September 16, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The court’s holding may be summarized as follows: where a custodial parent deliberately alienates a child from its non-custodial parent, the non-custodial parent’s obligation to pay child support may be suspended.
Robert Coull and Pamela Rottman were married and had a son. They divorced and Rottman was named his primary custodial parent with Coull having visitation rights and the obligation to pay about $1,800 per month as child support. Despite his order of visitation, Coull virtually never saw his son.
A forensic evaluator testified in Coull that Rottman's interference with a regular schedule of visitation between Coull and his son has resulted in a "pattern of alienation."
The evaluator also testified that she was unable to complete her report because the child did not appear for an interview and Rottman refused to allow her to speak with mental health providers or school officials.
Coull last visited his son in February 2010. For the next several months, he said he would go to the exchange location on visitation days, but often neither Rottman nor his son would be there. In one instance, both Rottman and the child appeared, but Rottman said the boy would not leave the car.
"Further, the record reflects that the mother, who represented herself before the Family Court, assumed an inappropriately hostile stance toward the father and witnesses who testified in his favor," the panel wrote.
[Trial Judge, Hal] Greenwald noted in his decision that Rottman stated many times that she would never allow Coull to see his child and would do "whatever it takes" to keep the boy away from him, the panel wrote.
In short, for about 5 ½ years of the boy’s 13-year life, Rottman happily accepted child support from his father, but refused to allow the child to see his father. Meanwhile, it’s clear that she maintained a campaign of turning him against Coull. That campaign obviously worked, resulting in a child who thoroughly aligned with her against his father.
The trial court ruled that, despite Rottman’s alienation of the child and her years-long violation of the court’s order of visitation, Coull had to continue to pay to support a child he never saw. That could be justified under the basic rule that child support and visitation aren’t dependent on each other. That is, the mere fact that visitation is denied by the custodial parent doesn’t absolve the non-custodial parent of paying support, and vice versa.
But Greenwald did no such thing. No, he went a step further. He also denied Coull’s motion to enforce his rights of visitation. Therefore, as of the last hearing before Greenwald, Coull had no right to see his child, but still had to pay to support him. And, as the judge admitted, Coull’s lack of contact with his son was through no fault of his. That was entirely a result of Rottman’s deliberate violation of the judge’s orders. In short, Judge Greenwald was avidly promoting parental alienation of Coull’s son. He did exactly what Rottman had wanted all along – the money without the visitation.
That ruling was despicable and the appellate court modified it. It ordered that, given Rottman’s consistent, ongoing alienation and refusal to allow the court-ordered contact, she should at least forfeit Coull’s money. As of now, Coull doesn’t get to see his son, his son doesn’t get to see him and the boy has but one person to depend on for financial support – Rottman.
The court relied on several New York state court precedents to relieve Coull of his obligation of support. Here’s one of them, in which the court said this:
Generally, parents have a statutory duty to continually support their children until they reach 21 years of age (see Family Ct Act § 413  [a]; Foster v Daigle, 25 AD3d 1002, 1004 ). "However, where the noncustodial parent establishes that his or her right of reasonable access to the child has been unjustifiably frustrated by the custodial parent, child support payments may be suspended" (Matter of Crouse v Crouse, 53 AD3d 750, 751 ; see Ledgin v Ledgin, 36 AD3d 669, 670 ; Usack v Usack, 17 AD3d 736, 737-738 ; Doyle v Doyle, 198 AD2d 256 ; Matter of Welsh v Lawler, 144 AD2d 226, 228 ). Such suspension of child support is "warranted only where the custodial parent's actions rise to the level of `deliberate frustration' or `active interference' with the noncustodial parent's visitation rights" (Ledgin v Ledgin, 36 AD3d at 670, quoting Weinreich v Weinreich, 184 AD2d 505, 506 ; see Matter of Rivera v Echavarria, 48 AD3d 578 ; Matter of Smith v Graves, 305 AD2d 419 ; Hiross v Hiross, 224 AD2d 662, 663 ).
As I said, the Coull vs. Rottman case, along with its predecessors, can be beneficial. Their holding that parental alienation and withholding visitation can result in the loss of child support discourages custodial parents from engaging in those destructive behaviors. Family courts far too seldom take steps to prevent parents from alienating children from loving parents. Indeed, courts’ failure to enforce visitation orders is one of the prime complaints of non-custodial parents everywhere. So any effort to convince custodial parents that judges mean business is welcome.
But, however salutary the appellate court’s ruling may be, the trial court in Coull vs. Rottman failed in just about every possible way. The simple fact is that it allowed Rottman to utterly destroy the relationship between a boy and his father without apparently ever lifting a finger. Why did it not step in earlier to prevent the alienation or nip it in the bud? Judge Greenwald had no fewer than six opportunities over the years to do so. Coull repeatedly moved the court to enforce his rights of visitation and end the alienation that was occurring, but each time Greenwald refused to do anything effective. That failure, along with the alienation itself will almost certainly prove injurious to Coull’s son far into his adult life.
The science on alienated children finds them exhibiting significantly more psychological problems later in life, particularly with respect to forming and maintaining intimate relationships. My guess is that Coull’s son has exactly that in store for himself and probably in spades. After all, the boy’s alienation by his mother began very early in his life and will continue at least until he heads off to college.
The appellate court’s ruling makes perfect sense, but comes far too late to repair the damage that’s already been done. A boy has lost his father and a father his son. A mother’s frank, admitted campaign of alienation – which mental health professionals knowledgeable about parental alienation refer to as child abuse – has been rewarded in two ways. First, the courts allowed it to go on and second they for years required Coull to continue paying Rottman, i.e. supporting her alienation of their son.
Can anyone point me to anything positive about this case other than the commonsense ruling by the higher court that, where a family is irretrievably broken by intentional alienation of a child, the father need not continue paying the freight?
Reasonable as the appellate court’s ruling is, the case stands as mute testimony to the incompetence and ineffectiveness of family courts.
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