Visitation Behind Bars

February 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

Nolana Griffin, a school teacher, was convicted of having sexual relations with several of her teenaged students, and was sentenced to Parchman. After a couple of years, her husband, Chad, sued for divorce and, following a contested trial, he was granted both the divorce and custody of the parties’ four daughters, one of whom had Asperger’s Syndrome. The children ranged in age from 15 to 7. The chancellor also found that regular visitation with Nolana was not in the children’s best interest. The chancellor offered five bases for his decision:

  1. All of the visitation would have to occur at Nolana’s prison;
  2. The prison is 4 1/2 hours distant from the children’s residence;
  3. Any visit would require that all parties, including the children, would have to be searched before entering;
  4. The visitation area is open and may expose the children to violent offenders;
  5. The best interest of the children would not be served by exposing them to these conditions.

Nolana appealed.

In Griffin v. Griffin, a MSSC decision dated February 1, 2018, the court affirmed. Justice Maxwell for the unanimous court:

¶14. We have never addressed head-on the impact of a noncustodial parent’s incarceration on his or her right to visitation. The issue was raised but not reached in Christian v. WheatChristian, 876 So. 2d at 346. In dicta, however, we did note that “[j]urisdictions which have reached the question of visitation rights of incarcerated parents generally express that incarceration, alone, is not sufficient to preclude visitation.” Id. [Fn omitted] See also, e.g., Davis v. Davis, 648 N.Y.S.2d 742, 743 (N.Y. App. Div. 1996) (“It is generally presumed to be in a child’s best interest to have visitation with his or her noncustodial parent and the fact that a parent is incarcerated will not, by itself, render visitation inappropriate.”). Today, we follow those jurisdictions and hold that incarceration, in and of itself, is not sufficient to overcome the presumption that a noncustodial parent is entitled to visitation.

¶15. Applying this holding, we find no reversible error in the chancellor’s decision. Contrary to Nolana’s assertion, the chancellor did not base his visitation decision solely on the fact Nolana is incarcerated. Instead, with the “paramount concern” in mind, he found that, based on the circumstances, the presumption in favor of visitation had been overcome and that court-ordered, every-other-week visitation with Nolana was not in the children’s best interest. He supported his decision with substantial evidence that judge-mandated visitation may be physically and emotionally harmful to the girls. The chancellor was swayed by a variety of factors. One was the physical distance the girls would have to travel twice each month (eight to nine hours round trip). Others included the requirement of a pat-down physical search, the location of the jail visits (in a communal room where potentially violent offenders were also visiting family), the oldest daughter’s social disability (Asperger’s Syndrome), and the fact Nolana’s daughters had not seen their mother since her arrest and much less that she was even incarcerated.

¶16. We note the chancellor’s decision is in line with other courts that have denied prison visitation in similar circumstances. Recently, a New York family court—after emphasizing that the law presumes visitation is in the child’s best interest, even when the noncustodial parent is incarcerated—denied an incarcerated father visitation with his son with autism, a social disorder related to Asperger’s Syndrome. E.A. v. R.A., 56 N.Y.S.3d 815, 820 (N.Y. Fam. Ct. 2017). The court found the presumption in favor of visitation had been rebutted by evidence of social stress the prison visit may have on his son, the fact the child may be stripsearched, the four-hour drive, and that the son had not seen his father since his incarceration. Id. See also Davis, 628 N.Y.S.2d at 743 (affirming the family court’s decision to deny an incarcerated father visitation based on the “militating evidence” prison was three-and-a-half hours away and child had medical condition making it unwise for him to travel away from
home frequently).

¶17. In Louisiana, an incarcerated father was likewise denied visitation. Davis v. Davis, 494 So. 2d 1315, 1318 (1986) (La. Ct. App. 1986). The father had been sent to prison in Texas for sexually assaulting his children’s twelve-year-old babysitter. Like Nolana, he requested Saturday morning visitation, twice monthly, but was denied. On appeal, the Louisiana Court of Appeals agreed that bi-weekly visitation with their father “would prove traumatic for children of their tender years,” especially considering the distance to be traveled (as in this case, a four-and-a-half hour drive one way), the recentness of the conviction, the security measures the children would undergo, and the children’s relationship to their father’s victim. Id. Thus, the court could not “say that the trial court abused its great discretion in concluding that at this time the children’s best interests would not be served by allowing such visitation.” Id.

¶18. The Louisiana court, however, was quick to caution that it “d[id] not mean to imply that the father has forfeited his right of visitation.” Rather, it viewed the trial court’s ruling “more akin to a suspension of the father’s visitation privileges until such time as it would be easier for the children to cope with the strain inherent in this situation.” Id. “In denying visitation at this time, but allowing the father to correspond with the children,” the appellate court believed the “trial judge has attempted to provide a means for the father to re-establish a relationship with the children gradually.” Id. The hope was to work toward a situation “where limited visitation will prove acceptable.” Id.

¶19. The chancellor here similarly provided a means for Nolana to maintain her relationship with her daughters with the eventual goal being visitation. He granted Nolana substantial phone visitation. She was also to be kept informed by Chad of the goings-on in her children’s lives. And the chancellor encouraged Chad to allow his daughters to visit their mother if and when Chad determined it appropriate.

¶20. This Court has recognized “that children of divorced parents should be encouraged to have a close, affectionate and, under the circumstances, as normal as possible a parent-child relationship.” Cox, 490 So. 2d at 870 (emphasis added). And based on the facts before him, that is what the chancellor tried to do. The chancellor considered Nolana’s circumstances and deemed phone visitation, for now, and possible future in-person visitation at Chad’s discretion was the best possible balance between recognizing Nolana’s constitutionally protected rights, encouraging the parent-child relationships, and protecting the girls’ best interest. See Harrington, 648 So. 2d at 545. Therefore, the chancellor’s
decision is entitled to the “great deference” this Court typically gives chancellors when determining visitation. Newsom, 557 So. 2d at 515.

¶21. Because of this deference, we affirm the divorce decree, which included no court ordered visitation with Nolana.

The only rule that can be drawn from this is that every parent is presumptively entitled to visitation, and incarceration alone does not overcome that presumption. To limit visitation with a jailed parent, there must be facts, as here, that support a finding that the conditions of visitation are against the best interest of the children and warrant limitation or suspension of visitation. There can be no one-size-fits-all solution. Each case will depend on the conditions of incarceration, the procedures for visitation involving the children, distance and travel conditions, and the children’s specific needs.

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