Dramatic Recovery of Girl Abducted To Florida. Mother Loses Custody and Father Is Entitled To Reimbursement Of His Private Investigator Costs And Attorney’s Fees.

B.M.M. v. P.R.M. reminds us that a parent who absconds with a child risks losing custody, and risks being responsible for an ex-spouse’s private investigator’s fees and attorney’s fees.  B.M.M. v. P.R.M., NO. M2002-02242-COA-R3-CV, 2004 WL 1853418, at *19 (Tenn. Ct. App. August 18, 2004).

FACTS

In 2002, the Mother in this case filed a notice that she would be seeking to relocate to Florida with her daughter, Chrissy (who was then seven years old).  The trial court denied her request but allowed her to go to Florida with the child for a vacation.

Unbeknownst to the trial court or the Father, by the time the Mother went on this “vacation”, she had already turned over possession of her Tennessee home to a third party under a lease-purchase agreement.  The Mother took the child to Florida, moved into a house with her mother (the child’s Grandmother), and subsequently blocked the Father’s telephone calls to his daughter.

Now unable to get visitation (or phone calls) with Chrissy, the trial court granted the Father’s petition for emergency custody.  The Father hired private investigators to locate his child, and Chrissy and her Mother were soon discovered in Florida.

The sheriff’s deputy attempted to serve the Mother with court papers and this lead to a dramatic car chase.  The Grandmother crashed into the private investigator’s vehicle and forced the Father’s car off the road.

The Father was awarded custody of Chrissy and the trial court had harsh words for the Mother.

The trial court noted the deterioration in the Mother’s mental health and listed this as an additional change of circumstance.  “I just don’t think [the Mother] can be trusted with this child anymore.  That really concerns me, this child’s safety.”

The trial court found the Mother to be guilty of fifteen (15) counts of criminal contempt for the denial of the Father’s visitation and one count of criminal contempt for moving Chrissy to Florida in defiance of the court’s previous order.  The Mother was granted supervised visitation only.

The judge gave the Mother the option of serving 150 days in jail or paying the Father’s private investigator fees ($14,800).  In addition, the trial court awarded the Father his attorney’s fees ($15,127.50).

The Mother appealed, arguing that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to award to the Father the $14,800 in private investigator fees as well as his attorney’s fees.  In unsympathetic language, the Court basically explained that the Mother had done this to herself.

The Court of Appeals stated, “Despite rather implausible testimony by both Mother and Grandmother that they were supportive of Chrissy’s relationship with Father, their conduct belied this.”

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in all respects.