Justices reverse custody order after judge ‘conflated’ contempt with best interests

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A mother has regained legal custody of her child for now after the Indiana Supreme Court reversed a trial court order Friday, finding that a lower court judge improperly “coupled” a finding of contempt against the mother with an analysis into the child’s best interests.

Justice Steven David wrote for the unanimous court Friday in In the Matter of Paternity of B.Y., Andrea Yanes-Mirabal v. Pardeep Badasay, 20S-JP-554.

After mother Andrea Yanes-Mirabal gave birth to B.Y., Pardeep Badasay in mid-2018 moved for DNA testing and sought to establish paternity, physical custody, parenting time and child support. Yanes-Mirabal was a flight attendant who was required to be back in Florida by the end of October 2018, so a Marion County judge allowed her to take B.Y. out of state pending a formal hearing in early November.

After the trial court heard evidence but before a formal order was issued, Yanes-Mirabal objected to venue in Marion County. The court agreed and determined Hamilton County was the proper venue because Badasay’s residence was in flux. The court also ordered that B.Y. not be relocated from Indiana pending further hearing, noting that Yanes-Mirabal’s job put her state of residence in question.

Once the case was moved to Hamilton Circuit Court, Badasay filed a show cause petition, alleging his ex had relocated the child from Indiana. He sought a change of custody and a sanction against the child’s mother, which the Hamilton County trial court “apparently” granted.

However, a subsequent clarifying order held that, “It was the Court’s intention to set a hearing and provide no other immediate relief. Unfortunately, the Court did not sufficiently review the proposed order submitted to notice that additional relief was immediately being Ordered. To the extent that any relief other than a scheduling of a hearing was granted, it is now rescinded. … Specifically, the court does not Order the Child returned, does not Order a modification of custody, and does not Order attorney fees to be paid … The scheduled hearing remains set.”

After a hearing was held, the Hamilton Circuit Court found Yanes-Mirabal in contempt for relocating B.Y. and for denying parenting time to Badasay. The trial court noted Yanes-Mirabal was breastfeeding and intended to do so until B.Y. was 18 months old, but further noted that she moved to Florida to prevent Badasay from parenting the child.

Thus, the trial court gave Badasay sole legal and physical custody, while Yanes-Mirabal received specified parenting time that deviated from the recommendations of the Parenting Time Guidelines. She was also ordered to pay child support.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed in March, but the Supreme Court reversed Friday.

Yanes-Mirabal argued to the Supreme Court that she should not have been held in contempt and that the trial court abused its discretion by awarding sole custody to Badasay. However, “(w)e do not see this case as two separate issues,” Justice Steven David wrote.

“Rather, the issue in this case is that the trial court appears to have conflated Mother’s contempt of court with B.Y.’s best interests when it established legal and physical custody,” he wrote. “For this reason, we reverse the trial court’s determination that Father should be awarded full legal and physical custody and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

“… While we do think Mother was punished here by losing legal and physical custody of her dependent infant, it is more concerning that her alleged contempt appeared to be the catalyst for the trial court’s order granting Father sole legal and physical custody. When it comes to the best interest of the child, we cannot accept this result,” the justice continued. “Not only was Mother causing no harm to B.Y., she was also breastfeeding the child. Her act of returning to Florida with B.Y. was born out of the reality that she would lose her job as a flight attendant ­— her means of supporting the child — if she did not do so. Additionally, the court-appointed guardian ad litem in this case had no opportunity for involvement before the court entered its findings.”

In reversing the trial court, the justices ordered that Yanes-Mirabal be awarded sole legal custody while the parents would share joint physical custody, consistent with what was in place prior to the trial court’s April 20, 2019, order. On remand, the trial court was urged to “decouple its findings of contempt from the best interests of the child and determine whether a modification of custody is warranted with these principles in mind.”

“To be sure, no party in this case is without fault,” David wrote. “But when it comes to the most important aspect of these proceedings — the wellbeing and best interests of B.Y. — no party would have been harmed by more deliberate proceedings and additional factfinding.”

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