COA affirms custody of child to stepfather over biological father’s appeal

A stepfather may keep legal and physical custody of his ex-wife’s child despite objections from the biological father, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has ruled.

Mother H.L. had a child with father G.S. Jr. in 2012. Shortly after the child, J.S., was born and father executed a paternity test acknowledging that he was the child’s biological father, mother and father called it quits.

Father then only saw J.S. on a few occasions within a “couple of weeks” in 2012 and also exercised parenting time for 1½ months in 2014. Meanwhile, mother’s ex-husband A.L. met J.S. while picking up his son with mother, D.L., for parenting time.

At some point, stepfather decided to take J.S. under his wing and bring the child along with D.L. for parenting time. Mother and stepfather eventually decided to reconcile and live together when J.S. was less than 1 year old.

But when mother moved out in 2017, J.S. remained with stepfather, where he has lived continuously ever since. After being investigated for providing D.L. with marijuana and for her own substance abuse, mother agreed that stepfather would retain custody of J.S.

But when J.S.’s biological father eventually began exercising parenting time, mother petitioned for an order to “maintain status quo” with respect to J.S.’s custody. The Hendricks Superior Court entered orders regarding interim parenting time for mother and father while J.S. remained in stepfather’s custody.

At a final hearing to determine child custody, parenting time and child support, mother testified that she believed the best place for J.S to live would be with stepfather. A guardian ad litem also recommended custody be awarded to him.

Thus, the trial court granted stepfather sole legal and primary physical custody of J.S., with mother and father each having substantial, unsupervised parenting time. Both were also ordered to begin providing child support.

Only father appealed, but the COA affirmed, concluding there was sufficient evidence to overcome the presumption in his favor.

“The evidence indicates that Stepfather has been the stabilizing force in Child’s life for many years during Father’s absence and Mother’s struggles,” Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote Monday. “By all accounts, these years of stability have permitted Child to forge a strong bond with D.L. and with Stepfather. The guardian ad litem opined that, although Child was developing a continually growing bond with Father, it would be ‘difficult’ for him to leave Stepfather’s custody.”

The appellate court also concluded there was no indication that the trial court failed to engage in an appropriate best-interests analysis.

The COA noted that while the statutes contain no requirement that the trial court articulate its reasoning with respect to each factor, its order was replete with references “to Child’s age, adjustment to home and community, interrelationships with the parties and siblings, wishes of the parties, circumstances surrounding Mother’s placement of Child with Stepfather, and Stepfather’s historical provision of care and support to Child.”

The court thus concluded that father had not shown that any abuse of discretion occurred in the trial court’s decision, therefore affirming in G. S., Jr. v. H.L., 21A-JP-1382.

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