantially correct. [Irene Alaniz's attorney requested the following instruction: "A parent's religious beliefs, teaching, and practice are not grounds for depriving a parent of managing conservatorship unless the teaching or practice of the beliefs are illegal, immoral, or demonstrate to be harmful to the child or children."] A parent's religious beliefs, teaching, and practice are not grounds for depriving a parent of managing conservatorship unless the teaching or practice of the beliefs are illegal, immoral, or demonstrate to be harmful to the child or children.The jury should have known that the beliefs which the jury might have considered unusual were not grounds for depriving her from being named managing conservator unless they concluded that her beliefs, teachings, or practices were illegal, immoral, or would be harmful to the children. If they concluded those beliefs, teachings, or practices were either illegal, immoral, or harmful rather than just unusual or abnormal, they would be considered, otherwise they would not. The holding in Frantzen v. Frantzen, ... which affirmed a judgment based upon special exceptions to the pleading, is that the religious beliefs, practices, and beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses are not immoral or illegal. We conclude that what is immoral or harmful should be left to the jury to apply community standards. What one jury might consider immoral, i.e. gambling, playing a lottery, drinking to excess, homosexual conduct, or abortion,--another jury might not. ..."Upon retrial of the case, the trial court should give a substantially correct instruction to the jury concerning the manner in which they should consider any evidence of the party's religious beliefs, teachings, and practices. In order for a party to be able to appeal any adverse finding and have the appellate court evaluate the jury's findings, it seems advisable to submit a question which inquires if the jury recommendation as to who should be appointed as managing conservator is based in part upon the religious beliefs, teachings, and practices of the party not so recommend. And if so, a checklist inquiring as to whether the jury concluded that such the beliefs, teachings, or practices of the adversely affected party was either illegal, immoral, or harmful to the child. ... ..."... Upon retrial, the court will be governed by the Family Code as amended by the last legislature. The new provisions in Section 14.02(b)(1)(A) provide that a parent appointed as a conservator of a child retains the rights, privileges, duties, and powers of a parent including the right "to direct the moral and religious training of the child". ...
ASHLEY v. WOODARD was a 1993 Georgia custody case. Limited details. Sometime prior to November 1993, a Jehovah's Witness, named Willie Ashley and his ex-wife Mary [Ashley] Woodard had divorced. Mary Ashley had received physical custody of their son (born circa 1978), and Willie Ashley had received visitation rights. Apparently, Willie Ashley filed for additional custody rights, and his WatchTower religion became an issue, with Woodard claiming that the JW religion was "detrimental" to her son. Ashley withdrew his motion in November 1993. No further info.
IN RE FITZPINA was an early 1990s Florida custody case, in which the limited details hint at what may have been a very interesting case. Sometime prior to 1993, the legal custody of the teenage daughter of Lino Fitzpina, 38, and Socerro Fitzpina, was taken by the state of Florida and placed with a Jehovah's Witness couple, who were probably relatives of either the husband or wife. In January 1993, Lino Fitzpina abducted at gunpoint his then 17 year-old daughter as she and her two foster parents exited services at a Fort Pierce area Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses. The couple were eventually arrested and given an unknown sentence after pleading no-contest to charges of interfering with child custody.
HETRICK v. LANEY was a 1990-92 Pennsylvania divorce/custody court case, in which WatchTower Society attorney Carolyn Wah represented the Jehovah's Witness Mother, named Joyce Laney. A February 1992 court hearing apparently related to the attempt of the father, Kurth Hetrick, age 26, to prevent his ex-wife from rearing their 3 year-old son, Tyler Hetrick as a JW.
The issue of JWs forbidding children to be administered blood transfusions was a heated issue in which Carolyn Wah received disgusted media attention by her lame attempts to equate the administering of a blood transfusion to a child with "rape" of the child.
Kurth Hetrick failed in his efforts to prevent his ex-wife from rearing his son as a JW, but the court did give Kurth Hetrick oversight of Tyler Hetrick's medical care. Hetrick had been reared as a Methodist. It is unclear whether Joyce Laney had been reared as a JW, or had converted after the marriage.
"Today we reaffirm that a domestic relations court may consider the religious practices of the parents in order to protect the best interests of a child. ... However, the United States Constitution flatly prohibits a trial court from ever evaluating the merits of religious doctrine or defining the contents of that doctrine. ... Furthermore, custody may not be denied to a parent solely because she will not encourage her child to salute the flag, celebrate holidays, or participate in extracurricular activities. We reverse the trial court's custody and visitation orders because these decisions were improperly based on Jennifer Pater's religious beliefs."... 'The discretion which a trial court enjoys in custody matters should be accorded the utmost respect, given the nature of the proceeding and the impact the court's determination will have on the lives of the parties concerned. The knowledge a trial court gains through observing the witnesses and the parties in a custody proceeding cannot be conveyed to a reviewing court by a printed record.' ... A reviewing court will not overturn a custody determination unless the trial court has acted in a manner that is arbitrary, unreasonable, or capricious.
"It is against this standard of broad discretion that we must review the scope of a trial court's inquiry into the parents' religious practices. The other starting point for our analysis is that a court may well violate the parent's constitutional rights if its decision is improperly based on religious bias. ... The United States Constitution and the Ohio Constitution forbid state action which interferes with the religious freedom of its citizens or prefers one religion over another. To the extent that a court refuses to award custody to a parent because of her religious beliefs, the court burdens her choice of a religion in violation of the Free Exercise Clause ..."In addition to their free exercise rights, parents have a fundamental right to educate their children, including the right to communicate their moral and religious values. ... In a custody dispute, the parents' rights must be balanced against the state's need to determine the best interests of the child. ... This balancing requires more than a rote recitation that a domestic relations judge may consider any factor relevant to the best interests of a child, especially if the best-interests test is read broadly to encompass all aspects of childrearing. ..."Courts have repeatedly held that custody cannot be awarded solely on the basis of the parents' religious affiliations and that to do so violates the First Amendment ..."On the other hand, a parent's actions are not insulated from the domestic relations court's inquiry just because they are based on religious beliefs, especially actions that will harm the child's mental or physical health. ...
"... Robert and Jennifer Pater are both loving parents, and no testimony seriously disputed either parent's ability to nurture [child]. This case requires us to decide whether courts may deny a parent custody based on beliefs that do not pose a direct threat to the child's mental or physical welfare. Given the undisputed fact that both parents would meet Bobby's basic needs, the question is whether the intrusion into Jennifer's rights was justified by appellee's claims that if awarded custody, Jennifer would not allow Bobby to participate in certain extracurricular activities, celebrate holidays, or salute the flag.
"[Robert Pater] claims that Jennifer will not allow their son to celebrate birthdays and holidays, sing the national anthem, salute the flag, participate in extracurricular activities, socialize with non-[Jehovah's]Witnesses, or attend college. [Robert Pater] is concerned that the child will be socially ostracized and not adequately exposed to ideas other than those endorsed by the Jehovah's Witnesses. We can sympathize with his parental concern for his child, but are concerned that the state not exceed its proper role in resolving what is essentially a dispute between the parents' religious beliefs. Although the listed activities are those that most people may consider important to the socialization of children, we need to separate the value judgments implicit in the so-called norm from any actual harm caused by these practices. ..."Even if we accept the premise that Jennifer will actively forbid Bobby to celebrate holidays, (SEE FOOTNOTE #4) be involved in extracurricular activities, or salute the flag, these practices do not appear to directly endanger the child's physical or mental health. A showing that a child's mental health will be adversely affected requires more than proof that a child will not share all of the beliefs or social activities of the majority of his or her peers. A child's social adjustment is very difficult to measure, and the relative importance of various social activities is an extremely subjective matter. (SEE FOOTNOTE #5) ... For these reasons, a court must base its decision that a particular religious practice will harm the mental health of a child on more than the fact that the child will not participate in certain social activities. A parent may not be denied custody on the basis of his or her religious practices unless there is probative evidence that those practices will adversely affect the mental or physical health of the child. Evidence that the child will not be permitted to participate in certain social or patriotic activities is not sufficient to prove possible harm.
"The evidence offered by "[Robert Pater] to prove that these practices would harm Bobby consisted of two expert witnesses. Dr. Bergman testified, on the basis of a dissertation he had written, that mental illness was more common among Jehovah's Witnesses than among the general population. This testimony was a blatant attempt to stereotype an entire religion. Regardless of the rate of mental illness among an entire group, that evidence does not prove that the religion in question will negatively affect a particular individual. Furthermore, this one piece of statistical evidence is meaningless. To follow this evidence to its "logical" conclusion, a court would need to compare this rate to the same rate for all faiths and for people who are not associated with any particular religion. If the latter group has the lowest incidence of mental illness, then under this reasoning we would have to forbid all parents from exposing their children to their religious beliefs.
"Dr. Denber testified that generally extracurricular activities are beneficial to a child's socialization. Neither Dr. Denber nor Dr. Bergman had interviewed Bobby. No proof was offered that this particular child was suffering or would suffer any ill effects from being exposed to his mother's religious practices. In the absence of any probative evidence that a child will be harmed by a parent's religious practices regarding social activities, the court may not use those beliefs to disqualify the parent as the custodial parent.
"We feel it is appropriate to question a parent about her general philosophy of childrearing. However, the scope of this inquiry into the religious beliefs and practices, not just of the mother, but of an entire religion was improper and an abuse of discretion. The isolated statements of the trial judge that he would not decide custody on the basis of the mother's religious beliefs will not insulate the court's decision from review.
"The trial court appears to have awarded custody to Robert because of Jennifer's religious affiliation. There is no dispute that both parents are excellent parents and we must begin from the assumption that both are equally competent to care for this child. However, at the time of the hearing, Jennifer had been Bobby's primary caretaker for the first three years of his life. She also testified that she would have more time during the week to devote to the child because she worked on only one or two weekdays. Jennifer deserves a custody hearing free from religious bias.
"The visitation order in this case also indicates that the court's decision was based on Jennifer's religion. The order demands that Jennifer 'shall not teach or expose the child to the Jehovah[']s Witnesses' beliefs in any form." This order is so broad that it could be construed as forbidding any discussion of the Bible. It is equally unclear whether Jennifer is permitted to discuss moral values because these values are influenced by religious beliefs."[T]he rule appears to be well established that the courts should maintain an attitude of strict impartiality between religions and should not disqualify any applicant for custody or restrain any person having custody or visitation rights from taking the children to a particular church, except where there is a clear and affirmative showing that the conflicting religious beliefs affect the general welfare of the child." ... This rule has been adopted to protect both parents' right to expose their children to their religious beliefs, a right that does not automatically end when they are divorced. The courts should not interfere with this relationship between parent and child unless a child is exhibiting genuine symptoms of distress that are caused by the differences in the parents' religious beliefs. Today, we adopt the majority rule that a court may not restrict a non-custodial parent's right to expose his or her child to religious beliefs, unless the conflict between the parents' religious beliefs is affecting the child's general welfare. Because a divorce is a stressful event for a child, a court must carefully separate the distress caused by that event from any distress allegedly caused by religious conflict."
"FOOTNOTE#4: This very well may be an assumption that we [MORONS] are not entitled to make. Jennifer testified that she was willing to allow Bobby to choose his own religion when he reached a suitable age. She also testified that she would not encourage him to celebrate holidays or salute the flag, and wished to explain to him why she did not do these things. She further testified that Bobby would be allowed to form friendships with other children so long as they were not a bad influence on him and that he could participate in suitable extracurricular activities. The evidence that she would do otherwise is based on the testimony of other Jehovah's Witnesses and religious publications. ..."FOOTNOTE#5: (DID THESE MORONS STOP TO CONSIDER THAT THEY ARE MAKING A DECISION ABOUT A CHILD'S LIFE?) Not only is an evaluation of the merits of different social activities subjective, but it is also of limited relevance to the best interests of a child. This can be easily demonstrated by considering plaintiff's claims that the child will be harmed if he does not participate in particular activities. For example, we first consider plaintiff's allegation that the child will suffer socially if he is not permitted to display patriotism, by saluting the flag or singing the national anthem. As important as these activities are personally to those of us who honor our country in these ways, these activities are just that, personal expressions, which a court should not force upon parents or their children. It seems obvious that this sort of personal decision that affects only the expression of political or religious beliefs should not be the basis for a custody decision. ... The plaintiff is particularly concerned that Jennifer will not permit the child to join various social organizations and invokes the image of a child without friends or social contacts. Despite this painful image, the parties actually are disagreeing not about whether a child should have social interactions, but about what type of social activities are appropriate for the child. Whatever their position may be regarding contact with people who are not members of the religion, Jehovah's Witnesses have an active social life among themselves. Even if a Witness did not allow her child to participate in extracurricular activities or maintain close friendships with persons outside the religion, the child would still participate in social activities and have friends. (WHAT A BUNCH OF IGNORAMUSES)
"The temperature on Dec. 22, 1989, hit 23 degrees below zero, the lowest ever recorded in Kansas City. Raymond Estes answered the phone that morning in his Johnson County apartment and heard his 6-year-old son sobbing. "Daddy, please don't let Momma take me," the boy pleaded. "Take you where?" Just before the line clicked dead, his son replied: "Door to door."
"... enjoined and restrained from exposing said minor child to any activities in which she participates as a member of the Jehovah's Witness religion, and is to restrain form indoctrinating or attempting to indoctrinate the minor child in the restrictions and prohibitions of that religion; the petitioner is specifically ordered restrained from teaching said child or exposing said child to teachings that his father, grandmother, or other paternal relatives are 'of the Devil' or are 'of Satan' or that his relatives including his father and grandmother are 'going to die' and will be just 'dust'."
... Shortly after the first incident, Cynthia and her husband appealed to elders of their Reseda congregation for help, and would do so over the next few years.
She says the elders gave her a variety of advice on how to make things better: "Everyone agreed something was wrong. But they said these things happen in every marriage. One of the elders suggested I try making some different recipes and he told me some that his wife had made that he really liked."
She was reminded in one letter from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, the church headquarters, that "fellow Christians should not take one another to court."
She was also told not to discuss her problems with friends.
Steadily, she says, the abuse worsened.
When she continued to complain to the elders, she says, they told her it would be in her interest -- and scripturally correct-- to be submissive.
Finally, she says, they conceded she probably had married the wrong man, but that there was nothing to be done.
"I said, 'What do I do with my pain?' And they said, 'You must forget.' I decided I wanted to do God's will, so I stayed with him. I tried to do what was right. So I prayed to Jehovah to fix my brain." ... ...
Four years into the marriage, Kostyk says, she was depressed, unable to work and suffering a variety of spinal problems related to whiplashes and blows administered by her husband. (He blames her spinal injuries on a 1981 car accident.)
Still, she did not identify her experience as abuse until after he moved out in December, 1989. A friend suggested she call a battered women's hot line.
Six months into intensive counseling at Lancaster's Desert Oasis shelter, her rage boiled to the surface and she began writing long letters to church elders: "I would never have stayed with (my husband) if you had not threatened to take action against me," she wrote. "But because of your counsel, I actually thought that Christian wives stay with their husbands until death, even if this death is inflicted by their own husbands." ... ...
Kostyk felt that, as part of her healing process, it was important to talk. So she broke the silence imposed by church elders and began telling her friends -- most of whom are Witnesses -- what had happened during the marriage. Elders warned her to stop.
She did not stop, though, and was "disfellowshiped" by her congregation, a practice also known as "shunning." To be reinstated, she must show repentance.
But Kostyk feels she was wronged. And she believes that God knows it and will help her win reinstatement. "In biblical times, terrible things happened," she says. "People abused their powers. I know that the terrible, disabling things that happened to me weren't from God."
Merton Campbell, a Jehovah's Witness spokesman in New York, said that Kostyk's case was very carefully considered: "I can assure you that all of these cases are very thoroughly and very compassionately handled by those who deal with them. This matter was given a very thorough hearing."
As for the church's position on domestic violence, he said, "We're absolutely convinced that if individuals follow Bible principles in their lives, these problems will not occur. And it takes two to have a fight, as it were."
"In considering religion and religious practices in child custody cases, the state and federal right to the free exercise of religion may be implicated; therefore, in balancing the relevant interests, the supreme court must minimize the degree of interference with religious liberty and use the least restrictive means to accomplish the legitimate objectives that warrant the interference. ... ..."In order for a religious practice to be considered in determining child custody, the practice must have a direct and immediate negative impact on the physical or mental health of the child. ..."On appeal by [Christine Carol Varnum], a strict Jehovah's Witness, from award to [Larry James Varnum] of custody of children in divorce action on basis that the trial court's consideration of her religious practices violated her right to the free exercise of religion, no miscarriage of justice requiring reversal was found where physical discipline and other practices of [Christine Carol Varnum], which may have been religiously motivated, rose to the level of "abuse" or were practices which would otherwise directly and immediately negatively impact on the mental and physical well-being of the children and where many of the factors supporting the trial court's decision were wholly unrelated to [Christine Carol Varnum's] religious beliefs. ... ..."The court made extensive findings relating to the ability of each parent to raise the children and serve as primary custodian. It found that both parties had secure jobs and sufficient income to raise the children. It found that [Larry James Varnum] had on one occasion slapped [Christine Carol Varnum] on the face but had otherwise not been physically or sexually abusive toward her. It rejected as not credible [Christine Carol Varnum's] other allegations that [Larry James Varnum] sexually and physically abused her.
"Each party alleged that the other physically abused the children. The court found that [Larry James Varnum] had used a belt to administer discipline to [Christine Carol Varnum's] daughter [by a previous marriage], and on one occasion used the belt on his son. It found, however, that such discipline was not occurring at the time of the hearing and that [Larry James Varnum] did not use physical discipline on a regular basis. It found that [Christine Carol Varnum] physically abused the two children and that she believes:'... strict discipline is essential to install a conditioned response in the children to certain demands imposed upon them by her. When the children fail to respond to her, she believes that it is appropriate and she does administer physical punishment to the children and has done so with various implements which includes a spoon, a ladle and a paddle.
'[Christine Carol Varnum] has punished the children by striking them about the face and body using both her hands and other implements with sufficient force to leave red marks on the children's skin. The court finds that that physical discipline does amount to physical abuse.'"[Christine Carol Varnum's] [older] daughter [by a previous marriage] alleged that [Larry James Varnum] had sexually abused her when she was living with the parties in Vermont. The court found this accusation not credible.
"Both parties have abused alcohol, and [Christine Carol Varnum] twice attempted suicide while under the influence of alcohol. Although [Christine Carol Varnum] has been told she should not consume alcohol, she continues to be a moderate drinker.
"Both parties spend a great deal of their free time with the children. The findings detail activities in which each party participates with the children to show, with respect to each parent, a supportive relationship. Each parent has a residence and can provide safe and suitable care for the children. If she obtained custody, [Christine Carol Varnum] intended to return to California with the children.
"The trial court made a number of findings that relate to [Christine Carol Varnum's] religious beliefs. [Christine Carol Varnum] is a Jehovah's Witness and is a strict disciple of her faith. Her belief in physical punishment to discipline the children was apparently related to her religion. Because of her religious belief, she forbade the children to have close relationships with children who were not members of her faith, and would not allow the children to celebrate birthdays or holidays although the children traditionally celebrated holidays and found it enjoyable. [Christine Carol Varnum] would not permit blood transfusions even if told by a doctor that the children needed the procedure. There was, however, no evidence of health problems in the children that would create the need for a transfusion. [Christine Carol Varnum] deferred to church elders for help in making decisions. The court found that allowing others to assist in decision making hampered her ability to determine the best interests of the children.
"The court ordered a psychological evaluation of the parties and the children. The psychologist's evaluation recommended that custody be awarded to [Larry James Varnum]. Although the psychologist's conclusions were based on numerous factors, the most important were that: (1) if [Christine Carol Varnum] obtained custody, she intended to severely limit [Larry James Varnum's] access to the children and move from the state as soon as possible; (2) plaintiff had "a better attitude and concept of what children need to be raised in a normal fashion"; and (3) [Christine Carol Varnum] admitted "to hitting the children and leaving marks on their body, a sign of physical abuse." Based on the evaluation, which the court found was fair to both parties, and the extensive evidence, the court concluded that it would be in the best interests of the children to award parental rights and responsibilities primarily to [Larry James Varnum]. ... ..."[Christine Carol Varnum] ... argues that because the court made findings of fact that touched upon her religious beliefs and because the
issue of religion permeated the trial [SEE PATER (1992) and MENDEZ(1987)], the court violated the free exercise clauses of the Vermont and United States Constitutions."... Although there was extensive evidence about the religion and religious practices of each party, with an emphasis on the religious practices of [Christine Carol Varnum], neither party objected to the introduction of the evidence or its use in arriving at a custody determination. Both parties submitted evidence pertaining to religion. ... ...
"Consideration of religion and religious practices in custody determinations may implicate the right to free exercise of religion ... It is often said, as a result, that the courts must be neutral in matters of religion. ... While neutrality is a worthy goal, it is rarely achievable in a contested custody matter where the actions of the parents bearing directly on the best interest of the children are attributed to religious beliefs. More often, the courts must engage in a form of balancing of the relevant interests, ... In such a balance, we must be careful to minimize the degree of interference with religious liberty and use the "least restrictive means" to accomplish the legitimate objectives that warrant the interference. ...
"There is no question that the societal interest in protecting and nurturing children is great. ... Thus, in appropriate cases, this interest must override the freedom of the parent to engage in religious practices. ... The challenge for the courts is to accommodate the differing interests where possible and protect the best interest of children while minimizing the interference with religious liberty. ... To do so, the courts have developed tests that require a religious practice to have a direct and immediate negative impact on the physical or mental health of the child before the practice can be considered in determining the custody of the child. ...
"In applying these principles to this case, we are mindful that defendant's religion, and numerous practices dictated or motivated by her religion, permeated the trial. We are also mindful that defendant's beliefs may appear peculiar and foreign to many. Indeed, many of the cases involving the impact of religion of a parent on the custody determination of a child have involved Jehovah's Witnesses and the courts, and the larger society, have found it difficult to accept, or ignore, their religious practices even when the impact on the children is speculative or insufficient to allow an impairment of religious freedom. ... ...
"Finally, we must accept that the trial court made findings and considered aspects of defendant's religious practices even though it did not find the required impact on the well-being of the children. On this record, we place in that category findings with respect to restrictions defendant imposed on the ability of the children to associate with peers who are not Jehovah's Witnesses and her prohibition on the celebration of holidays and birthdays. We are also concerned about the use of the finding that defendant would not allow her children to have blood transfusions even if medically necessary, in the absence of any evidence that such an eventuality is likely and cannot be resolved in ways other than depriving defendant of custody. ..."It is not surprising that the trial court's findings and conclusions do not show a careful consideration of the constitutional standard and the arguments defendant makes in this Court, since the issue was never presented to the trial court. Also, with respect to some facts, the deficiency may have been in failing to make complete enough findings, although such findings would have been supported by the evidence. For example, the evidence may have allowed the trial court to find that the prohibition on the celebration of birthdays or holidays has a direct and immediate negative effect on the emotional health of the children, but the court was not requested to make a finding on this issue.
"Nevertheless, we cannot find that there has been a miscarriage of justice in the custody award to plaintiff. In reaching this decision, we are motivated by the following considerations.
"First, the primary reason for the psychologist's custody recommendation was the physical discipline imposed regularly by the mother. This also appears to be the primary reason for the trial court's custody determination. While defendant's practices may have had some religious motivation, the evidence clearly supported the conclusion that the physical discipline had a direct and immediate negative impact on the physical and mental well-being of the children. We do not mean to suggest that all physical discipline by parents is prohibited or that, when religiously motivated, it has no First Amendment protection. However, the discipline here was sufficiently severe for the court to characterize it as "physical abuse." The trial court could heavily weigh the use of this physical discipline against defendant.
"Second, there was extensive analysis, both by the expert and in the evidence, of all aspects of the strengths and weaknesses of the parties as prospective custodial parents. In fact, many of the factors that supported the court's decision were wholly unrelated to the religious beliefs of defendant. ... Thus, the expert found that plaintiff had a better attitude and concept of the needs of the children. An important part of the psychologist's recommendation was based on observations of the interaction between the children and each parent, and the court made findings about these interactions.
"Third, although the trial court made no findings in this area, the evidence showed also that defendant intended to minimize plaintiff's access to the children. The psychologist recounted defendant's statements that plaintiff had little to offer the children in large part because he was not a Jehovah's Witness and thus did not possess the "truth" about life. The psychologist found that defendant's "attitude of indifference to the children's right to appreciate both parent's views will cause the children emotional harm." Even though the trial court made no findings on this subject, we believe it bears on whether there was a miscarriage of justice in this case.
"Finally, the failure of defendant to make a proper record in the trial court causes her difficulty in making out a free exercise claim for a first time in this Court. While there is a general sense that many of the defendant's practices are tied in some general way to her religion, there is no specificity on the exact nature of her religious belief and the extent to which it commands the practices. Thus, we can only evaluate in a rough way the extent to which forgoing some of the practices would burden defendant's religious expression, an essential aspect of the balancing equation for First Amendment purposes. ... Two examples will suffice. Although there was a general assertion that physical discipline is associated with the child-rearing practices of a Jehovah's Witness, there was no specific testimony that defendant's religious beliefs required defendant to hit the children with instruments like the butter paddle and spoon. Similarly, the court pointed to the fact that defendant appeared to routinely turn important decisions in her life over to church elders and concluded that her ability to determine "the best interests of the children is hampered by her need to have other people make her decisions." The evidence does not show whether the involvement of the elders in parental decision-making is required by defendant's religious beliefs.
"In conclusion, we are satisfied that the trial court's custody award was justified, even though the court did not examine specifically the aspects of defendant's religious beliefs and practices that do not directly and immediately impact on the mental and physical well-being of the children. The consideration of defendant's religion did not cause a miscarriage of justice, and we decline to reverse on that basis.
"At trial, the principal contested issue dealt with visitation rights and specific restrictions Diane LeDoux wished to permanently impose upon [Edward LeDoux] with regard to his religious activities with the minor children. Evidence was adduced concerning [Edward LeDoux's] religious beliefs and their effect on the minor children. Diane LeDoux testified to various incidents in the family home brought on by the beliefs of [Edward LeDoux]. Prior to the parties' separation, Edward LeDoux asked Andrew to say grace. The boy started to recite the 'Hail Mary', a Catholic prayer. [Diane LeDoux] testified, 'Ed got so mad and told him, `How dare you, how dare you say that.' He got up and he dumped his chair over, and he went into the living room and . . . stared into space for 45 minutes.' On Valentine's Day of 1986, Edward LeDoux refused to do anything with his family, and on Christmas of 1986, [Edward LeDoux] 'said he was going to rip up all the Christmas stuff and . . . throw it out.' [Diane LeDoux] further recounted an incident on Easter of 1987, when 'Ed wanted to come into the house and take the kids to a [WatchTower] memorial service. He came into the house and went up to Andy's room and grabbed him by the arm and wouldn't let him go. We had an argument. I finally had to call the police, and they came and talked him home.'
"Scott S. McQuin, an elder in the Jehovah's Witnesses church, agreed that there were differences between the Jehovah's Witnesses faith and other religions. McQuin stated the following differences: Jehovah's Witnesses go door to door carrying on religious conversations with people to encourage interest in the Bible. Members of the Jehovah's Witnesses religion are counseled strongly against allowing their children to participate in sports activities with people outside the congregation, and the children are discouraged from participation in organizations such as Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts. Parents would be strongly counseled about the dangers involved in being in those kinds of organizations. Jehovah's Witnesses encourage higher education for vocational purposes only, not to advance philosophical teachings. In addition, McQuin stated that Jehovah's Witnesses observe only one holiday, that being the memorial of the death of Jesus Christ, and they believe that patriotism is divisive.
"Dr. Joseph L. Rizzo, a certified clinical psychologist who had counseled [older son], was called to testify by the appellee. He indicated that conflicts in the Catholic and Jehovah's Witnesses religions were an obvious contributing factor to the stress felt and manifested by [older son]. Dr. Rizzo testified that [older son] was quite uncomfortable and fearful about visits with his father. '[older son] spoke very strongly about the father trying to get him - trying to read him religious stories and trying to get him to pray, and things of this nature.'"Dr. Rizzo said he became concerned when he learned that [older son] had voluntarily skipped visits with the appellant. 'Andy was angry, and Andy stated that he basically didn't want to be with Dad . . . .' Dr. Rizzo said that [older son's] specific concerns with regard to his father would come and go throughout the period of several months, 'the concerns of whether or not the father would play with [older son], whether or not the father would pray, would do religious things that [older son] felt he was not supposed to do." ... ...
"The trial court found that there were numerous beliefs and practices of Jehovah's Witnesses which were in contravention of those of the Catholic religion. In addition, the trial court noted that Edward LeDoux wants to take his children with him when he goes door to door to have Bible discussions with other people. Edward LeDoux stated that he wants his children to believe the way that he does. The trial court did not pass judgment on these or any other beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses, but did not ignore that these beliefs were still contrary to the way that Diane LeDoux, the custodial parent, wants to raise the children. Taking note of the stress that [older son] was already experiencing, the trial court concluded that exposing the minor children to more than one religious practice would have a deleterious effect upon the minor children. The court found that exposing the children to two religions would not only affect the relationship between Edward LeDoux and the minor children, but also would affect the well-being of the minor children themselves. ... ..."A de novo review of the record discloses no abuse of discretion on the part of the trial court. There is ample evidence to conclude that the stress [older son] was experiencing posed an immediate and substantial threat to his well-being. The stress that [older son] was experiencing was neither hypothetical nor tenuous. In Dr. Rizzo's words, [older son's] stress is serious. The fact that the involuntary exposure to disparate religions was but one factor in the source of [older son's ]stress does not detract from the trial court's conclusion that these religious differences have and will continue to have a deleterious effect on [older son] and, likewise, the other minor child, ... .
"The order of the trial court is narrowly tailored in that it imposes the least possible intrusion upon Edward LeDoux's right of free exercise of religion and the custodial mother's right to control the religious training of a child. The custodial parent normally has the right to control the religious training of the child. ... The dissolution decree merely forecloses the exposure of the LeDoux children to those practices and teachings which are inconsistent with the Catholic religion. The appellant is free to discuss beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses with his children so long as they are consistent with the Catholic religion. Because appellant has had previous exposure to the Catholic religion, he should not have difficulty in recognizing those beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses and Catholic religions which are conflicting."