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Child custody court case decisions typically are lengthy and complex, and deal with a multitude of legal issues. The following case summaries will generally include only those issues in which religion was a factor. Some summaries may omit issues relevant to the court's decision, but not relevant to the theme of this website.


RYO NOA BONK v. SARAH LENELLE BONK was a 2000-01 Hawaii divorce case. No children involved.

[Jehovah's Witnesses] Parents of Ghislaine Maxwell's "lieutenant" Sarah Kellen worry their daughter will be arrested and charged in [Jeffrey] Epstein's child sex trafficking ring, as they claim [Sarah] was "brainwashed". Sarah Kellen worked as Jeffrey Epstein's personal assistant for around 10 years. She is accused of playing a pivotal role in Epstein's empire: procuring girls, coaching them, and acting as a "lieutenant" to Ghislaine Maxwell.

Thomas [Kellen] and Mary Kellen ... said they knew nothing about [Sarah] Kellen's work with [Jeffrey] Epstein because they became estranged from her around the time she took the job, aged 18 or 19. The Jehovah's Witnesses have only seen [Sarah] Kellen, 41, a handful of times and still find it upsetting to see her face in family portraits or hear her name. ... The parents revealed an email Kellen sent them, hinting at unease over her job. ... She is accused of playing a pivotal role in Jeffrey Epstein's predatory empire: procuring girls, coaching them on how to pleasure the warped financier, and acting as a "lieutenant" to his alleged former Madame, Ghislaine Maxwell.

But according to her devoutly religious parents, Sarah Kellen should be treated as a victim rather than a co-conspirator because she too was groomed and manipulated after falling out with her family and going to work for Epstein in her teens. Thomas and Mary Kellen, both Jehovah's Witnesses, told DailyMail.com in an exclusive interview that their daughter was naive and vulnerable when she met the billionaire pedophile and could now pay a heavy price for being swept into his vile world. "After Maxwell, I think Sarah's next," said 74-year-old Mary [Kellen], fighting back tears as she revealed fears the youngest of her five children could be arrested by federal agents at any moment. "What happened to all those girls is horrendous, but I do feel that Sarah was also a victim. I'm not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but I can see she was maneuvered or brainwashed. I just hope someone doesn't go and kill her. There are a lot of prominent, powerful people out there that don't want anything said." ...

It's unclear precisely when [Sarah] Kellen ended her employment with Epstein, though she was photographed in 2012 strolling arm in arm with the predator near his Manhattan mansion. But according to her devoutly religious parents, Kellen should be treated as a victim rather than a co-conspirator because she too was groomed and manipulated after falling out with her family and going to work for Epstein in her teens. ...

With [Jeffrey] Epstein having hanged himself in jail, federal authorities in New York are said to be closing in on his alleged accomplices, including a coterie of glamorous female aides who managed his "appointments" with underage girls. His former lover, Ghislaine Maxwell, a British socialite with links to some of the world's richest and most influential people, is already behind bars and has been denied bail as she awaits her trial on sex trafficking charges next July. But four more women named in legal documents as "potential co-conspirators" are yet to face arrest -- chief among them [Sarah] Kellen, who spent around a decade working as Epstein's personal assistant.  

Her parents insist they knew virtually nothing about their daughter's duties because they became estranged from her around the time she took the job, aged 18 or 19. The sad split came after Kellen was expelled from their church for allegedly leading an "immoral lifestyle" that included nude modelling. Since then they have seen [Sarah] Kellen, 41, on only a handful of occasions and still find it upsetting to see her face in family portraits or hear her name.

However Thomas [Kellen], 75, a retired electrical engineer, told DailyMail.com: "We are sticking up for her, if that's what you want to call it, because we still feel we know her better than anyone. I think she was manipulated by Epstein due to her age and the circumstances. In my opinion, she's a victim just as much as some of the others. She was told what to do and what to say. I feel she is still probably afraid to say anything - even now that he's gone."

[Sarah] Kellen was raised in rural Hendersonville, North Carolina, around an hour south of Asheville, attending the local high school before being homeschooled for her final year. Her parents say that at 17 she married another member of her church, Noa Bonk, with their full blessing, and moved to Hawaii. However, the relationship lasted just three years amid rumors that [Sarah] Kellen was more interested in a glamorous life of modelling and fashion. 

[Sarah] Kellen spent around a decade working as Epstein's personal assistant. Federal authorities in New York are said to be closing in on his alleged accomplices, including a coterie of glamorous female aides who managed his "appointments" with underage girls. Kellen was named in legal documents a a "potential co-conspirator". However the petite former Epstein aide has not been seen since new charges were brought against him last July in the Southern District of New York, accusing him of sex trafficking girls as young as 14.

"I don't know exactly what went on in Hawaii. Sarah did some catalogue modelling. I saw a picture online, some if it was even nude," Mary [Kellen] said. The image in question appeared to a modelling assignment for a life drawing art class rather than pornography.

But with concerns mounting over her behavior, [Sarah] Kellen was disfellowshipped, a disciplinary sanction whereby she was expelled from the church and ostracized by its members, including her own family.

"It was all handled out there. It's very private, there's a committee that meets and they go over everything. You're not privy to the information even if you are her parents," Mary [Kellen] explained. "She wasn't mistreated or shunned, she made her own choices. She turned her back on Jehovah God, her conduct went against the standards. It put us in a position where we could not have an association with her unless it was really necessary. I couldn't look at her pictures. I had to put them all away. Even when I heard he name it was emotionally traumatic for me."

Reached by telephone, [Ryo Noah] Bonk insisted that [Sarah] Kellen was 18 when they wed, but he declined to discuss their relationship, or the reasons for their divorce. He is five years older than her, according to public records. "We were on good terms, there was no animosity," he told DailyMail.com. "She went her way and I went my way. I haven't seen her for 19 years.  I'm not defending her or sticking up for her in any way. She's a grown adult and that's her life. I mean, when I knew her she was a good person. That's all I can say."

Without the support of a church, husband or family, the Kellens believe their daughter was vulnerable to manipulation. She was drawn into [Jeffrey] Epstein's orbit when she became friends with one of his female employees. [Sarah] Kellen continued to have sporadic contact with her parents via email and letter for the next few years, apologizing for causing them distress and hinting at unease over her new job. "I just feel so confused, it's hard to express what I feel because half the time I'm not even sure," she wrote to her mother in June 2000.

[Sarah] Kellen continued to have sporadic contact with her parents via email and letter for the next few years, apologizing for causing them distress and hinting at unease over her new job. "I just feel so confused, it's hard to express what I feel because half the time I'm not even sure," she wrote to her mother in June 2000. ... 

The girl was commuting between Hawaii and the mainland US but when her boyfriend complained about the travelling, she volunteered Sarah for the role and set up an interview. "Sarah was quite young, 18 or 19. She just told us she was going to be a personal assistant to this investor," Mary said.

"She would go get whatever was needed. She travelled with them. I know she was flying a lot because her husband served her divorce papers at the airport. I did think that some elements of it were odd but then we're just middle income, what do we know about what rich people do?"

"I think it shows that she was very vulnerable, she sounded desperate, confused, not knowing what to do," said Mary. "She was trying to make a life for herself, but of course we didn't know what we do now, we didn't have a clue what she was getting into."

In a handful of face to face meetings over the next decade Mary and Thomas would glean precious few snippets about their daughter's work - but they do recall one familiar name. "She said they travelled a lot to Paris, her and Maxwell. She said they got along and that she was from a prominent family. My thought was Maxwell coffee," Mary said. "She said she had met a lot of interesting people but she never elaborated. Sarah was never one to brag."

While her work remained a mystery to her family, it was finally laid bare in the 2008 sweetheart deal that allowed Epstein to spend just 13 months in jail, much of it out on barely-supervised work release, in exchange for pleading guilty to Florida state charges of unlawfully paying a teenage girl for sex.

It's unclear precisely when [Sarah] Kellen ended her employment with Epstein, though she was photographed in 2012 strolling arm in arm with the predator near his Manhattan mansion. By then she was going under the name Kensington, had changed her hair color from blonde to brunette and was dating Brian Vickers, a NASCAR driver, whom she married a year later. Kellen and her husband, who retired from racing and is involved in various real estate and investment projects, have links to properties in North Carolina, New York and Miami. ... She also reinvented herself as an interior designer, starting a business named SLK Designs, and boasting on social media of having numerous clients in New York, the Caribbean, and Paris.

The controversial non-prosecution agreement extended similar immunity to four "potential co-conspirators" including Sarah Kellen and fellow executive assistants Adriana Ross, Lesley Groff, and Nadia Marcinkova. It meant Kellen could not face charges in Florida despite multiple girls describing how she would book them for massages and greet them they as arrived at Epstein's Palm Beach mansion before escorting them upstairs and laying out massage oils. According to police reports, one victim recalled Kellen and Maxwell instructing her on how to please their depraved boss. Others claimed the pair had warned them not to speak out about what was happening.

In the subsequent slew of civil lawsuits, [Sarah] Kellen was referred to "an assistant to Ghislaine", her second in command, and even the socialite's "lieutenant". "Sarah was really running that organization, bringing girls and getting them in and out of the Palm Beach home," Spencer T. Kuvin, a lawyer representing several accusers, told the New York Times. She was also well compensated: Epstein divulged in a 2005 interview that he paid his closest assistants $200,000 a year. "They are an extension of my brain. Their intuition is something that I don't have," he told the Chicago Tribune.

Kellen traveled on Epstein's private jet, the Lolita Express, with former President Bill Clinton on at least 11 flights between 2002 and 2003, according to publicly available flight logs. In 2010 civil proceedings, she was asked under oath whether Epstein had ever shared "underage girls" with his close friend, Britain's Prince Andrew. However, the petite former Epstein aide has not been seen since new charges were brought against him last July in the Southern District of New York, accusing him of sex trafficking girls as young as 14.

Kellen declined to speak with DailyMail.com but provided a statement through her spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler. 

"When Sarah was targeted by Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, she, like many of their victims, was struggling financially and emotionally," the statement read.

"Sarah was an isolated young woman, having lost the only family she'd ever known and been divorced by an older man, and then cast out of her Jehovah's Witness community. Soon after Sarah was brought into Epstein's world, he began to sexually and psychologically abuse her -- abuse that endured for years.

"Sarah was one of dozens of assistants who worked for Epstein and Maxwell over the years. One of her many duties included scheduling various appointments for them - including massages - but at no time did Sarah go out and recruit young girls for Epstein or Maxwell.

"Epstein was known for manipulating his victims to further his abuse of others, and Sarah was no different. She continues to struggle with the trauma he inflicted upon her and so many other young women."

Mary and Thomas can only recall two meetings with their daughter over the past decade and say they have no idea where she lives. ... Thomas and Mary say they would gladly welcome their daughter back into the fold tomorrow, but she would need to re-enter their church and demonstrate a genuine commitment to their faith. "I wish she would have had the courage to walk away regardless of what that meant for her, but I know she is traumatized," added Mary. "She's not a bad person. She was always very thoughtful, very kind. She was a good friend to her girlfriends, a loyal friend. She is our prodigal daughter, it doesn't mean we don't love her."

In 2011, [Sarah Kellen] raced to a hospital In Raleigh, North Carolina when Thomas [Kellen] was undergoing quadruple heart bypass surgery following a heart attack, flying home the very next day. Then several years later she and Vickers turned up unannounced at the childhood home where her parents still live. "He was very respectful, very pleasant. He told us a little bit about the wedding," said Mary [Kellen]. [Sarah] hadn't invited us."

Mary [Kellen] says she tries to block what's happening out of her mind because she expects her daughter will soon be arrested in the New York case which is not subject to the Florida sweetheart deal. ... Thomas and Mary say they would gladly welcome their daughter back into the fold tomorrow but she would need to re-enter their church and demonstrate a genuine commitment to their faith.

"I wish she would have had the courage to walk away regardless of what that meant for her but I know she is traumatized," added Mary. "She's not a bad person. She was always very thoughtful, very kind. She was a good friend to her girlfriends, a loyal friend. She is our prodigal daughter, it doesn't mean we don't love her."



McNEIL v. McNEIL was a 2003 Pennsylvania court decision. Scattered, incomplete details. Donald McNeil, age 18, and Deirdre Renee Culbreth, age 18, both of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, were married in August 1999. According to Donald McNeil, Deirdre R. Culbreth had been reared as a Jehovah's Witness, but he had been reared as a "Christian".
Shianne Mae McNeil was born sometime in 2000, and Vance McNeil was born in late 2001. Donald and Deirdre Renee McNeil separated sometime in 2002, and their divorce, which was apparently pursued by Deirdre McNeil, was final in March 2003. The couple shared custody of the children, but Deirdre McNeil apparently had primary physical custody. She and the children relocated to Christiana, Pennsylvania.
In late June 2003, Deirdre Renee McNeil allowed Michael Butler, an unemployed 19 year-old from Philadelphia to move in with her and her two children. Less than five weeks later, on August 6, 2003, while Deirdre R. McNeil worked at the Parkesburg Wal-Mart, and while Butler was babysitting, Michael Butler "savagely" beat to death the then 21 month-old Vance "Dukie" McNeil. Lancaster County's forensic pathologist testified that Vance McNeil died from "a violent and merciless beating" that resulted in the injury of nearly every major organ. After beating the child to death at home, Butler put the corpse in the backseat of the car, along with 3 year-old Shianne, when he went to pick up Deirdre McNeil from work at Wal-Mart, and he allowed her to find the infant "unconscious" on their way back home, and go through the horror of trying to save the infant's life. Butler was ultimately convicted of third degree murder, and was sentenced to 17 to 40 years in prison.

KAWLEWSKI v. STROMMEN was a 2003 Minnesota appellate court decision. David James Strommen and Theresa Ann [Preblich] Kawlewski were the parents of two teenage children. Kawlewski had sole physical and legal custody of the children since 1988. Strommen had liberal parenting time, and Kawlewski had never restricted the amount of time that Strommen spent with the children. In October 2001, approximately one month after he received notice of Kawlewski's motion to increase his child-support obligation, Strommen moved for a modification of custody that would grant him sole physical and legal custody of the children. The district court denied Strommen's request, and Strommen appealed arguing that the district court abused its discretion by improperly applying the law and by making findings unsupported by the evidence. The appellate court affirmed the district court's ruling explaining that a district court has broad discretion to provide for the custody of the parties' children, and explaining that the appellate court review of a custody determination is limited to whether the district court abused its discretion by improperly applying the law or by making findings unsupported by the evidence.
This decision specifically indicates that Kawlewski was a Jehovah's Witness, and that she had raised the two children in her religion. She and the two children spent approximately five hours per week (attending the five weekly meetings held on three different days) at the local Kingdom Hall (plus whatever amount of time they would have spent recruiting door-to-door, which is required of JWs). The decision also stated that Strommen was not then currently practicing any religious faith (what is left unanswered is whether Strommen had ever been a Jehovah's Witness, and if so, whether he had been disfellowshiped, or excommunicated).
This decision also briefly mentioned a prior controversy regarding the two children's participation in sports and other outdoors activities; including their liking to hunt and fish with Strommen. Prior to 2000, Kawlewski objected to the children's participation in competitive sports because of her concerns about the "win no matter what" attitude, and the risk of injury. At some point, Kawlewski conceded to allow the children to participate in a golf league.
This decision also makes a brief note of the fact that Kawlewski had remarried at some point, but that that marriage had also ended in divorce. That point is significant in that Jehovah's Witnesses are highly encouraged to marry only amongst themselves, and in fact are ostracized if they marry outside the WatchTower religion. Thus, that failed second marriage likely involved a husband who was a Jehovah's Witness, which would have meant additional religious pressures on the children.
These factors are all significant, because the two children expressed their lack of interest in the Jehovah's Witness religion and their desire to live with Strommen. The children repeated their preference to live with Strommen to a guardian ad litem on four separate occasions. Each time, they told her they wanted to live with Strommen, though they both said they wanted to see Kawlewski every day. The guardian ad litem recommended granting physical custody to Strommen. Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied Strommen's motion to modify custody. Strommen appealed, but lost.


POOLE v. POOLE was a 2003 Wisconsin appellate court decision. David Poole had been reared as a Jehovah's Witness, but he had left the religion after graduating from high school. During the course of their marriage, David, Lisa, and their son Brian celebrated christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas, but the family did not attend religious services or belong to any religious organizations. After the divorce proceeding had begun, David Poole began attending meetings of the Jehovah's Witnesses. He also started taking Brian with him. By the time of the divorce hearing, Brian was spending between five and ten hours a week at Jehovah's Witness meetings and (recruiting?) activities during his placement with his father.

Lisa Poole's objected to such, and also complained that David was taking Brian to Jehovah's Witness meetings during Lisa's physical placement times. At trial, Lisa testified that she felt Brian's involvement with the Witnesses was destructive and isolating, and that she would like to expose him to alternative religious viewpoints. She was particularly concerned that the Jehovah's Witnesses discouraged associating with "worldly people," i.e., non-Witnesses; discouraged extracurricular activities and education beyond high school; discouraged celebration of birthdays and holidays that Brian had previously enjoyed celebrating; and the JWs preached the imminent destruction of the world -- such that Brian began living in daily fear. Lisa's opinions were supported in part by the testimony of a "cults expert". The trial court permitted the expert to give his opinions as to why the Jehovah's Witnesses were a "potentially unsafe and destructive religious organization." In the course of giving its decision from the bench, however, the trial judge characterized the expert's testimony as "insulting", and stated that he "refused to write off Jehovah's Witnesses as a cult or even a dangerous organization."

The guardian ad litem testified that Brian had expressed the wish to participate in the Jehovah's Witness religion, but the guardian also questioned how voluntary that decision really was, given David Poole's pride in his emphasis on adherence to the WatchTower lifestyle, and given Brian's desire to please his father. The guardian ad litem recommended giving religious decision-making authority to Lisa Poole on the grounds that Brian should not face the pressure of changing religions and altering activities, and that Lisa would give him a broader religious perspective. The trial court ultimately agreed with the guardian ad litem that giving Lisa religious decision-making authority would be in Brian's best interest, citing concern that David appeared to measure Brian's development as a person solely on Brian's adherence to WatchTower teachings, and that Brian was so motivated to please his father that his supposed decision to follow WatchTower teachings was, in reality, not truly voluntary.

On appeal, the appellate court affirmed the lower court's ruling, stating in part:

"... Lange explicitly held that no showing of harm was required before a trial court could fashion restrictions to protect a sole custodial parent's right to chose the child's religion from proselytizing efforts from the non-custodial parent.

"When parents sharing joint legal custody are unable to agree as to a course of religious upbringing for their child, [Wisconsin state law] authorizes the trial court to grant sole authority to direct the child's religious training to one parent and to correspondingly restrict the other parent's religious decision-making, without a showing that the other parent's religious choices would be potentially harmful to the child.

"... There is ample evidence to support the trial court's determination that there was an 'irreconcilable conflict' between the parties on the issue of religion, such that joint decision-making was unworkable. It was therefore entirely appropriate for the trial court in this case to assign religious decision-making to one parent or the other. The trial court took great care to note that the Jehovah's Witness religion was a 'well regarded religious institution' whose practitioners' 'sincere and heartfelt' beliefs were entitled to respect. The trial court did not base its decision on a comparison between the merits of Brian's and Lisa's religious beliefs. Rather, the trial court considered such factors as 'Brian's relationship to his father and his relationship to the religion and Brian's age and his ability to make decisions for himself.' The trial court reasonably explained that it believed it would be in Brian's best interest to give religious decision-making authority to Lisa, due to the pressure Brian felt to please his father by participating in the Witness religion. Contrary to David's allegations, we are not persuaded that the trial court's decision was improperly based on a negative view of the Witness faith. ... ... ...

"David next contends that, even if an assignment of religious authority is permissible under the statutes without a finding of potential harm, the trial court's order violates his rights under the [Constitution]. Again, Lange contradicts David's claim. As the Lange court explained:

'... the free exercise of religion includes the right to profess one's faith, but it does not include the right to engage in religious conduct such as proselytizing, that runs afoul of an otherwise valid law ...

'Limiting [the non-custodial parent's] religious conduct is not the object of the visitation restriction. It is the incidental effect of securing [the custodial parent's] right under a valid law, the custody statute, to chose the children's religion.'

"... In other words, what is at issue here is not David's right to exercise his own religious beliefs, but his authority to direct the religious upbringing of his son. In accordance with Lange, we conclude that David's constitutional free exercise rights are not violated by an order which necessarily divides and assigns religious decision-making authority to one of two parents who cannot agree on a course of religious upbringing for their child. ... ...

"David also maintains that the custody modification order violates his rights to free speech and association, because it is not narrowly tailored to protect Lisa's right to direct Brian's religious upbringing. Specifically, he claims that Lisa 'offers no formal religious training or affiliation for Brian. So there is nothing for [David]'s religious exposure to contradict.' First of all, David's claim ignores Lisa's testimony that Brian refused to attend Unitarian services with Lisa after going to Witness meetings with his father. Thus, there was evidence in the record that David was impeding Lisa's ability to direct Brian's religious upbringing by encouraging Brian to follow only the Witness faith. Moreover, the fact that Lisa may have chosen a less formal or non-formal course of religious upbringing for Brian does not mean that her choice is somehow less protected.

"David makes similar claims that Brian's rights to religious freedom, free speech and freedom of association are violated by the custody modification order. He has not, however, provided any authority which persuades us that a minor has the right to exercise any of these constitutional rights in contravention of his or her parent's wishes. We are more convinced by the trial court's analogy to educational and medical decisions which a parent has the right to make on a child's behalf. In any event, the trial court clarified at a post-decision hearing that its order would not bar Brian from doing things like socializing with Witness friends, praying, reading Witness literature on his own or asking his Dad or grandparents about Witnesses, so long as not directed to do so by his father. We do not consider the order here any more restrictive to Brian's ability to form his own religious beliefs than that of any other child subject to his or her parents' direction."

In October 2003, in Blount County, Tennessee, a 14 year old female foster child was removed from the home of a Jehovah's Witness couple named Billy and Keri Johnson by the local Department of Children's Services after that foster child complained that she was forced to attend five weekly meetings at the Johnson's local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Although the Johnsons had served as foster parents for 10 children over the years, all of whom were required to attend the five weekly meetings at the Johnson's local Kingdom Hall, this particular teenager objected to the indoctrination. The Johnsons refused to pay for a babysitter so the teenager could stay at home, as did DCS, so DCS removed the child from the Johnson's care.
HAMILTON v. HAMILTON was a 2002 Alaska Supreme Court decision. John Hamilton and Phyllis Hamilton began dating in 1990; moved in together in late spring 1991; and had their first son in June 1991. They married in November 1991. In April 1993, a second son was born. Phyllis Hamilton started rearing their two sons as Jehovah's Witnesses in 1995. The marital relationship deteriorated, and in May 1997, John moved out and filed for divorce. Phyllis Hamilton moved with the boys from Petersburg to Juneau, where she obtained a job with state government. The decree of divorce was entered on March 25, 1999.

John Hamilton and Phyllis Hamilton were given joint legal custody of the children, with primary physical custody in Phyllis. John was given visitation during Thanksgiving, winter holiday, spring break, and summer vacation. In addition, John was given "visitation rights if he is in Juneau, provided it is reasonable and does not interfere with pre-planned activities or school attendance, and may have the boys travel to visit him in Petersburg for up to five weekends during the school year, at his expense." The agreement also gave each parent the right to make decisions regarding day-to-day care and control of the children when the children are residing with that parent, but major decisions regarding education, medical care, and socialization were to be made jointly. John and Phyllis agreed to a "good faith requirement" to use their best efforts to comply with statements of principle relating to their parenting rights and responsibilities, including working together on providing a sound moral, socioeconomic, and educational environment for the children; promoting the relationship between the children and the other parent; and supporting the other parent's lifestyle in front of the children.

The two boys first attended Glacier Valley and later Harborview Elementary Schools in Juneau. After visiting the staff and teachers at Glacier Valley, John claimed that Phyllis called to scream at him about turning the teachers against her. Soon after, Phyllis transferred the boys to Harborview. John Hamilton claimed that the reason Phyllis gave for transferring the children was because he had turned the teachers against Phyllis and, as a result, Glacier Valley was a bad environment for the children. When John Hamilton tried to visit Harborview, he reported a very hostile attitude from the receptionist and office workers. He further reported that Phyllis had not listed him in the boys' paperwork on record at the schools. John had to pry information about Frank's and Ian's progress from three different school administrators.

Later, the custody investigator spoke with the boys' teachers at both schools, as well as both principals. The investigator's report states that Phyllis told the staff at Glacier Valley not to inform John about any concerns they may have regarding the boys, and that they were to deal with her only. Phyllis's response at trial was that the custody investigator and staff at Glacier Valley and Harborview were lying. The custody investigator also found that staff and teachers at Glacier Valley had difficulty working with Phyllis. They found her to be in denial about problems the boys were facing, and that she avoided dealing with concerns by blaming others.

While there was nothing mentioned in the custody agreement requiring the custodial parent (Phyllis) to share school information, John and Phyllis were to consult with one another on substantial questions relating to educational programs. They were also to exert "their best efforts to work cooperatively in future plans consistent with the best interests of the children ... ." The trial court later ruled that Phyllis had breached this part of their custody agreement.

In October 1999, John Hamilton filed a motion and memorandum to enforce visitation and for sanctions against Phyllis Hamilton. John claimed that Phyllis had twice violated the child custody agreement by not allowing him to visit the boys when he was in Juneau on business. In his affidavit, John stated that Phyllis had hung up on him when he had called to arrange visitation for times he would be in Juneau on business. Phyllis did call him back soon afterward but no plans for visitation were agreed to. He then wrote a formal letter and had it served on her at work by a process server. When no plans were reached, John went to the Juneau Police Department, and filed a custodial interference report, and had an officer accompany him to her house.

Phyllis requested a continuance from the court to respond to John's motion. Phyllis thereafter move out-of-state with the children to Tacoma, Washington. The trial court later ruled that her move from Juneau was for the purpose of thwarting John's access to the children. Judge Thompson's order stated that Phyllis's move was "the final straw", and he ruled that Phyllis had absconded from Juneau to Tacoma, Washington with the children without any notice whatever to John. The judge noted: "Defendant's testimony that this move was simply a visit which she later determined to become permanent, and/or that it was done on the spur of the moment is frankly incredible." As further proof, Judge Thompson mentioned that within hours of leaving her job, Phyllis had loaded two automobiles on the barge for Washington. Judge Thompson found that Phyllis had thought of the move in advance and did not inform John of her plans. John affirmed that he was not told of the impending move to Washington. He also stated that Ian had told him that their belongings were on the barge south when John first spoke with Ian after his arrival in Washington. In one of her affidavits, Phyllis stated that when she, Francis, and Ian left the Juneau apartment for the final time, just prior to leaving for Washington, the apartment was empty of their belongings. She also stated that when she spoke to John after arriving in Washington, she wasn't sure where in Tacoma she was going to live. Phyllis told the trial court that the day she quit her job she put two cars, loaded with her belongings, on a barge headed for Tacoma. Additionally, the custody investigator reported that Harborview's principal indicated that the boys were aware of the move a couple of weeks prior to their departure. Principal Dye stated that Ian let it slip in school but said he wasn't supposed to tell anyone.

On appeal, Phyllis argued, in part, that the move to Tacoma was due to the need for "family support" (Phyllis evidently was originally from Tacoma), plus the boys "cultural needs" would best be met in Tacoma, where her bi-racial children would be exposed to the African-American culture through their schooling and her African-American family.

The trial court issued the order granting John's motion to modify custody in July 2000. Judge Thompson stated that the factor regarding "the desire and ability of each parent to allow an open and loving frequent relationship between the child and the other parent" was the most important factor in reaching his decision. Phyllis and John continue to share legal custody, but primary physical custody was switched from Phyllis to John. Phyllis was given liberal visitation during summer vacation, on alternating winter holiday and spring break vacations, etc. Phyllis appealed. The Supreme Court affirmed, stating in part:

"Phyllis has raised the boys as Jehovah's Witnesses since 1995. John has expressed a great deal of hostility towards this religion and the effect it is having on the boys. He has expressed a desire to allow the boys to make up their own minds as to religion when they are old enough to fully understand it. Despite his past hostility towards Phyllis's choice of religious beliefs, John stated during his testimony that he would not stand in the children's way if they choose to practice Phyllis's religion. He expressed a tolerance for the children's reading, study, and discussion of the religion with people who are knowledgeable and interested in it.

"Phyllis claims that the trial court did not account for John's intolerance toward the boys' religious beliefs as Jehovah's Witnesses. She claims that placing the children, especially Francis who has begun to internalize a religious belief system, into a home where such beliefs are not respected is a factor the trial court should have given more consideration.

"Although a court may not rely on the religious affiliations of the parties in making a best interests determination, the religious needs of a child are a factor the court can consider. The court must make a finding that the child has actual religious needs and that one parent can better satisfy those needs. In deciding actual religious needs, we determine whether a child is "mature enough to make a choice between a form of religion or the lack of it." In Bonjour v. Bonjour, while noting that the maturity of a minor will vary from case to case, we commented favorably on one court's holding that "children aged three, five, and seven are not of sufficient maturity to form an intelligent opinion on so complex a subject as religion or their needs with respect to it." In that case we went on to consider the kinds of determinations a trial court may need to make when a fifteen-year old child has developed either strong religious or anti-religious beliefs. As Francis and Ian are nine and seven, respectively, they are not yet mature enough to make a choice between a form of religion or the lack of it.

"In spite of John's admitted instances of previous intolerance, Judge Thompson found his tolerance expressed at trial to be believable. As such, the court found that the religious aspects of the first two factors in determining the best interests of the children favored neither John nor Phyllis. Because the children lacked the maturity needed to present an actual religious belief, the trial court was not required to give further consideration to the boys' religious needs beyond its belief in John's tolerance. Furthermore, the trial court expressly stated in the order that should John's tolerance wane and should he begin to 'affirmatively attempt to ridicule or undermine [Phyllis's] religious beliefs to the children, this factor could become more important.' ... ... ...

"We perceive no error pertaining to the children's cultural needs. As noted, the trial court did not explicitly consider the cultural needs of the boys because there was no evidence presented to the trial court upon which such a determination could be made. And Phyllis will have custody of the boys during the three month summer vacation as well as other various school vacations, ... . The trial court knew that John was aware of the possible problem. Finally, the boys were being placed into a multiracial home [Footnote: John's girlfriend, Jennifer Valentine, is Vietnamese and has a son, James, whose ethnicity and race do not appear in the record. As the children will be living in a home with John, Jennifer, and James, they will be exposed to a variety of cultures and races. Rather than not seeing anyone who looks like them, as Phyllis fears, they will see a home where no one looks the same as anyone else.] All of these circumstances lead us to conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in not explicitly addressing the children's cultural needs.

WELSH v. LEWIS was a 2002 New York appellate court case. Questar Welsh and Erica Lewis were the divorced parents of two children. This appellate decision modified the lower court's decision granting Lewis sole custody by granting joint custody to both parents, with physical custody remaining with Lewis; prohibited Lewis from removing the children from the United States without Welsh's consent; and granted Welsh the authority to consent to blood transfusions for the children.
Lewis was a practicing Jehovah's Witness who testified at the hearing that she did not believe in blood transfusions and could not give consent to blood transfusions for the children. However, she further testified that she would never stand in the way of the father granting consent to blood transfusions for the children. Thus, this court modified custody to grant Welsh the authority to consent to blood transfusions for the children.
Lewis was an illegal alien. Lewis entered the United States on a work visa, and remained illegally after it expired. Lewis had threatened to leave the country and take the two children with her. Thus, this court modified custody to grant Welsh joint custody, and to prohibit Lewis from removing the children from the United States without Welsh's consent.


WILLIS v. WILLIS was a 2002 Ohio appellate court decision. Although the published decision did not specifically state that Chris Willis was a Jehovah's Witness, or studying to become a member, there are hints throughout which seem to indicate that such is a good possibility. It is becoming more and more frequent that some judges are refusing to identify Jehovah's Witnesses as Jehovah's Witnesses in published decisions. Whatever was Rhonda Willis's connection to the Jehovah's Witnesses, if any, is uncertain.

Chris Willis and Rhonda Stegner Willis were divorced for the second time in March 1998. They had three minor children. Under the parties' shared parenting agreement, Rhonda was named residential parent for school purposes and Chris was granted "Schedule B" visitation, with an additional Sunday per month from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m. Except on a few occasions, Chris had not exercised his extra Sunday visitation.

Between August 2000 and January 2001, both parties filed several motions. In particular, Rhonda filed motions to find Chris in contempt for failing to pay his portion of the children's uncovered medical bills and for failing to comply with his "Schedule B" visitation. Rhonda also filed a motion to modify and/or restrict Chris' visitation and a request that he undergo psychological counseling. In turn, Chris filed motions to find Rhonda in contempt for failing to comply with his "Schedule B" visitation and for failing to keep him informed of the children's medical needs and extracurricular activities. Chris also filed a motion to increase his visitation. The parties and all three children were subsequently evaluated at the Children's Diagnostic Center, Inc. A hearing on the parties' motions and a report from the CDC revealed the following facts:

Rhonda Willis lived in Richmond, Indiana, and was engaged to Michael Simmons, since January 2001. Chris Willis lived in Middletown, Ohio, and was not involved in a relationship. In fact, Chris still considered himself biblically married to Rhonda and continued to wear his wedding band. Chris has told his children as well as Michael Simmons that he is still biblically married to Rhonda even though he is no longer married to her legally. Chris has referred to Simmons as the "imposter" and once asked the children to refer to Simmons as such. On two occasions, Chris told Simmons that he wanted to set up an appointment with Simmons, Simmons' minister, and himself so they could discuss Simmons' relationship with Rhonda. Chris testified that Simmons' presence imposes on Chris' relationship with Rhonda, preventing any possible reconciliation.

When the children are with their father, they regularly attend church on Sundays and engage in extensive bible study. Part of the bible study concerns passages in the bible about adultery. Although he denies calling Rhonda an adulteress, Chris had on many occasions told the children that if Rhonda and Simmons were having sex, they would be committing adultery. Chris has also told Ciara, his then ten-year-old daughter, that he does not want her to be an adulteress. Chris believes it is his right to discuss such issues with the children. Chris does not believe that such discussion affects the children. Chris denied calling Rhonda a "slut" or a "whore." He admitted, however, telling the children that their mother is not appropriately dressed and asking them "what they thought about what kind of wife she [had] been to [him]" since the divorce. Chris testified that the children were very close to their mother and that Rhonda was a good mother.

Rhonda testified that Chris could accept their 1998 divorce; that he was very bitter; and that he was taking the hostility out on the children. Rhonda also testified that Chris was a good man who loved his children. Rhonda testified that the children loved their father, but that they were fearful of him and that they did not like some of the things he did and said. Rhonda testified that the children often act up, start to cry, or work themselves into physical illness, especially Ciara, at the thought of going to visit their father. Rhonda stated that she often has to stop the car when driving to Chris' house to hug the children and to reassure them that everything will be all right. Rhonda testified that upon returning from Chris' house, the children are very upset, very clingy, and in need of attention. While she believes Chris' visitation with the children should be supervised, Rhonda does not want to take Chris' parental rights away.

Chris testified that when the children are dropped off at his house, they were happy to see him and hugged him. Chris stated that the children loved him and that they did not seem to be afraid of him. Rather, Chris believes the children are brainwashed by Rhonda who is consistently trying to drive a wedge between the children and him. Chris does not believe he has a problem with Ciara and describes their relationship as normal. Chris described his relationships with Cody and Chloe as good and very good respectively. Chris admits he is not a perfect parent, that he has shortcomings, and that he could be more patient with and more encouraging to the children. Chris testified he would refuse to participate in any court-ordered or voluntary counseling, including family counseling, because he does not need it.

Two fellow churchgoers testified on behalf of Chris. They both testified that they never saw the children afraid of their father. One churchgoer stated that he had never observed Chris hit his children, or be mean or harsh to them. The other churchgoer observed signs of affection between the children and their father such as kissing and holding hands. Beverly Willis, Chris' mother, testified that Chris is a stern but very good father who is doing an exceptional job with the children. Willis testified that Ciara has commented, at times, about being in the middle of her parents' dispute. Beverly Willis stated that neither Ciara nor Chris need counseling. Remarkably, despite the parties' animosity, visitation has continued in substantial compliance with the shared parenting agreement.

During the hearing, upon questioning by the children's guardian ad litem, Chris also testified about the following incident which took place at his house: upon receiving his copy of the CDC report, Chris became upset about some of the children's allegations about him. Chris admitted that when the children walked in the front door for their weekend visitation with him, he started videotaping them, especially Ciara, asking them to recant some of the statements that were in the CDC report. Chris testified that he was feeling falsely accused, and that videotaping the children was the only way to defend himself. Chris stated that videotaping the children and asking them to recant had no more of a negative impact on the children than someone else talking to them about it. Chris agreed, however, that the video camera could have a negative effect. Chris also testified that it was not inappropriate for him to discuss the false allegations in the CDC report with the children. Doing so did not put the children on the spot any "more than the psychologist puts them on the spot."

During the hearing, the children's guardian ad litem testified and was cross-examined by counsel for both parties. Upon order of the magistrate, her testimony was subsequently sealed. The day after the hearing, the magistrate interviewed the children in camera. By decision filed April 13, 2001, the magistrate granted Rhonda's contempt motion regarding the children's unpaid medical expenses, granted Chris' contempt motion against Rhonda for failure to keep him informed of the children's extracurricular activities, denied both parties' contempt motion for failing to comply with the Schedule B visitation, and denied Chris' motion to increase his visitation. The magistrate also restricted Chris' visitation such that all visitation "must be supervised by his parents, with their presence in Mr. Willis' home or within their home, at all times. ... Mr. Willis is required to contact Dr. Walters [of the CDC] for a recommendation for family counseling for himself and for his children. He is to follow through with any recommendations of Dr. Walters. ... If Mr. Willis refuses to follow the recommendation of Dr. Walters and to participate in counseling, ... I recommend that his visitation rights be suspended until further order of the court."

Chris Willis filed objections to the magistrate's decision. By entry filed August 9, 2001, the trial court overruled Chris' objections and affirmed the magistrate's decision. On appeal, Chris raised four assignments of error. In part, the decision states:


"... the parties and all three children were evaluated at CDC. All five persons were interviewed separately and each parent was observed with the children. The CDC report states in relevant part that:

'Mr. Willis believes that Rhonda Stegner is harassing him. He believes that his strengths as a parent have to do with his stability, his ability to set a good example for his children, his love for his children and his attempts to provide activities for them. His weaknesses are that he's sometimes not as patient as he should. He believes he should be more encouraging and has '"said things about their mother I shouldn't."'

'While [Mr. Willis'] approach to the test suggest some defensiveness and difficulties looking within himself, this didn't invalidate the test results. Yet, such an approach indicates a tendency to attribute blame and responsibility onto others with little appreciation for the role that he might play in problematic areas in his life. Mr. Willis identifies his primary difficulties as a parent as impatience, and lack [of] encouragement. His strong belief system might not allow him to be as flexible with three different children who might need to have the expectations for them adapted according to their needs, interests, social skills, and cognitive ability. While Mr. Willis verbalizes some recognition of this, he attributes most of the difficulties in his relationships with his children to others (i.e., Ms. Stegner and her mother). His children consistently described him as critical, angry, and punishing. While attempting to communicate important family values, he also has to be able to nurture independence, and reward successes as well as make his children aware of their mistakes, and enhance feelings of self-esteem.

'Chris Willis was observed with all three of his children. For the most part, the interaction could be best described as all three children engaged in separate, parallel play with Mr. Willis engaging in conversation with each about issues in their lives. The most animated of the three and the one who sought out the greatest contact with father was Chloe. She appeared most comfortable with her father. Ciara appeared the least comfortable although it's not clear to what extent this was affected by her physical health [she was ill that day] as opposed to emotional distance from her father.

'Ms. Stegner presents as highly invested in the welfare of her children and expresses concerns about their anxiety and apparent fear of their father. Certainly, the interviews with the children as well as observed interactions at [CDC] seem to support her report. As such, she appears to be in touch with her children's feelings. For the most part, the children appeared comfortable with their mother and appeared to enjoy her attention."'

"With regard to Ciara, the CDC report noted that "Ciara also describes being placed in the middle of her parents' conflict by her father and adds that she 'don't feel good about it.' While she admits that she loves 'my mom and dad,' she doesn't like much of her father's behavior. Unfortunately, Ciara feels that it's 'all my fault my dad is mean,' and she has begun to internalize father's criticism as a sign of her defectiveness.'

"The CDC report concluded in relevant part that 'the most consistent comment by all three children is their perception of their mother as warm and nurturing and father as critical and punishing.' Mr. Willis has no insight into his social stimulus value and his relationship with his children. He has little awareness of the impact that his anger has on their feelings for him, and his criticism has (at least in the case of Ciara) begun to affect her self-esteem, resulting in internalized feelings of defectiveness (i.e., that she's been the cause of father's anger and meanness). Ciara is a bright, capable, and well-behaved youngster who does well in school. She should feel good about herself and her accomplishments, not doubting herself.

"Mr. Willis attributes his difficulties in his relationships with his children to his ex-wife and ex-mother-in-law rather than accepting responsibility for his behavior and recognizing the need to change his parenting style. Parents must tell children what behavior needs to be changed without communicating that they're inherently bad or defective. Mr. Willis would benefit from treatment that would assist him in looking within himself, separating his own anger at his ex-wife from his behavior and toward treatment of his children. He needs to achieve a better balance between setting limits and communicating his value system while not demeaning his children and damaging self-esteem. His own anger and difficulty accepting the divorce needs to be parental business, and the children don't need to be drawn into a situation in which they must choose between one parent or the other. It would appear to be in the best interest of the children to have Mr. Willis participate in parent training in order to ensure the emotional safety and welfare of [the children].

"Upon hearing the parties' testimony and the guardian ad litem's testimony, reviewing the CDC report, and interviewing the children in camera, the magistrate found that 'Mr. Willis' own testimony confirms [part of the CDC report]; Mr. Willis expressed little or no concern about his discussion of sex in relation to bible studies and his repeatedly calling the mother of his children an adulteress. He has little or no appreciation or understanding as how this impacts his children based on their respective 'needs, interests, social skills and cognitive ability.' [With regard to the videotaping incident], once again, Mr. Willis had little or no comprehension or understanding that he had done anything that might be harmful to his children. Rather, he felt it was his right 'to set the record straight' and require the children to recant these statements. Mr. Willis refuses to participate in any counseling or evaluation, nor does he wish to participate in any family counseling. The Guardian Ad Litem strongly recommended some family counseling for Mr. Willis, with an introduction of the children into the counseling process.

"The magistrate also found that 'it was clear from the testimony and through my in camera interviews that the person who is primarily being affected by the actions of Mr. Willis and the conflict of their parents is Ciara. I ordinarily do not refer to anything said during an in camera interview. I believe, in this case, it is necessary to refer to [the fact that] all three children believe that Mr. Willis is unfairly critical of Ciara.'

"After thoroughly reviewing the CDC report and the testimony presented at the hearing, and after carefully reviewing the transcript of the children's in camera interviews and the testimony of the guardian ad litem submitted under seal, we find that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying Chris' motion to increase visitation and by ordering that his visitation be supervised and that he attend counseling. We further find that the trial court's foregoing decision is not against the manifest weight of the evidence.

"Chris also argues that the trial court erred by failing to appoint a third party to supervise his visitation. As previously noted, the trial court ordered that Chris' visitation be supervised by his parents at all times, either in his home or in their home. However, Chris' parents notified his attorney that they were unwilling to be used in such a fashion and that as a result, they refused to supervise Chris' visitation. The trial court never appointed another supervisor.

"We agree with Chris that because of his parents' refusal to supervise his visitation and the trial court's failure to appoint another supervisor, Chris' visitation rights have essentially been terminated, albeit temporarily. We therefore remand the matter with instructions to the trial court to appoint another supervisor. In light of all of the foregoing, Chris' second assignment of error is overruled in part and sustained in part.


"Under this assignment of error, Chris argues that the trial court based its decision to restrict his visitation solely on his strongly held religious beliefs in violation of his constitutional right of freedom of religion under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Chris claims that the videotaping incident cannot be taken into account because he was simply trying to assert his due process rights. Chris also claims that his comments to the children about Rhonda's relationship with Simmons 'are simply a reflection of his religious views, which include the Biblical teachings on adultery,' and as such cannot be taken into account.

"The First Amendment has never been interpreted as an absolute proscription on the governmental regulation of religious practices. ... While '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, a parent's actions are not insulated from the domestic relations court's inquiry just because they are based upon religious beliefs, especially actions that will harm the child's mental or physical health.' Pater ... (1992)
[See case below.] Thus, a parent may not shield his actions from the court's scrutiny by claiming religious motivations for those actions.

"There is no question that the paramount and overriding interest of [Ohio state law] is the best interests of the child and that it is the court's function to see that the child's best interests are protected. As a result, 'a domestic relations court may consider the religious practices of the parents in order to protect the best interests of a child.' ... 'This obligation of the court to consider the best interests of the children serves to protect them from emotionally unstable and fanatically misguided parents, while simultaneously safeguarding the parents' fundamental constitutional freedom to raise their children as they deem proper.' ...

"This court has previously determined that a claim of violation of religious rights should be considered pursuant to a three-part test adopted by the Ohio Supreme Court ... 'The test is first, whether a defendant's religious beliefs are sincerely held; second, whether the regulation at issue infringes upon a defendant's constitutional right to freely engage in the religious practices; and third, whether the state has demonstrated a compelling interest for enforcement of the regulation and that the regulation is written in the least restrictive means.' ...

"Chris describes himself as a devout Christian who firmly believes in a literal reading of the Bible.
[This wording is often used of JWs in court decisions.] We can concede that Chris' religious beliefs are sincere, but upon thoroughly reviewing the magistrate's decision, we find that Chris' argument that the restriction on his visitation rights violated his constitutional rights does not meet the second part of the test.

"Chris fails to satisfy the second part of the three-part test because he has not demonstrated that the restricted visitation infringes upon his constitutional right to freely engage in the Christian faith or that it interferes with his freedom to direct the upbringing and religious education of the children. We acknowledge that the magistrate's decision refers to Chris' extensive bible study with the children which involves discussions about adultery and persons who are adulterers. The magistrate's decision also contains a statement, supported by the record, that Chris 'expressed little or no concern about his discussion of sex in relation to bible studies and his repeatedly calling [Rhonda] an adulteress.'

"Upon reviewing the magistrate's decision as affirmed by the trial court, we find that it addressed the visitation issue in the context of the children's best interests, and not based upon Chris' religious beliefs. Unlike in Pater where the noncustodial parent was prohibited from teaching or exposing the child to the Jehovah's Witnesses' beliefs during the parent's visitation, Chris is still free to instruct the children on his religious beliefs and to teach them as he sees fit. Certainly, the mere fact that visitation must be supervised and that he must attend counseling absolutely does not prevent him from 'providing a moral upbringing for his children by sharing his religious beliefs.' Nor is Chris prohibited or otherwise hindered from practicing his religious beliefs.

"Having found that Chris failed to satisfy the second part of the tripartite test, we need not determine whether he satisfied the third part. We therefore reject Chris' argument that the trial court violated his constitutional rights under the First Amendment by restricting his visitation. Chris' third assignment of error is overruled.


TRAVIS v. TRAVIS was a 2002 Alabama appellate court decision. After having lived together since 1979, Francis and Virginia Travis married in June 1984. Six children were born to the couple. Five children were minors at the time of divorce. Virginia Travis asked Francis Travis to move out of the marital home in February 2002, based on her suspicions that he had committed adultery. Initially, all of the children remained with their mother, but two weeks after the husband moved out, the 15-year-old daughter moved in with her father, who had moved in with his parents. By the time of the appeal, the 18-year-old son had moved out, leaving three minor children residing with Virginia Travis.

The trial court held hearings in September 2001 and in January 2002. The majority of the testimony related to the alleged adultery and division of marital assets. Virginia Travis testified that she was a Jehovah's Witness, and that she had raised the children as Jehovah's Witnesses. Virginia Travis asked for custody of the three minor children residing with her, as well as child support. Francis Travis asked for joint custody of the three children living with his wife, and primary physical custody of the daughter currently living with him.

The trial court awarded Virginia Travis a divorce on the ground of "incompatibility", rather than adultery (which under WatchTower rules would give her permission to re-marry). Joint custody of the four minor children was granted. The trial court granted the husband physical custody of the teenage daughter who was living with him, granted the wife physical custody of the three minor children who were living with her, and established a visitation schedule for both parents. The fifth minor child attained the age of 19 while this divorce was pending. The trial court ordered the husband to pay $ 492.69 in monthly child support and attached a CS-42 form to the judgment. Further, the trial court ordered the husband and the wife to share equally the medical expenses for the minor children. Virginia Travis's later appeal all involved the issue of "assets".

HUFFMAN v. HUFFMAN was a 2001 Washington court decision. Keith Huffman and Karen Huffman had a volatile on-again, off-again relationship that started when they were teenagers in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It is not known whether one, both, or neither were reared as Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1990-91, when Karen was 15 or 16 years old, she became pregnant with the couple's first daughter, Tatiana Huffman. In 1994, after repeatedly breaking up and getting back together, Karen decided to move to Seattle, Washington, where her Jehovah's Witness sister and brother-in-law, Marilyn and Brad Stevenson, then lived. Thereafter, Keith Huffman followed Karen to Seattle, got a job, and joined the West Redmond Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. Keith and Karen married in 1995, and in 1996, had a second daughter, Paris Huffman.
In 1996, Keith Huffman was diagnosed with lupus. During the course of treatment, Keith became addicted to the pain medication. Whatever attempts there were at kicking the addiction were unsuccessful. During this period, Keith was also physically and verbally abusive toward Karen. In Fall 2000, Karen gave him an ultimatum. Either successfully complete a drug treatment program, or get a divorce. Keith enrolled in an in-patient drug treatment program. Karen obtained a temporary restraining order to prevent him from having contact with her until he completed the drug treatment program. Huffman completed the drug treatment program and returned home.
Sometime during all this, Karen Huffman became romantically involved with another man. It is not known whether "the other man" was also a Jehovah's Witness, but interestingly, Karen ended up disclosing the extra-marital relationship to her JW ;Elders. (Although uncertain, there are hints that "the other man" was possibly a JW, and also that Karen was possibly reproved or even disfellowshipped.) At the urging of the Elders, Karen told Keith about the affair in February 2001. Although Keith at first seemed okay with the bad news, he later had violent outbursts, so Karen obtained another temporary restraining order prohibiting him from having contact with her. Despite contrary advice from the JW Elders and her Jehovah's Witness sister and brother-in-law, Marilyn and Brad Stevenson, who was himself an Elder, Karen filed a petition for divorce in May 2001.
Keith and Karen continued to live together until July 2001, when there was another argument about her relationship with "the other man" -- interestingly, just before Karen left with the two girls to attend services at the Kingdom Hall. Keith also went to the Kingdom Hall, where he made some loud remarks about the affair. Keith eventually forced Karen outside, where an unidentified JW interceded long enough for Karen and the girls to get into her car. It then took several Elders to talk Keith into moving out of the way before Karen could move her car. She and the girls then went to stay with JW? friends.
A week later, Keith unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of his prescription antidepressant medication, and was hospitalized. Karen then obtained a permanent protection order prohibiting Keith from contacting her or their two daughters. Karen also amended the terms of the divorce's proposed parenting plan to prevent Keith from having any contact with his daughters. The divorce became final at the end of August 2001.
WASHINGTON v. HUFFMAN. Interestingly, after Keith was released from the hospital, he moved in with Karen's sister and brother-in-law -- who again, was a JW Elder. Around September 6/7, while talking with a JW Elder named John Baumann, Keith stated that he wanted to "go over to Karen's house to beat her up, and then leave town." Baumann telephoned Karen to tell her that Keith was very unstable, and that he was going through a hard time.
On September 8, Keith told Marilyn and Brad Stevenson that he wanted to hurt Karen. When Brad asked Keith whether he would harm Karen "physically", Keith said "no". Brad called fellow Elder, John Baumann, about Keith's threat, and they decided to call Keith together. During their conversation, Keith explained he only wanted to hurt Karen "emotionally", like she had hurt him.
In the early A.M. hours of September 12, Keith broke into Karen's condominium while Karen and the girls were sleeping. When Karen awoke and confronted Keith, he told Karen that she was coming with him. He showed her a prescription bottle, and said, "We're going to die tonight." When Karen resisted, Keith strangled her until she was unconscious. When she came to, Keith forced her into her Jeep and drove off. Sometime during all that, ;Tatiana and Paris awoke, and witnessed much of what happened. After their parents left, they went to a neighbor's and called 911. Interestingly, the young girls also called John Baumann, who came to their condo to check on them and talk with police.
Keith drove around, occasionally stopping. One minute he would say he was sorry, and wouldn't hurt Karen, and the next, he would tell Karen that she was going to die. Eventually, Keith stopped the Jeep, and forced Karen to take a handful of the antidepressants. After Karen passed out, Keith drove around some more, and ended up on an isolated gravel road, where he took the remainder of the pills. He then smashed two of the Jeep's windows with his fists, and cut one of his wrists with the broken glass. Karen eventually woke up and tried to run away, but she collapsed not far from the Jeep. Early in the afternoon, a jogger discovered Keith inside the Jeep and called 911. When the police arrived, Keith was covered in blood, but he was conscious and able to respond to their questions. After the police found Karen, the couple was rushed to the hospital. Karen was diagnosed with a "potentially fatal" overdose of amitriptyline, while Keith's most serious injury was to the one wrist.
Keith Huffman was charged with attempted murder in the first degree, kidnapping in the first degree, burglary in the first degree, and felony violation of a protection order. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. After a two-week trial in July 2002, the jury convicted Huffman on all four counts. The court sentenced Huffman to 270 months for attempted murder, 54 months for burglary, and 20 months for felony violation of a protection order, to run concurrently, and 68 months for kidnapping to run consecutively to the attempted murder sentence. In 2004, an appellate court ruled against Keith Huffman on a multitude of challenges to his convictions and sentences.
The State subpoenaed church elders Jason Baker, Brad Stevenson and John Baumann to testify at trial. All three elders talked to the police about what Keith Huffman had told them, and provided written statements concerning their conversations with him. A month before trial, the West Redmond Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses moved to quash the subpoenas because all their communications with Keith Huffman were protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. Huffman asserted the privilege and also moved to suppress his statements. Peter Williams, the Presiding Overseer of the West Redmond Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, and Baker, Stevenson, and Baumann submitted affidavits in support of the motion to suppress. The trial court denied the motions to quash the subpoenas and suppress Huffman's statements, and the appellate court affirmed.
MEYER v. MEYER was a 2001 Vermont Supreme Court decision. Thanks go out to Carolyn R. Wah, Associate General Counsel, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Patterson, New York, who acted as co-counsel for Lee R. Meyer in this losing effort, and thus gave the world this glimpse into the real world of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Lee R. Meyer and Erika Meyer divorced in April 1995. Father and mother stipulated to joint parental rights and responsibilities for their two daughters, Hannah and Hillary. In June 1999, Erika Meyer moved to modify the parties' original divorce decree, seeking both sole legal and sole physical rights and responsibilities for the children. Following an eleven-day hearing, the family court granted her motion to modify, ordering that mother have sole rights and responsibilities. Lee R. Meyer appealed to the Supreme Court of Vermont. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed, stating in part:
"Father first argues that mother failed to demonstrate a real, substantial and unanticipated change in circumstances as required ... for modification. Specifically, he argues that the parties have consistently disagreed about major issues concerning the girls since the time of divorce, and that he and mother have never been able to communicate effectively. Thus, he argues under our holding in Gates v. Gates mother failed to meet the jurisdictional threshold for modification. ... (finding no abuse of discretion by trial court in concluding that continued antagonism between parties on issues concerning the children was not a change in circumstances).

"... the standard of review regarding a trial court's finding of changed circumstances is a deferential one. The trial court's determination is a matter of discretion. ... Thus, we will not disturb the court's determination unless its exercise of discretion was on grounds or for reasons clearly untenable, or the exercise of discretion was to a clearly unreasonable extent. ... .

"Our review of the record reveals that this case is easily distinguishable from Gates. First, both mother and father testified that they disagree on just about every major issue concerning the children, including religion, education, extra-curricular activities, whether the children should be participating in counseling and with whom, childcare, and how mother and father should be communicating about the children. ... Second, mother's testimony chronicled a significant change in the parties' dealings with one another, notwithstanding father's conclusory testimony to the contrary. Mother testified to extensive cooperation on issues regarding Hannah and Hillary immediately following the divorce, including shared access to one another's homes, the exchange and transport of the children's belongings between the two homes, frequent and open communication between mother and father without limitation, joint parent-teacher meetings, and flexibility about time and contact with each parent. Her testimony then outlined a significant change for the worse in these areas starting in the latter half of 1996, including father prohibiting the girls from contacting mother while they were in his care, prohibiting mother from entering his home, and refusing to communicate with mother except in writing. Father also requested separate parent-teacher meetings - on one occasion specifically asking the school not to invite mother to a meeting he had arranged with the school principal, Hannah's teacher and Hannah's guidance counselor - and insisted that the children have separate and duplicate possessions for each household. Finally, the trial court based its finding of changed circumstances in part on the effect of the parties' disagreements on the children, particularly Hannah. Even if the parties had anticipated disagreeing continually as father contends, the effect of this on the children was not necessarily anticipated. Given this state of the record, the family court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that mother had sufficiently demonstrated a real, substantial and unanticipated change in circumstances justifying modification.

"Father next argues that the portion of the court's order providing that he not bring Hannah and Hillary to any Jehovah's Witness religious gatherings or attempt to raise the girls as Jehovah's Witnesses is unconstitutional. He further argues that any consideration by the trial court in this case of his religious beliefs was in violation of the both the Vermont and United States constitutions. Because father never argued that mother's request for such a provision in the court's final order was unconstitutional, nor objected to the introduction of evidence on his religious beliefs and practices on constitutional grounds, our review on appeal is limited. ... We will reverse the family court's order in such circumstances only if there exists a 'fundamental miscarriage of justice that we cannot overlook.' We cannot say that there has been one in this case for several reasons.

"First, consideration of father's religion by the trial court was not unconstitutional per se. As we noted in Varnum, courts may take into account a parent's religious practices when making a custodial determination if there is evidence that the practices have a direct and negative impact on a child's physical or mental health. ...
Mother presented extensive evidence that the conflicting practices and rules in each household that stemmed from her and father's disparate religious beliefs were causing Hannah and Hillary to experience extreme confusion and anxiety. For instance, Hannah's teachers testified to Hannah's struggle over participation in birthday and holiday activities at school, a practice that father's religion, that of the Jehovah's Witnesses, prohibits, but a practice that mother encouraged. Hannah's third grade teacher testified to an incident in which father came to the school one day to discuss Hannah's participation in such activities, indicating that he did not want Hannah participating and that the teacher should inform him if she was. The teacher went on to describe how Hannah confronted her the next day extremely upset, and told her that she had made the situation for Hannah worse, asking "why did you tell him?" (about Hannah occasionally participating). One of Hillary's teachers testified that Hillary also appeared to struggle with the decision of whether to participate in birthday and holiday activities as well, but it was mostly confined to the beginning of the school year.

"Mother also testified to symptoms of anxiety in both girls - Hannah experiencing nightmares, stomach aches, and a constricted throat; Hillary being very clingy and sucking her thumb. Hannah's pediatrician had ruled out organic causes for her physical symptoms after seeing her on two occasions, and indicated in her testimony that she thought the symptoms had been caused by anxiety. She stated that she recommended counseling to mother for Hannah. The counselor who had been seeing Hannah at mother's request - prior to her termination by father - testified that she considered Hannah to be suffering from anxiety and attributed it to Hannah's conflicted situation, including the conflict of mother and father's religious beliefs and practices.

"Based on this and other evidence, the court made specific findings regarding the negative effects on the children of mother's and father's differing sets of beliefs, including the children's feelings of disloyalty, guilt, confusion, and anxiety. Thus, not only was evidence of harm presented, but the trial court made specific findings that the conflicting beliefs and practices in each household were having a palpable negative impact on the children, and would continue to do so. ...
"Second, there was extensive evidence of father attempting to alienate Hannah and Hillary from mother that independently supports the court's disposition in this case. Without chronicling it at length, there was evidence from mother that father refused to communicate with her in person on repeated occasions in front of the children, including incidents of father refusing to answer the door for her [kinda ironic for a Jehovah's Witness not to be answering their door], refusing to roll down the car window while she attempted to talk to father at an exchange of the children, communicating to her through stepmother while he stood by silently during exchanges, and hanging up the phone on her. Father also prohibited the children from communicating with mother while they were in his care. Several other witnesses also testified to father's attitude toward mother - one of Hannah's teachers stated that in a meeting she had with father and stepmother at the beginning of the school year, father painted mother in a negative light, and Hannah's counselor indicated that father expressed to her his desire that mother not be part of his family life at all, that he did not consider her part of his family system.

"Father himself had indicated in a letter that he did not want any contact between mother and the children when they were with him because he found it "disruptive." When asked why he would not honor mother's request that the girls not call stepmother "mommy," father responded that he did not consider her request "justified" and thought it was merely the result of "jealousy." Such actions and efforts on the part of father not only prevented the parties from effectively co-parenting - necessitating the modification of that arrangement at issue in this appeal - but also weighed against making father the sole custodian for the children. ... The religious issues aside, the evidence at trial painted a stark picture of attempts at parental alienation.

"Third, regarding the provision that father not involve the children in his religious observances or raise the children as Witnesses, the court was merely making explicit mother's decision as the custodial parent charged with legal responsibility for the children. ... Mother specifically requested that such a provision be included in the order in the event she was granted legal rights and responsibilities for the girls. Therefore, the court was not in the position of picking a religion for the children, but was only giving effect to mother's decision on that issue. Nor does the provision prevent father from exercising his religion on his own - in fact the court structured the visitation to avoid conflicts between father's religious meetings and his time with the girls. Considered in light of the evidence of harm discussed above, the provision is not inconsistent with constitutional principles. ... Therefore, there has been no fundamental miscarriage of justice requiring us to reverse the order of the family court.
"... Father points to no evidence in this case that either party to this custody proceeding had anything other than the children's best interest in mind in the course of the litigation. ... Consequently, we cannot say that the court's failure to appoint a guardian ad litem for Hannah and Hillary was an abuse of discretion or rendered the proceedings so flawed as to require reversal of the family court's disposition."
CARRANO v. DENNISON was a 2001 Connecticut trial court case. In 1992, Joseph Carrano and Becky Hunt Dennison had a daughter while they were both in high school. They were never married, and never lived as a couple. In 1996, Carrano and Dennison agreed to joint custody, physical custody to Dennison, and liberal visitation for Carrano. Carrano had been very active in his daughters life. Visitation was regular, and he was involved with his daughter in "Indian Princesses", and met with public school officials as necessary.
Becky Hunt Dennison was reared as a Jehovah's Witness. Dennison and her current husband are active Jehovah's Witnesses, and they are rearing the child as a Jehovah's Witness. The child attends five meetings each week at the local Kingdom Hall, and also accompanies Dennison in door-to-door recruiting activities. In the summer of 2000, Dennison advised Carrano that she intended to home school their daughter the coming school term. Carrano objected per his joint custody rights, but Dennison went ahead anyway, until Carrano obtained a temporary injunction that placed the child back in public school. At trial, both parties presented a number of experts who presented evidence both for and against home schooling. Carrano also objected that taking his daughter out of public school would vastly reduce his ability to interact in the child's education and extra-curricular activities. This trial court ruled in Dennison's favor.
The "Jehovah's Witness" issue was barely raised in this case. What Carrano, his attorney, and the court probably didn't know was that many Jehovah's Witnesses home-school their children in order to isolate them from experiencing life outside the constraints of the WatchTower religion. Some have estimated that as many as two-thirds of Jehovah's Witness children leave the cult when they reach adulthood. This is blamed on the children's exposure to life outside the cult while attending public school. The court decision briefly mentioned that to counter Carrano's involvement with the child in "Indian Princesses" that Dennison had involved herself and the child with the "Brownies". The WatchTower Society forbids Jehovah's Witnesses to be involved with either group- Indian Princesses or Brownies. I suspect that Dennison had been ordered by her husband, if not the local JW Elders, to remove the child from both groups. Anticipating that Carrano would not permit such, and that a court would agree with him, Dennison and the JWs decided to go for a legal fight that they had a chance of winning - homeschooling, which would accomplish the removal of the child from Indian Princesses and Brownies.


BURKUM v. BURKUM was a 2000 New York appellate court decision. Timothy Burkum and Ada Burkum were the divorced parents of two children. The lower court ordered joint custody, with physical custody to remain with Timothy Burkum due to his ability to keep the children in their lifelong home, thereby insuring the continuity of the children's environs, lifestyle, pets, friends, school and recreational opportunities. Ada Burkum proposed to move the children to a trailer in a different community and school district. Ada Burkum appealed the decision alleging that the lower court was biased against her Jehovah's Witnesses religion. This appellate court further noted: "As a final matter, we note that although the original custody schedule established by Supreme Court had the effect of depriving plaintiff of the opportunity to take the children with her to Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday religious services, defendant has offered liberal alternatives and, in fact, expressed his willingness to permit the children to attend these functions if they wish to do so."


WANGUGI v. WANGUGI was a 2000 Ohio appellate court decision. Joseph Wangugi and Marion Wangugi were divorced in 1995. In 1997, Marion Wangugi was awarded physical custody. In February 1999, Joseph Wangugi filed a motion to modify custody of the parties' two children. He alleged that a change of circumstances had occurred and that the children's best interests would be served by modifying the custody order. Marion Wangugi, by then a Jehovah's Witness, had decided that she would remove the children from Catholic school, which they had attended since kindergarten. After interviewing both children, the lower court decided to modify custody to allow the son to live with Joseph Wangugi. The son did not want to attend public school, and Joseph Wangugi, a Catholic, agreed that he would enroll the son in a Catholic school in his locale. The court noted that although Aaron enjoys a loving relationship with both his mother and father, the son expressed his desire to live with his father. Additionally, several years had passed since the original custody award and the son had matured and developed common interests with his father. No change in custody was made with respect to the daughter.
Marion Wangugi argued that the trial court inappropriately considered her WatchTower religious faith when considering whether to modify the custody order. This appellate court disagreed, stating: "... we find no evidence that the trial court considered appellant's religion or religious practices when determining the custody modification issue. We acknowledge that the magistrate's report contained accurate statements of fact regarding the parties' religious practices. The report did not, however, rely upon the parties' religious differences when resolving the custody modification issue. In fact, the magistrate's report explicitly indicates that neither child expressed any concerns with either parent's religious practice and that neither child displayed any adverse effects from appellant's religious beliefs."
CHECKLEY v. KEIZER CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES ET AL was a 1998-2005 Oregon appellate court case that involved the custody of a disabled adult Jehovah's Witness named Shad Alan Wagner. Shad Wagner's (step?) brother, Ronald H. Checkley, was appointed Wagner's guardian and conservator in 1981. Checkley's relationship with Wagner was analogous to the relationship of a parent to their child. Wagner suffered disabling injuries from a car accident in 1975, when he was 22 years old. The injuries left him with diminished eyesight, partial paralysis on one side of his body, severe difficulties in walking, and significant brain damage, including difficulties with abstract reasoning and social judgment. Cognitively, Wagner functioned at the level of a six-year-old child. As a result of his brain damage, Wagner was highly vulnerable to suggestion. After the accident, Wagner's mother was appointed his guardian and conservator. When she died in 1981, Ronald Checkley, Wagner's brother and sole living family member, was appointed to that role. In that capacity, Checkley had many if not all of the same legal responsibilities of care and supervision that characterize a parent's responsibilities to a child.
The two brother's Mother had been a Jehovah's Witness for an unknown period of time. Shad Wagner had also become a JW after he was disabled. Ronald Checkley was not a JW, and whether there was any previous association with the JWs is doubtful. The brothers lived together amicably until 1993, when the relationship between Wagner and Checkley began to deteriorate. Wagner appeared more withdrawn around and less interested in his brother and other family members. The two brothers also began to argue about the extent to which Wagner should be involved in JW activities. Wagner wanted to become involved in the JW's door-to-door proselytizing activities. However, citing concerns for Wagner's safety, Checkley would not allow Wagner to participate.
Tensions between the two brothers escalated in February 1994, when an Elder from the Keizer Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses took Shad Wagner to meet with an Oregon Disability Services Caseworker. The meeting had been prearranged by the JW Elder and his Elderette wife, who both also participated in the complaint session. There is little doubt that the JW Elder and the JW Elderette had also prepped Shad Wagner for this meeting. Wagner told the caseworker that he wanted his "competency" restored, and a list of grievances were proffered. The grievances included infrequency of bathing, lack of vegetables in his diet, and the poor quality of his clothing. Wagner also requested that he be allowed to attend more meetings at the local Kingdom Hall, and that he be allowed to associate more frequently with members of the Congregation. The JW Elder and the JW Elderette portrayed Checkley as insensitive, not meeting Wagner's needs, and as a bad guy who, to the extent he had recently done better in caring for Wagner, was doing so just for looks. The JW Elder and the JW Elderette maintained that Checkley was trying to make Wagner seem less functional than he was.
The very next day, the state Disability Services Caseworker visited the home of Wagner and Checkley. The Caseworker observed that Wagner had plenty of adequate clothing, and an ample supply of fruits and vegetables. Checkley acknowledged to the caseworker that he had back problems that prevented him from bathing Wagner more than once a week. The Caseworker found no evidence of physical or emotional abuse. When the caseworker discussed with Wagner the inaccuracies of his allegations, Wagner admitted that he had "forgotten these things," and emphasized that his main complaint was that he wanted to spend more time with other Jehovah's Witnesses.
It was obvious to Ronald Checkley that the source of the recent problems between he and his brother were the JW Elder and JW Elderette. This same JW Couple drove Wagner to all Congregation meetings, took him on outings with their family, and regularly spoke with him on the telephone. On the advice of an attorney, Checkley decided not to allow his brother to associate anymore with that JW Couple. Checkley also significantly reduced the number of Congregation meetings that Wagner could attend.
In April 1994, Cease and Desist letters were sent to both the JW Elder/Elderette and to the JW Congregation itself. The C&D letters accused the JW Couple of interfering with the guardian/ward relationship by encouraging Wagner to live with them, by attempting to sever the guardian/ward relationship in favor of themselves, and by fabricating false reports of abuse and neglect. The letters further demanded that the JWs cease and desist from further contact with Wagner.
Despite the C&D letters, the Two-Headed JW Monster continued to talk with Wagner by telephone, and even arranged for Wagner to consult with an attorney of their choosing. The JWs drove Wagner to the attorney's office for the appointment and participated in the meeting. Thereafter, JW Elderette maintained telephone communication with Wagner's attorney. Several months later (late 94? - early 95?), Wagner's attorney filed a petition to have Checkley removed as Wagner's conservator and guardian, and to appoint a successor. Wagner vacillated on his decision to pursue replacement of his brother Ronald as his guardian and conservator, but whenever Wagner had doubts he would discuss the matter with someone from the Kingdom Hall, who would encourage him to proceed with the change.
Wagner ultimately followed through with the removal petition. After an exhaustive accounting, investigation, and hearing, the probate court declined to remove Ronald as Wagner's guardian/conservator. Instead, the court imposed guidelines for resolving disputes between the two brothers, and instructed Ronald to "allow and reasonably facilitate [Wagner's] worship and participation in activities at a Jehovah's Witnesses Church." "Reasonably facilitate" included "arranging or providing transportation and providing [Wagner] with appropriate clothing, spending money, and money for donation to the church commensurate with [Wagner's] resources." Checkley was given the authority to change Wagner's place of worship to another Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall if he reasonably, and in good faith, believed that members of the Keizer Congregation were undermining plaintiff's role as Wagner's guardian.
No doubt reeling from the effects of his brother's disloyalty after 14+ years of loyal service, Ronald concluded that his relationship with his brother had been irreparably destroyed by the Jehovah's Witnesses. Checkley sold the house in which he and Wagner had lived together since 1981, and he placed Wagner in an adult foster care facility.
Checkley thereafter filed this lawsuit against the JW Elder, the JW Elderette, and the Keizer Oregon Congregation Of Jehovah's Witnesses. Checkley alleged that the JW Elder and Elderette, while acting under the direction and control of the Keizer Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, destroyed the relationship between him and his brother. In particular, Checkley alleged that the JW Elder and Elderette manipulated and coerced Wagner into believing that Ronald stole money from Wagner and dealt dishonestly in handling Wagner's finances; that Ronald physically and emotionally abused and neglected Wagner; that Ronald was holding Wagner prisoner; and that Ronald was an instrument of Satan, or was Satan. Checkley further alleged that the JW Elder's and Elderette's manipulation of Wagner caused Wagner to bring a guardianship proceeding to have Ronald removed as Wagner's conservator and guardian, which the probate court declined to do.
The case went to trial in December 1998. Ronald Checkley, as guardian and on behalf of his disabled brother, Shad Wagner, brought Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) claims alleging that the JW Elder and JW Elderette engaged in a pattern of brainwashing, influencing, manipulating, and coercing Wagner. Checkley also brought actions on his own behalf for IIED, and for wrongful use of civil proceedings. On all counts, Checkley alleged that the Keizer Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses was vicariously liable for the Elder's and the Elderette's conduct because they had been acting under the Congregation's direction and control.
The trial court dismissed Checkley's two actions on his own behalf due to failure to state a claim. The claims Checkley brought on Wagner's behalf proceeded to a jury trial, and the trial judge issued a directed verdict in defendants' favor at the close of plaintiff's case-in-chief. Checkley appealed. In November 2000, the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the directed verdict on the claims Checkley brought on Wagner's behalf. However, the appellate court reversed and remanded the trial judge's dismissal of Checkley's own claims for IIED and wrongful use of civil proceedings brought against Elder and Elderette, as well as Checkley's related claims for IIED and wrongful use of civil proceedings brought against the Keizer Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses on the theory of vicarious liability.
The date is not known, but at the new trial the court granted summary judgment to defendants on Checkley's claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), wrongful use of a civil proceeding, and vicarious liability of the Keizer Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. Checkley appealed. In March 2005, the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment on the wrongful use and vicarious liability claims, but reversed and remanded Checkley's IIED claim, stating in part:

We now conclude that the summary judgment record, viewed most favorably to plaintiff, gives rise to triable issues of fact on the element of outrageousness. That is so based on the transcript of the original trial, even without the audiotape recordings on which plaintiff relies. From the testimony in the original trial, a jury could find that the [JW Elder and Elderette] were aware of Wagner's disability, including his cognitive limitations and suggestibility. In particular, the record permits a finding that Wagner, due to cognitive limitations caused by his severe brain injury years before, is easily led, easily influenced, and easily made to say or think whatever someone wants him to say or think. A jury could infer that Wagner's vulnerability would be obvious to anyone interacting with him, especially the [JW Elder and Elderette], who had significant and ongoing contacts with Wagner. In addition, the record establishes that the [JW Elder and& Elderette] had reviewed the court order that appointed plaintiff to be Wagner's conservator and guardian based on Wagner's lack of competency. Indeed, the [JW Elder and Elderette] provided copies of that court order to the caseworker who interviewed Wagner after, as earlier described, the [JW Elder and Elderette] took Wagner to Disability Services to complain that plaintiff was neglecting him.

A jury could also infer on this record that the [JW Elder and Elderette] were instrumental in causing Wagner to seek an investigation into the adequacy of plaintiff's care of Wagner and to remove plaintiff as his guardian. In talking to the disability caseworker, the [JW& Elder and Elderette] portrayed plaintiff as insensitive, not meeting Wagner's needs, and as a "bad guy" who, to the extent he had recently done better in caring for Wagner, was doing so "just for looks." The [JW Elder and Elderette] maintained that plaintiff was trying to make Wagner seem less functional than he was. A jury could find, however, that Wagner was severely limited in his cognitive abilities and those limitations were apparent to anyone-- including the [JW Elder and Elderette] -- who dealt with him. There is evidence that the [JW Elder and Elderette] encouraged Wagner to lie to plaintiff, which created more conflict for Wagner, who was ordinarily a very honest individual. Also, the record provides evidence that Wagner's cognitive impairment is such that he has a limited ability to initiate change and to sustain any motivation to do so. From that, a jury could infer that it was the [JW Elder and Elderette], not Wagner, who were really pressing the complaints about plaintiff's care and that the [JW Elder and Elderette] provided the motivation for Wagner to pursue the guardianship proceeding.

The outcome of the disability caseworker's investigation and the guardianship proceeding provides a basis for a jury to conclude that the [JW Elder and Elderette], in pressing Wagner to pursue those allegations, were deliberately defaming plaintiff, either in an effort to turn Wagner against plaintiff--his only living family member--or with indifference to that consequence. The caseworker found no significant deficiencies in the food, clothing, living environment, or other aspects of the home that plaintiff provided for Wagner. Testimony by others portrayed plaintiff as a caring and conscientious brother and caretaker. Indeed, according to the caseworker, the [JW Elder and Elderette] were aware that Wagner was fond of plaintiff and that Wagner's charges that he was being neglected created tension in their relationship. A jury could conclude that the [JW Elder and Elderette] persistence, in light of the unfounded allegations of neglect and the destruction to Wagner personally and to his relationship with his guardian and only living family member, was outrageous conduct.

The jury could also find outrageous conduct based on the evidence pertaining to the outcome of the proceeding brought to remove plaintiff as guardian. The probate judge expressly found that plaintiff and Wagner had a good relationship until 18 months before the proceeding; that plaintiff "is and has been genuinely concerned about [Wagner's] best interest, both now and over the 20 years since" Wagner's accident; that the conflict and tension between plaintiff and Wagner was due to the influence of certain members of the Congregation, not the tenets of Wagner's faith; that the guardianship proceeding would not have occurred without the encouragement of those members of the Congregation; and that the guardianship proceedings had been very damaging to plaintiff and Wagner's relationship, but not irreparably so. The probate judge did not, either in her letter opinion, her order, or her trial testimony, identify the [JW Elder and Elderette] as the Congregation members who had influenced Wagner. But in the context of the evidence as a whole, a jury could readily infer that the probate judge was referring to them. As we later describe, the probate court awarded some relief on the guardianship petition. But the probate court declined to remove plaintiff as guardian and specifically gave plaintiff the ability to require Wagner to worship at another Jehovah's Witnesses church and to restrict Wagner's interaction with any individual in the church that plaintiff, in good faith, believed was damaging their relationship.

Defendants do not dispute the existence of that evidence in the summary judgment record. They contend only that, from it, a jury could not conclude that the [JW Elder and Elderette] were deliberately defaming plaintiff, rather than trying in good faith to assist Wagner to address his complaints and concerns about the quality of plaintiff's care. We disagree. Although the inferences from the record as a whole may be competing, the evidence viewed most favorably to plaintiff permits a factual conclusion that the [JW Elder and Elderette] defamation of plaintiff was deliberate; that the [JW Elder and Elderette] pressed Wagner to move forward on the guardianship proceeding despite the fact that the caseworker's investigation refuted any significant concerns; that the [JW Elder and Elderette] did so knowing of Wagner's extreme suggestibility; and that they were indifferent to the internal conflict that those actions created for Wagner and to the effect on plaintiff and Wagner's relationship, or possibly even intended to subvert that relationship. Such inferences, if a jury were to choose to draw them, would support a finding that the [JW Elder and Elderette] conduct was outrageous.

The audiotapes provide further support for such a finding on a jury's part. Viewing the evidence provided by the audiotapes in the light most favorable to plaintiff, a jury reasonably could find, among other conclusions, that:

[JW Elderette] pressed Wagner to pursue a guardianship proceeding through his attorney when Wagner seemed to lack motivation to do so, often telling Wagner what to say to his attorney;

[JW Elderette] was so proactive as to try (albeit unsuccessfully) to meet personally with Wagner's attorney, without Wagner present and without his advance knowledge or approval, to press the attorney to move forward on the guardianship proceeding;

When Wagner decided he was wrong in thinking that plaintiff had neglected his needs, [JW Elderette] insisted that he was not and persuaded him otherwise;

When Wagner tried to convince [JW Elderette] that plaintiff was careful with Wagner's financial resources and had receipts for what plaintiff spent on Wagner's behalf, [JW Elderette] insisted otherwise, without any apparent basis for knowing otherwise, and maintained that plaintiff mismanaged and pilfered Wagner's money;

[JW Elderette], contrary to all evidence and experience, tried to convince Wagner that he had a normal IQ and that plaintiff wanted Wagner to be "mentally retarded" and obtained that diagnosis through a biased doctor;

[JW Elderette] told Wagner repeatedly, in the context of conversations in which she tried to persuade him to maintain resolve to pursue the change of guardianship, that plaintiff was "Satan" and under the influence of Satan.

This 2005 appellate decision left alive only Ronald Checkley's IIED claim against the JW Elder/Elderette. There is no indication that that claim has ever been pursued in court. Probably for good reason.
Readers might be interested to know that this JW Couple just coincidentally opened an adult-foster-care business in their home in November 1996, but it lasted only until January 1998. However, an unidentified elderly couple reportedly continued to live with [JW Elder/Elderette] from the mid 1990s until they each eventually died.
Also, prior to the first trial, and prior to the first appellate decision, this JW Couple twice filed separation and/or divorce paperwork, despite continuing to live together, in what some have speculated was an attempt to hide assets from any judgment that might have resulted from Checkley's lawsuit.
Readers might also be interested to know that one of the actors in this saga is dead, and was possibly murdered, and a second actor in this saga is currently serving prison time for manslaughter of a different person. Other people connected with some of these actors have also been murdered. Bet ya don't know who fits what slot!!!


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