Father allowed limited contact with teen son despite protective order, COA rules

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A father accused of physical abuse against his teenage son can have limited contact with his son despite a protective order after the Court of Appeals of Indiana determined the protective order went too far in cutting off contact between the father and son for two years.

Z.B.M.L. was 14 years old when he “asked and begged” his mother, M.M., to take measures regarding his relationship with his father as their interactions became increasingly contentious.

In August 2021, M.M. filed a petition for a protective order on behalf of her son against J.L., the child’s father, alleging J.L. had threatened, attempted and caused physical harm to the teen. She also alleged J.L. placed the teen in fear of physical harm and “committed repeated acts of harassment against the child.”

In one incident, the petition alleged J.L. pinned down his son and squeezed the child’s face, which allegedly “happens frequently” when they are together.

An ex parte order for protection on behalf of Z.B.M.L. was granted, and the matter was transferred to the trial court that was addressing the parties’ paternity action.

Z.B.M.L., who participated in an in camera interview, indicated he and his father fought “fairly frequently,” adding that the fights began to escalate when he turned 13 and that he doesn’t feel safe when they argue.

The teen testified that his dad has held his hand over his mouth, squeezed his cheeks, pushed him down, held him on the bed, held his arms tightly and pushed him into a wall. He characterized his father’s actions as a repetitive situation that makes him feel as if he is “walking on [] explosive eggshells,” and he described J.L. as being “physically controlling.”

The Allen Superior Court determined that J.L. presented a “credible threat to the safety” of his son and that domestic or family violence had occurred sufficient to justify the issuance of a protective order. The protective order prohibited J.L. from “harassing, annoying, telephoning, contacting, or directly or indirectly communicating” with his son for two years and ordered for him “to stay away from” the teen’s home and school.

In a partial reversal, the appellate court found that although the grant of the protective order against J.L. was proper, the trial court erred in denying him direct or indirect contact with his son for two years.

“If Father does have contact, he could be charged with invasion of privacy, a Class A misdemeanor,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote. “We find that Mother presented insufficient evidence to warrant a two-year order of protection with absolutely no contact between Father and Child, and the order exceeded that which was necessary to stop the violence.”

The appellate court offered the example of J.L. being subject to criminal penalties for sending his son “a text, letter, or gift” or for attending his son’s sporting events or school functions, “even though there is no evidence that Father would be a danger to Child at such public events.”

The COA further concluded that the trial court did not find that all types of parenting time, including supervised parenting time, with J.L. would “endanger Child’s physical health or emotional development,” as required to modify parenting time.

Rather than removing all contact for two years, the appellate court said a better practice would be to issue a limited-duration protection order and fashion a parenting time order that implements supervised parenting time, therapeutic parenting time and/or other methods.

“The trial court noted that Child was starting counseling and that the order for protection could be modified as the circumstances evolved,” Tavitas wrote. “Custody, education, parenting time, and support issues were pending before the trial court in the paternity cause at the time the order for protection was issued. Given these circumstances, we conclude that the trial court erred by ordering a complete denial of parenting time and all contact for two years.

“… Accordingly, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for the trial court to amend the protection order to allow certain contact between Father and Child, including supervised and/or therapeutic parenting time with Child, and attendance at the Child’s school functions until this matter is addressed more fully in the paternity action.”

The case is J.L. v. M.M., 22A-PO-512.

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