FLS November breakfast guest speakers, Judge Tangela Barrie (left) and Judge Courtney Johnson (right) with Kathy Adams Carter, FLS chair
Family Law Section Offers Breakfasts Packed with Useful Information
by Alice W. Limehouse
Family Law Section
The October and November DeKalb Bar Association Family Law Section Breakfasts both offered participants valuable information for their DeKalb Family Law Cases. The December 4 meeting featured Steven and Patty Shewmaker, who discussed QDROs. Look for a recap in the January DeKalb Bar Newsletter. Please join us for the next breakfast Jan. 6! Get more information here.
At the November breakfast the Family Law Section presented a panel of DeKalb County Superior Court judges, moderated by board member Kyla Lines, who discussed issues in contested custody cases. Originally, the panel was to include Judges Asha Jackson, Courtney Johnson and Tangela Barrie. Unfortunately, Judge Jackson was ill and could not attend. We hope she’s feeling better!
Full house for the November FLS breakfast.
Ms. Lines and other members of the section board prepared questions in advance of the meeting and provided them to the judges to prepare their responses. The 11 questions were all compelling and enough discussion was had that the group did not make it through all of them in the allotted time. The questions that were reached and the judges’ consolidated and edited responses follow.
1. O.C.G.A. § 19-9-3: Of the statutory factors included in O.C.G.A. § 19-9-3, are there any that you consider to be more important than others? Are there any factors NOT included in the statute that you think should be?
Neither judge identified a particular factor that was more important than the others. Both consider all of the factors in each case. Judge Johnson considers the ability of one parent to foster relationship important. It is also important for parents to have contact with both. He doesn’t focus on one factor over another but rather case by case. Judge Barrie encouraged attorneys to include all of the factors in their presentation, not focus on one to the exclusion of the others.
2. Appointment of a guardian ad litem (GAL): How much importance do you attach to the appointment of a GAL? Do you appoint one every time there is a disagreement about parenting time or custody, or do you make a case by case determination of whether or not one is needed? If so, what degree of disagreement would you deem necessary to appoint a GAL? For example, if the only disagreement between the parties was over weeknight overnight visitation, would you appoint a GAL or would you make that determination on your own?
Both judges will usually appoint a GAL if requested. Occasionally, they will also appoint one if they see the need. Judge Barrie does so based upon what she hears in court, i.e., contentiousness, drugs, sexual allegations, alcohol, and high-risk circumstances. Judge Johnson finds GALs to be particularly helpful when smaller children are involved. She noted that GALs can see what is really going on and are very helpful.
The judges were asked if they would speak to children directly. Both said that they would if they feel the need. Children can give them a lot of insight and can help them better understand the situation. They usually will not speak with children under the age of 11, but Judge Barrie once spoke with a 9-year-old. Judges are nervous about talking to kids and this is usually a last resort.
Both judges will generally follow the recommendation of the GAL. If the GAL entered the case late and the judge has additional information, the judge may depart from the recommendation or may do a hybrid.
3. Psychological/Custody Evaluations: How important is a psychological evaluation to you? When do you find one to be most useful? If a psychological evaluation indicates that the primary custodial parent has a psychological problem, but he or she has been the primary caregiver, under what circumstances can you envision changing custody based upon the test results?
Judge Johnson will look at whether a parent is compliant with treatment and may increase parenting time based upon compliance. Evaluations are useful when a parent is a danger to a child and are helpful to consider. Judge Barrie finds the reports hard to read and likes to have the evaluator in court. Her focus is on safety; however, mental health issues do not equal danger. Judge Barrie will also look at whether the parent is compliant with treatment.
4. Infants/Newborns: What types of parenting time arrangements would you think are appropriate for very young children? For example, if an infant is still nursing, what do you do? When do you think overnights should be implemented? Would you consider it appropriate to have a “stepped up” parenting plan, considering the ruling in Johnson v. Johnson?
Both judges will hold on to some cases longer and enter temporary orders to see how a young child is adjusting. Sometimes they will appoint a GAL or order a psychological evaluation to get help with the situation. Their goal generally is for the child to have contact with both parents.
With infants, both judges have ordered stepped-up parenting plans. Both parents need to learn to be parents to their child and need access to the child in order to do that. The goal is for the child to be comfortable, healthy and happy with both parents.
5. Alcohol/Drug Use: How significant do you consider evidence of alcohol or drug use? What if the evidence shows that the parent is using these substances, but that the children have no knowledge of it, and there has not been a drug or alcohol related arrest? Does it need to be shown that it has a direct adverse impact on the kids?
Judge Johnson will hold a case involving drug or alcohol issues. Addiction recovery is a process and takes time. Her ultimate concern is safety and she may appoint a GAL. She has not made supervision permanent. Judge Johnson does not believe that there is a hierarchy of addictions. She looks at the severity of the problem and its impact on the children, whether the addiction is heroin, alcohol prescription medicines or another substance. She also wants to know if the parents used together.
Judge Barrie believes, for example, that heroin is worse than marijuana. She will give access to kids with safety measures with marijuana, but not with heroin. She will look at how alcoholism impacts kids. Generally, she will consider the type of drug, how often it is used, and the exposure to the child. She will use Nia’s Place instead of a family member for supervision.
Both judges want all family cases to go through mediation and will have mediators on hand at temporary hearings. Mediation can resolve temporary issues, particularly child support. Judge Barrie sends all cases to mediation automatically when the case is assigned to her. She is also happy to work with attorneys who prefer private mediation.
Judge Johnson will not make parties go to mediation when they appear for a hearing, but will encourage it. She also finds it helpful to have the mediators in the courtroom.
A look back at October
At the October breakfast Nina M. Laltrello, LMFT, CCADC, CSAT-S, with Relationship Recovery Center, LLC in Norcross spoke about the impact on the internet and internet pornography addiction on marriages and in family law cases. She presented a Powerpoint, which included statistics, charts and resources. For more detailed information, please contact Ms. Laltrello directly at 770-908-7391 or visit relationshiprecoverycenter.com or sexaddicttherapist.com. Some of the highlights of her presentation included:
- Sex addiction is about reward circuitry – it is no more about sex than eating disorder is about food or gambling is about money.
- There is big money in internet pornography. Internet pornography revenue in 2006 exceeded the combined revenue of ABC, NBC, and CBS.
- As of 2008, there were 4.2 million porn pages on the internet and the industry continues to grow, with thousands of new sites each day.
- Thirty people within the last five years have been caught and fired from the Securities and Exchange Commission for more than eight hours per day of internet porn at work.
- The average age of the first exposure to internet pornography is 11. Ninety per cent of 8 to 16 year olds have seen porn while doing homework.
Ms. Laltrello discussed the brain’s responses to stimulating behavior and described how, in some people, these responses mirror responses to drugs like cocaine. She also addressed treatment options and resources available for those struggling with internet pornography or sex addiction. These include treatment programs and 12-Step groups.
More about the Family Law Section
The Family Law Section Breakfast is held on the first Tuesday of each month, 7:30-9 am at the historic Old Courthouse on the square in downtown Decatur, 101 E. Court Square. Join us for for a delicious buffet breakfast and a changing lineup of guest speakers who provide insights and new information about family law.
For more information . . .
If you practice family law in DeKalb County we encourage you to visit the Family Law Section page on the DeKalb Bar website where you will find valuable information regarding each DeKalb County judge’s preferences for a variety of calendar and procedural issues.