Every custody/visitation case is different but there are fact patterns that tend to be repeated. One highly specific fact pattern that turns out to be relatively common involves a young couple, typically teenagers, who fall in love and have a child. Nothing uncommon about that but believe it or not I’ve, unfortunately, seen variations of the following happen quite a few times:
She is not close to her parents. He is a couple of years older.
His parents are pretty permissive.
They take her in to live with them while she is still a kid, allowing them to sleep together.
She gets pregnant.
Neither finish high school.
If he isn’t already, he gets involved with drugs – typically distributing on a fairly low level.
He gets busted.
His parents hire lawyers to get him acquitted but he ends up going to jail. Because it is a distribution charge, the Father is prosecuted by the feds and gets several years.
His parents continue to allow the Mother to live them while the Father is incarcerated and they take a big role in the child’s life.
The Mother gets sole custody. If she is really young, she will sometimes agree to share custody with the grandparents with the promise that in the future, they will step back and allow her to have full custody. In cases of joint custody, the grandparents typically provide insurance coverage.
After a year or two, the Mother begins to move on with her life but allows the paternal grandparents to remain involved, typically granting them the same sort of visitation that she would the Father if he weren’t incarcerated, i.e., alternating weekends, liberal visitation and some holidays. The grandparents provide free daycare.
The Mother takes up with someone else – probably someone who resembles the Father, frankly. They move in together. They may even have a child together.
The Mother continues the close relationship with the paternal grandparents and believes they support her. She may tell them “too much” about the new guy but they are like parents to her and she trusts them.
Even years later, the child has his own room at the paternal grandparents’ home. They take him on trips to Disney, assist with medical expenses, go to all his school and recreational activities (frequently paying the entry fee), and continue to provide child care.
The Father is released and moves back in with his parents.
The Mother, who has never so much as gotten a speeding ticket, is afraid the Father is going to go back to his old ways and insists on supervised visitation. The grandparents agree.
The paternal grandparents, however, become absolutely sure the Father has reformed and begin hiding the fact that they are allowing him to see the child, unsupervised.
The child and the Father begin doing lots of fun activities, together, often financed by his parents. The grandparents would give their right lung and left kidney to arrange things so that their son can get his life back on track.
The Mother finds out that the child is not being supervised, as promised. She and the grandparents argue. More promises are made but bitter words are spoken and not forgotten.
The Father, in an effort to reassert himself into his child’s life, becomes hyper-vigilant. He questions the child about any abuse by the Mother or her paramour. He is certain the boyfriend is not a good guy.
The child gets a bruise or reports something inappropriate.
The Father reports it to Child Protective Services (but not the Mother) and CPS investigates. The grandparents tell the investigator that mom is a little wild, a bit irresponsible, has poor taste in men and that they've worried about this boyfriend for a long time. They suggest that the Mother cares more about the boyfriend than the child. They explain that they've stayed involved with the child because the Mother is simply unfit.
The Mother feels betrayed and abruptly tells the grandparents that the child can’t visit anymore. Their betrayal cuts deeply because she considered them the same as being "her" parents. The child no longer goes to their home before or after school, resulting in much greater child care expenses and/or slap happy arrangements with whomever she can find to babysit.
Weeks go by and she won’t allow the child to see the Father or the grandparents.
With all the changes, the child's performance at school deteriorates.
Dad sues for custody/visitation. His parents also sue for custody/visitation.
The Mother never saw this coming, although, like the title says, she could have seen it coming a long way off (if she'd been looking).
Okay, so at this point, let's step back and take stock.
The Mother may be living with someone who has abused the child. The boyfriend may even have been legally found to have abused the child. At the least, an investigation is ongoing. She has told the grandparents, many times, that the boyfriend has a mean temper. If there are ANY charges of domestic violence against the boyfriend, even if the police were just called to the house, she is going to look unstable or willing to put her child at risk by remaining with him.
In the best case scenario, this new guy is her only live-in boyfriend since the Father. Chances are better that she has gone through a series of relationships and breakups over the past few years and that the child has been exposed to them. Being young, she will likely have shared much of the gory details with the grandparents, seeking their wisdom and comfort.
She has a history of allowing the child to stay with the grandparents, sometimes for weeks at a time – establishing that until the Father blew the whistle, she considered them to be beneficial to the child. The child, at this point, is missing his grandparents and to a certain extent, his father/playmate.
The Mother may be financially dependant on a boyfriend who may have a criminal record. It may not be a particularly good neighborhood. She has little education, a low paying job and now her day care provider just went belly up. She can’t afford to pay a sitter and the boyfriend, who used to supplement the grandparents on babysitting, is no longer an option. Her home is not her own and she may have had to change residences depending on how things are going with the boyfriend.
She is not close to her own family and any character witnesses she would have relied upon are in the grandparents’ camp.
In contrast, the father is living in a nice home with his parents. He is working. He is doing well with his probation officer. All his drug screens are clear. The crime that he was convicted for took place 5-6 years ago.
The grandparents can afford an experienced family law attorney whereas the Mother is on her own. The grandparents' position is not adverse to their son's so he gets the benefit. Dad will argue that although he had a drug conviction, at the time, he was much younger; he is now doing well; and there has never been any suggestion that he has a violent streak. The grandparents have lived in the same home for 25 years, in an established neighborhood where the child has gone to school for the past couple of years (since the grandparents provided daycare, the child went to the local school). They'll argue that the child's behavior went downhill after she started keeping him away from them. Moreover, the grandparents know where all the Mother’s skeletons are.
To add insult to injury, the Guardian ad litem tells the Mother that the court will decide based on the “best interests of the child” rather than purely on the fact that the child has always been with her and/or that she is the child’s mother.
Not a pretty picture.