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The adults played a “constant tug of war” against each other. The children were “pawns.” The grandmother lost custody because the District Court believed the mother would be better for the children.

Mother prevails over grandmother in custody dispute

The adults played a “constant tug of war” against each other. The children were “pawns.” The grandmother lost custody because the District Court believed the mother would be better for the children.

The unpublished Minnesota Court of Appeals decision on Feb. 13 of Trimbo v. Trimbo (In re Custody of Y.R., J.R. & I.S.B.-T.) affirmed the Sibley County District Court’s modification of custody in favor of the children’s mother, Kathleen Anne Trimbo.

“I really hope that the end is near after this,” said the mother’s attorney, Jed J. Hammell of Caledonia, Minn.

“What both parties really want is the kids to do well, and they are doing great. They are doing well with the mother,” Hammell said.

Although the mother and grandmother argued and said bad things about each other, Hammell said, “My client wants the children to have a great relationship with their grandparents, and I hope that is the result of this” decision.

It has been a lengthy case, said Christopher E. Morris of New Prague, Minn., who represented the grandmother, Julie Ann Trimbo. For the children, he said, “the grandma has provided the stability over the years.”

No decision has been made whether to appeal the case, Morris said.

Facts

The grandmother disagrees with some of the life choices that her daughter has made. Kathleen Trimbo may have abused drugs and was in a relationship with an abusive man who fathered two of her children. That’s in the past now.

The District Court previously granted custody of Kathleen Trimbo’s three children to the grandmother.

Grandmother and mother attended co-parenting therapy. The District Court found that the children’s mother participated “and made progress in controlling her anger toward” her mother. In contrast, the grandmother “was ‘very defensive,’ missed or canceled sessions, and ‘ultimately discontinued the court-ordered counseling.’”

The women argued in front of the children. At times, the grandmother made “unreasonable requirements” that limited the children’s visitation with their mother, the District Court found.

The children’s mother asked the District Court to modify the award of custody. The court granted the modification to award custody to her and deny the grandmother visitation time.

Analysis

Four statutory factors allow a District Court to modify child custody, wrote Judge Roger M. Klaphake for the unanimous three-judge panel. The first factor is whether a significant change in circumstances has occurred to the parent or child since the original custody order.

The District Court’s primary concern “is the parties’ mutual anger.” The grandmother held this anger initially because of her daughter’s “early poor choices,” and the grandmother “has retained residual hostility.”

While the daughter attended and appeared to benefit from the co-parenting therapy sessions, the District Court found, her mother was less punctual in attending them and finally “discontinued” them.

Circumstances justifying the grandmother’s custody have changed, the Court of Appeals agreed. The children’s mother has not contacted the abusive father of two of the children since 2008, and the District Court “was no longer troubled about earlier allegations of [her] drug abuse.”

The second factor is the best interests of the children 12-factor test codified in statute. Some factors favored the grandmother. “[S]he was the primary caretaker of the children.” The children have “resided with her for a longer period of time.” Her living situation is more stable than that of the children’s mother.

But it can be “inequitable” to permit “a grandparent to function as the primary caretaker.” That’s especially true here, the Court of Appeals agreed, because the grandmother “opposed all attempts to facilitate a transfer of custody to” the children’s mother.

The children have a close relationship with both their mother and grandmother, the District Court found, but the disagreements between the two adults prevent them from giving “the affection and guidance that the children need.”

Between the two adults, the District Court concluded that the children’s mother “is significantly more able to provide the children with the affection and guidance they need.”

The grandmother’s efforts to limit the mother’s visitation support modifying custody. The Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court considered all the best interest factors and based its evidence from the record.

The third factor is whether the District Court made findings of endangerment. The grandmother argues that the District Court did not address this issue, justifying reversal of the custody modification.

The Court of Appeals agreed that the order “did not fully address the issue,” but the District Court’s response to the grandmother’s “motion for a new trial or amended findings” did.

Endangerment resulted from the conflict between the parties, the District Court found. This conflict endangered “the mental and emotional well-being of the children by giving them the impression (intended or not) that they are merely pawns in a power struggle between their mother and grandmother.”

Finally, “the district court must weigh the present circumstances.” Most of the issues raised by the grandmother were in the past. She also claimed “she represents stability in these children’s lives.”

The District Court found the balance “very close” but decided “these children should be with their mother.” This is the best response to reduce, in Klaphake’s words, “the damage done to the children by the constant tug of war between the parties.”

There is also “the presumption that a natural parent, if a fit and suitable person, should have custody of his or her minor child.” This is a liberty interest recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The grandmother also appealed the District Court’s denial of grandparent visitation. The parent is the one who “has the fundamental right to make parenting decisions”; the grandparent has the burden to show “that visitation will not interfere with the custodial parent’s relationship with the child.”

The District Court’s “multiple findings that the continued conflict between the parties was emotionally harmful to the children and that the parties could not co-parent” were adequately supported in the record, the Court of Appeals concluded in affirming the District Court’s decision.

Contact Jay Donald Jerde at jaydjerde@yahoo.com.

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