Can an act of domestic violence by one parent against the other constitute sufficient “changed circumstance” to warrant a Court’s re-examination of an existing custodial arrangement? New Jersey law requires that a party seeking to modify a custody arrangement first establish the existence of such “changed circumstance” that affect the welfare of the child involved. Only after proving this threshold burden will a Court engage in a “best interest” of the child analysis to determine a custody award. The best interest analysis is based on the 14 factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4.
Affirming a trial court’s order awarding primary residential custody of the parties’ nine-year old daughter to the plaintiff father, the Appellate Division in Chen v. Chen recently concluded that the mother’s act of driving over the father’s foot and dragging him for a few feet as he held onto the car in the presence of the daughter constituted a sufficient “changed circumstance” to trigger a “best interest” analysis. The father had filed a complaint after the incident under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (“PDVA”), N.J.S.A. 2C:15 to -35, resulting in the issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order wherein custody of the child was temporarily transferred to the father. A Final Restraining Order was subsequently entered maintaining the custody arrangement pending a full custody evaluation and hearing that ultimately resulted in the father’s designation as the primary residential custodian.
In its affirmance, the Appellate Division rejected for three reasons the mother’s argument that the act of domestic violence could not constitute changed circumstances because the child was not physically subjected to the violence. First, the Court generally surmised that, “It seems obvious to us that domestic violence committed in the presence of a minor inherently implicates the child’s health, safety and welfare.” Next, the Court relied on the terms of the PDVA, which presumes that “the best interests of the child are served by an award of custody to the non-abusive parent” when determining temporary custody following an act of violence. Third, it rationalized that, because N.J.S.A. 9:2-4 deems this an act of domestic violence is a “critical factor” in determining custody, it, by correlation, also suffices to establish changed circumstances.
The Appellate Division also affirmed the trial court’s best interest analysis based on proof of the mother’s domestic violence; her use of a wooden spoon to punish the child; her inflexible adherence to the parenting schedule; her failure to timely inform the father that she had relocated to New Jersey; and the child’s improved developmental growth and resolution of behavioral problems that manifested themselves while she was with her mother. Notably, the Court also rejected the mother’s charge of cultural bias stemming from the trial court’s conclusion that the values instilled by the father would continue to aid in the child’s development in a “twenty-first century United States,” since the trial court’s analysis was deemed proper and objective under 9:2-4.
Parents should keep their hostilities towards each other in check, as the Appellate Divisions’ opinion suggests that any act of domestic violence towards the other in front of the child will likely fulfill the changed circumstances threshold should a party seek to modify a custody arrangement. Parties should also be careful to abide by the terms of the PSA regarding custody, as the trial court (although not addressed by the Appellate Division) noted that even the mother’s failure to notify the father of her relocation to New Jersey with the child pursuant to the terms of the PSA also constituted changed circumstances justifying a best interest analysis.
EDITOR’S NOTE: People should not forget that upon the entry of a final restraining order, there is a legal presumption that the victim should get custody. Like all presumptions, this is rebuttable. This presumption does not extend to civil restraints (i.e. a Consent Order in the matrimonial matter that is similar to a restraining order but is not under the domestic violence docket and not punishable by criminal contempt if violated). That said, if there are true custody issues and a domestic violence matter arises, one must think long and hard about whether to settle the matter and enter into civil restraints. – Eric S. Solotoff