COA reverses trial court’s modification in child custody case

A trial court erred in granting a petition for sole custody of a child to his father and will need to revisit its decision, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled.

In Ashley D. (Ramey) Day-Ping v. Charles T. Ramey, III, 21A-DR-295, mother Ashley Day-Ping and father Charles Ramey were married April 25, 2014, and their child was born on Nov. 13 of that year.

In January 2017, the trial court accepted a settlement agreement between the couple and granted dissolution of their marriage. The agreement provided that Ashley would have sole legal and physical custody of the child while Charles would have parenting time while paying the mother $119 per week in child support.

Previously, the Department of Child Services in 2016 received a report that Ashley was neglecting the child by allowing him to wander around her hair salon and play with a bottle of hair dye. DCS investigated and found the report to be unsubstantiated.

Then in July 2017, mother reported to DCS that Charles had physically abused her and the child on multiple occasions in the past. She contacted DCS with similar concerns multiple times that August.

Also in August 2017, DCS received a report that Ashley was abusing the child based on a blister found in the genital area that was allegedly not present during the father’s parenting time. Following the report, DCS removed the child from the mother’s care on an emergency basis and placed him with the father.

DCS then filed a petition alleging the child was a child in need of services based on the mother’s alleged neglect. The juvenile court held a fact-finding hearing and ultimately denied the CHINS petition, ordering the child returned to the mother’s care.

Subsequently, the mother filed an action in federal court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claiming the two DCS family case managers who investigated the CHINS allegations violated her civil rights. That claim settled out of court, with Ashley receiving a $988,000 settlement.

In late 2019, Ashley moved to modify parenting time, and Charles responded with his own motion to modify custody, parenting time and child support. The trial court ultimately ordered that father’s parenting time supervised by Youth Connections while requiring mother, father and child to submit to mental health and custody evaluations conducted by Dr. Linda McIntire. The parenting time supervisor was later changed to Mending Fences.

The following June, Charles filed a motion to hold Ashley in contempt, alleging she had failed to complete intake with Mending Fences per the order. He also filed a motion to modify parenting time and a request for an expedited hearing.

The trial court held hearings on Charles’ contempt motion and, in August 2020, found Ashley was in willful contempt of the court’s order. Further, the trial court ordered the father to have parenting time pursuant to the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines.

Then in December, McIntire submitted her custody evaluation to the trial court. Ashley made a motion for specific findings by the court pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 52, and in February 2021, the trial court issued its order transferring sole legal and primary physical custody of the child from the mother to the father while also making Ashley pay $137 in child support per week and $9,000 for the father’s attorney fees. In addition, the father’s girlfriend was appointed as the child’s temporary custodian in the event of the father’s death.

During the modification proceedings, the trial court ordered McIntire to complete a custody evaluation. The mother presented two experts to review McIntire’s report, but the trial court found “Dr. McIntire’s findings to be the more compelling, reasonable and consistent with the evidence.”

On appeal, the court found issue with the trial court’s handling of the experts in the case.

“While it is not out of the ordinary for a trial court to believe one expert instead of another, the experts’ criticisms of portions of Dr. McIntire’s report, when viewed in light of the father and girlfriend’s fraudulent behaviors in related matters, prompt us to encourage the trial court to reexamine the evidence in this case,” Judge Melissa May wrote in a Friday opinion. “For example, in his report, Dr. (Michael) Jenuwine mentions multiple instances in Dr. McIntire’s report in which he ‘observed evidence of potential bias’ in favor of the father. Specifically, he notes that Dr. McIntire’s report shows a ‘Primacy Bias’ in favor of the father based on the fact that Dr. McIntire did not interview the mother and father in a joint interview and, instead, seemed to accept father’s version of the events before considering Mother’s point of view.

“… The trial court’s order heavily favors father’s evidence, and the order relies on Dr. McIntire’s custody evaluation without acknowledging or appearing to weigh the substantial criticisms of her report lodged by Dr. Jenuwine,” May continued. “… The ancillary court proceedings concerning the August 2017 DCS case also call into question the veracity of the father and girlfriend, at the very minimum. Based on the weight the trial court gave to father’s evidence and Dr. McIntire’s report, especially in light of the fact that a jury determined the father and girlfriend committed fraud when reporting the mother to DCS, we would like the trial court to reexamine the evidence considering the entirety of the circumstances.”

In a footnote, the appellate court also ruled that the trial court erred when it designated the father’s girlfriend as a “temporary custodian” because Ashley’s parenting time privileges were not ordered to be supervised.

A new hearing must be conducted within 30 days of the opinion.

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