Washington Mother Required to Undergo Specific Type of Therapy to Have Equal Residential Time

In a recent Washington custody case, a mother challenged a parenting plan that required her to undergo a particular form of therapy to receive equal residential time with the child.  An appeals court reviews the provisions of a parenting plan under a manifest abuse of discretion standard, meaning the trial’s decision is manifestly unreasonable or based on untenable grounds or reasons.

The parents were in a committed intimate relationship from the middle of 2015 to late 2018.  They had a child in September 2017.  Each party had alleged intimate partner violence against the other.  The mother was arrested for domestic violence in September 2018, but the father’s petition for a protection order was dismissed for lack of evidence.

The mother petitioned for a parenting plan, among other things.  The court entered a temporary parenting plan that gave the parties equal residential time and joint education and healthcare decision-making.  The court appointed a parenting coordinator who conducted a parenting evaluation.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, there were at least 10 child protective services (“CPS”) reports after the temporary parenting plan was entered, some of which the mother made and others that were reported doctors or other mandatory reporters.  The reports alleged that the father or his mother were a serious risk to either the child or the mother, but CPS did not substantiate or deem any of them founded.

The parenting coordinator noted that the mother displayed emotional dysregulation that affected the child.  She noted the mother had extreme reactions that that led to some of the unfounded reports to CPS.  She stated that it was in the child’s best interest to reduce the mother’s residential time until the mother had certain therapy.

Both parents, the parenting coordinator, the mother’s psychologist, and the mother’s husband all testified.  The parenting coordinator testified about her recommendation for dialectical behavioral therapy (“DBT”). The mother’s psychologist testified that she did not have a full DBT program but had worked with the mother on building DBT skills.  She testified it had been difficult to find a DBT provider during the pandemic.

The trial court found the mother had an emotional or physical problem interfering with her parenting ability.  The court adopted the parenting plan recommended by the parenting coordinator.  The child would initially be placed with the father until the mother had four months of DBT.  When she completed this requirement, her parenting time would be extended.  If she was able to demonstrate emotional instability would not affect her parenting after 12 months of DBT therapy, she would get equal residential time with the child.

The mother appealed, arguing there was insufficient evidence emotional instability interfered with her parenting ability.  She also argued there was insufficient evidence that DBT was the only therapy that would give the benefit required.

The appeals court concluded there was sufficient evidence supporting the trial court’s finding the mother’s emotional instability interfered with her parenting ability.  The parenting evaluation stated the mother seemed to be unable to control her emotions around the child.  The parenting coordinator stated the child was aware of the mother’s fear of the father and that caused the child to be fearful of the father and concerned about his mother’s safety.

The guardian ad litem (“GAL”) identified four concerns regarding the child’s relationship with his mother: emotional distress and worry for his mother, fear of his father as a result of remarks made by his mother, receiving affection and attention from the mother after saying something negative about the father, and his ability to learn to manage reactions.

The appeals court concluded that the reports of both the parenting coordinator and the GAL showed that the mother experienced emotional dysregulation that affected her ability to parent. These reports were substantial evidence that supported the court’s findings.

The parenting coordinator recommend the mother participate in DBT to help her emotional regulation.  She stated the mother’s dysregulation arose from an inability to properly react to relatively normal behavior. She also indicated DBT would help the mother cope with feeling threatened or overwhelmed, develop interpersonal relationship skills, improve her ability to perceive things from the father’s perspective and determine when there was actually a risk of imminent harm. The court noted that decreasing blame and disparaging comments about the father would reduce the risk of the child being afraid of him and likely decrease CPS involvement. It would also likely reduce the child’s feelings he had to protect his mother.  The appeals court concluded the parenting coordinator’s testimony established how the therapy would positively affect the mother’s relationship with the child.

The mother’s psychologist testified about how DBT differs from regular psychotherapy, noting that DBT teaches skills.

The appeals court concluded there was sufficient evidence for the trial court to determine DBT was the appropriate therapy that other therapy would not have the same results in helping mother regulate her behavior.

The appeals court rejected the mother’s argument that she had difficulty finding a DBT provider during the pandemic, noting that the issue was not accessibility, but whether there was sufficient evidence to support a finding DBT was the only therapy that would provide the needed results.  The appeals court concluded the trial court did not err in finding that DBT was appropriate and did not abuse its discretion in adopting a parenting plan that required DBT.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s order.

This case illustrates a trial court’s discretion in creating a parenting plan.  A court may order therapy or impose other requirements if there is sufficient evidence to do so.  If you are facing a contentious custody case, a skilled Washington family law attorney can help you fight to protect your children.  Schedule a consultation with Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562.


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