The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the modification of a mother’s parenting time to end any visitation with her autistic son because the father didn’t present evidence justifying terminating the parenting time. The judges also encouraged the mother to attend parenting classes or therapy to learn how to better deal with her son’s special needs.
Mother P.S. and father W.C. had one son together, W.C., who has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. In May 2010, the mother’s parenting time was modified to Sundays from noon to 1 p.m. at a local McDonald’s, with the father supervising, and telephone calls on Wednesdays between 3 and 5 p.m. Mother was also ordered to treat their son appropriately for his age as a 10-year-old and refrain from talking about adult topics with him.
The father documented the visits and phone calls in a three-page journal, noting P.S. brought calendars with court dates on them, asked her son to tell her “I love you” so she could record it, and brought up his old school and behavior. She also fed him, brought him toys and books appropriate for preschoolers, and spoke baby talk to him on the phone.
After one of the visits, the son became upset and soiled himself that day. The son also reverted back to baby talk and became obsessed with baby things instead of items appropriate for a 10-year-old.
At a hearing, the mother explained that she brought the calendars because she knew her son liked them and didn’t think he’d know what the court dates meant; that she was just reminiscing when she brought up his old school and behavior to show how much he has grown; and that she had possibly referred to him as “baby,” but is trying to treat him like a pre-teen.
The trial court suspended her parenting rights and any other contact with her son and granted a protective order against her until July 2020, when W.C. would be 20.
In Paternity of W.C.; P.S. v. W.C., No. 82A04-1008-JP-496, the judges found father W.C. did not prove the need for such a restriction on P.S.’s parenting time. The evidence he presented was his journal; no guardian ad litem, therapist, or any other professional or objective witness testified. Based on the journal, the court found the mother’s actions endangered her son’s physical health and mental well-being by causing W.C. to be upset and anxious and impaired his emotional development.
While mother needs to improve her parenting skills, the evidence shows she loves her son and wants to be a part of his life and even brings him gifts, wrote Judge Nancy Vaidik.
“This case throws into sharp relief the challenge of protecting a child’s emotional development and physical health and well-being while also recognizing a parent’s ‘precious privilege’ of exercising parenting time with that child. We do not minimize the behavioral issues W.C. has exhibited following Mother’s parenting time. However, Father simply did not present evidence justifying termination of what little parenting time Mother had left,” she wrote.
The appellate court reinstated the previous parenting time and asked the trial court to vacate the 10-year protective order. On remand, the judges encouraged the trial court to consider ordering the mother to attend parenting classes so she can learn how to appropriately deal with W.C.’s special needs. They also suggested the parenting time be supervised by a third party.