Grandmother secures reversal in child custody case against father

A grandmother who says she helped “pick up the pieces” of her grandchild’s life after the minor was molested in her father’s home has secured a reversal from the Court of Appeals of Indiana in a custody battle.

Samuel C. Johnson and Amber Johnson, who are the parents of child J.J., split up in November 2015. The child was left in her father’s care but reported to her mother that she was being molested by her two half-brothers in her father’s home.

Criminal charges were filed against the brothers, and the child subsequently lived with her mother and was not returned to her father’s care.

In February 2019, J.J. began living with her grandmother, Jacquetta Hahn-Weisz. Amber Johnson signed informal guardianship and custody documents that purported to give Hahn-Weisz custody of the child, but those documents were never filed in any court.

Even so, the grandmother continued to provide care for the child for the next several years. Neither parent provided financial support.

When the parents filed for divorce in July 2019, Hahn-Weisz intervened and filed a petition for third-party custody of J.J. The parties temporarily agreed that J.J. would remain in Hahn-Weisz’s custody at the recommendation of a court appointed special advocate.

Subsequent CASA reports recommended that the child continue living with her grandmother, despite incremental progress in reunification therapy between the child and her father.

The CASA’s final March 2021 report stated that J.J.’s relationship with her father continued to improve and that “[c]ustody of [the Child] is not an issue at this time” because the parties were “willing for [the Child] to remain in her grandmother’s custody.”

However, Samuel filed a petition to modify custody in July 2021, which the Union Circuit Court partially granted. The trial court determined the danger that caused the removal of the child from Samuel’s home no longer existed, as the half-brothers had moved out and one of them was incarcerated.

But the Court of Appeals reversed in agreement with Hahn-Weisz, who argued on appeal that the trial court failed to consider the relevant statutes and the child’s best interests.

“We note that the trial court’s abbreviated findings do not discuss the relevant statutes, our Supreme Court’s cases on this issue, the burdens of the parties, or this Child’s best interests,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote. “… Our review leads us to the conclusion that Grandmother met her burden of clear and convincing evidence that modification of custody is not in the Child’s best interests.”

In support of its conclusion, the COA pointed to J.J.’s early life trauma, the fact that Samuel had minimal contact with her and the fact that she had lived with Hahn-Weisz for several years with Samuel’s acquiescence.

Further, the COA noted that it could not determine whether the trial court considered the factors in Indiana Code § 31-17-2-8.5, and that the record was silent regarding whether the trial court found that the grandmother was a de facto custodian.

“We conclude that Grandmother has demonstrated prima facie error,” Tavitas wrote. “The trial court clearly erred by granting Father’s petition for modification of custody of the Child. Accordingly, we reverse.”

The case is Jacquetta Hahn-Weisz v. Samuel C. Johnson and Amber Johnson, 22A-DC-36.

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