In re Paternity of B.Y., No. 20S-JP-554, __ N.E.3d __ (Ind., Dec. 18, 2020).

David, J.

At issue is whether the trial court abused its discretion when it found Mother in contempt of court and ordered that Father have sole legal and physical custody of their infant child, B.Y. We find that it did abuse its discretion by conflating Mother’s contempt of court with the best interest of the child. We therefore remand this matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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Mother seeks transfer on two grounds. First, she argues that she should not have been held in contempt because she did not willfully disobey a court order when she took B.Y. out of Indiana. Second, Mother argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it ordered Father to have sole legal and physical custody of B.Y.

We do not see this case as two separate issues. Rather, the issue in this case is that the trial court appears to have conflated Mother’s contempt of court with B.Y.’s best interests when it established legal and physical custody. For this reason, we reverse the trial court’s determination that Father should be awarded full legal and physical custody and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

As set forth above, the trial court made findings from the bench and in a formalized order. The court found that B.Y. has been in Mother’s care since birth, Mother was breastfeeding the child and desired to do so until B.Y. was one and a half years old, and that Mother was doing nothing to cause harm to the child. It further found that Mother was in contempt for non-compliance of the Marion County interim order, that she disobeyed a court order prohibiting her from leaving the state with B.Y., and that Mother was in contempt for preventing Father’s court ordered parenting time. From the bench, the trial court announced that it was establishing custody and concluded that Mother took up residency in Miami to prohibit Father from parenting B.Y.

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While we do think Mother was punished here by losing legal and physical custody of her dependent infant, it is more concerning that her alleged contempt appeared to be the catalyst for the trial court’s order granting Father sole legal and physical custody. When it comes to the best interest of the child, we cannot accept this result. Not only was Mother causing no harm to B.Y., she was also breastfeeding the child. Her act of returning to Florida with B.Y. was born out of the reality that she would lose her job as a flight attendant—her means of supporting the child—if she did not do so. Additionally, the court-appointed guardian ad litem in this case had no opportunity for involvement before the court entered its findings. In sum, Mother’s alleged contempt of the Marion County court’s order was not so severe as to remove B.Y. from her care.

To be sure, no party in this case is without fault. But when it comes to the most important aspect of these proceedings—the wellbeing and best interests of B.Y.—no party would have been harmed by more deliberate proceedings and additional factfinding.

We reverse the trial court’s determination that Father is entitled to sole legal and physical custody of B.Y. We award sole legal custody to Mother and joint physical custody to Mother and Father consistent with the status quo prior to the Hamilton County trial court’s April 20, 2019 order. This award is based on the initial findings of both the Marion and Hamilton county courts and the establishment of sole legal custody with the biological mother of a child born out of wedlock. See Ind. Code § 31-14-13- 1. On remand, we urge the trial court to decouple its finding of contempt from the best interests of the child and determine whether a modification of custody is warranted with these principles in mind.

Conclusion

We reverse the trial court’s determination that Father receive sole legal and physical custody of B.Y. and remand this matter for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Rush, C.J., and Massa, Slaughter, and Goff, JJ., concur.

 

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