Last month, the Texas Supreme Court heard arguments in a very important case concerning whether a child custody agreement reached between two divorced parents via mediation can be rejected by a judge out of concern for the safety of the child.
The case in question involves Benjamin R. and Stephanie L., a former couple who divorced back in 2007 and who had a two-year-old daughter at the time of the split.
Three years after the divorce, Benjamin R. sued Stephanie L., seeking to secure primary custody of their daughter. The couple eventually entered into mediation — a process in which a trained, neutral professional helps broker a mutually acceptable agreement.
Benjamin R. was ultimately granted primary custody of the couple’s now seven-year-old daughter in April 2011. Stephanie L. agreed to visitation rights for one weekend a month at her Houston home and longer visits over the summer.
It should be noted that the custody agreement reached by the two parents expressly declared the following in bold, capital letters: “The parties also agree that this mediation agreement is binding on both of them and is not subject to revocation by either of them.”
Problems arose only three weeks later, however, when Benjamin R. appeared before an associate district court judge at an otherwise routine hearing to enter the custody agreement into the court record.
Here, Benjamin R. asked the judge to intervene and reject the custody agreement on the grounds that Stephanie L.’s new husband, Scott L., was a registered sex offender who had slept “naked in bed with my daughter between them.”
At this time, attorneys did not ask for further elaboration and Benjamin R. did not provide any further clarification. Nevertheless, the judge granted Benjamin R.’s request and refused to enter the agreement into the record.
The matter next went to hearing before a state district judge, where Stephanie L. testified that she had allowed Scott L. to stay at her home while her daughter was present despite a condition of his probation that forbid contact with children.
(Scott L. was given ten years of deferred adjudication back in 2001 for indecency with an eleven-year-old girl.)
Her attorney argued that concerns over the girl’s safety were overblown as the custody agreement stated that Scott L. must stay five miles away from the girl, provide an address and phone number of the location where he would be residing during the daughter’s visits, and allow Benjamin R. to verify his whereabouts during “reasonable times.”
Benjamin R. testified that he was aware of Scott L.’s status as a registered sex offender when he executed the custody agreement, but that he had changed his mind after discovering that Scott L. had completed his probation, meaning there was no longer any restriction on contact with children. (Curiously, no mention was made by Benjamin R. of the alleged inappropriate sleeping arrangements.)
The judge ultimately ruled that the custody agreement was not in the child’s best interests and refused to enter it into the record. The matter was set for trial, but Stephanie L. filed an appeal.
To be continued …
Stay tuned for more from our Ft. Worth family law blog …
To learn more about traditional dissolution of marriage, divorce mediation or collaborative divorce, contact an experienced and skilled legal professional.
This post is for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice. Names have been withheld to protect the identity of the parties.
The Austin American-Statesman, “Child safety case could affect disputed Texas divorces,” Chuck Lindell, May 28, 2012