• October 31, 2011

In custody disputes, the focus is on the “best interests” of the child.  Because there are few possible outcomes to the dispute (short of terminating the parental rights of one or both parents), the standard sometimes seems more like the “least bad interests.”

Breanna McKinnon and John Bergstrom had a daughter, C., born in 2008 when the parties were 18.  Breanna and John lived together for about 14 months after the birth, primarily at John’s parents’ home.  In March 2009, the parties separated and Breanna and C. moved into Breanna’s parents’ home.  John spent a week or two with C. every month until November 2009, when Breanna accused John of sexually abusing C. and refused to allow him access.  She sought an order for protection, however no evidence of abuse was found.  John then brought an action for custody.  Despite a recognition of parentage, Breanna claimed that John was not C.’s father.  After genetic testing confirmed parentage, he was adjudicated the father, but Breanna continued to deny him access.

Both parents have had substance abuse problems.  When C. was ten months old, John pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamines.  He was placed on probation, which he violated by using drugs in December 2009, September 2010, and December 2010.  His probation was revoked and he was committed to jail for 365 days.  Breanna was arrested for and pleaded guilty to underage alcohol consumption in October 2009 and was also cited for underage consumption in Wisconsin.

After trial, the district court granted John sole physical custody of C. subject to parenting time for Breanna.  Breanna then moved for amended findings or a new trial.  After denial of her motion, she appealed.

The court of appeals affirmed noting that of the thirteen best interests factors, the district court found that five favored neither party, while eight favored John.  The district court focused on four factors it identified as significant.  First it found that John had been C.’s primary caretaker for the first year of her life and was prevented from continuing to do so by Breanna’s legal maneuvers.   Next, the court found that C. had a better relationship with John, partially because of Breanna’s “untreated anger management problems” and, despite her underage consumption arrests, had failed to attend ordered alcohol awareness classes.  Third, the court found that John considered parenting C. to be a foremost concern and that he used appropriate parenting techniques.  Breanna, on the other hand, used “inappropriate discipline” such as biting, pinching, and slapping.  Finally, the court found that John was willing to facilitate C.’s relationship with Breanna, while Breanna had no respect for John’s right to have contact with the child.  The appellate court found that the record supported the trial court’s findings and affirmed the award of sole physical custody to John.

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