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State supreme court vacates local judge’s order, restores child custody to mother

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HELENA — On Jan. 2, 2024, the Montana Supreme Court vacated a Sept. 19, 2023, Lake County District Court order made by Judge Deborah Kim Christopher that removed a five-year-old child from his mother and awarded full time custody for the next five years to his out-of-state father. 

Shanna Spring ManyWounds, of Elmo, and Jonathan Carlton Whyte, a resident of Oregon, were engaged in mediation of a parenting plan for their five-year-old son C.L.W. that came to a hearing over which Judge Christopher presided last fall. 

Whyte had petitioned the court for a formal parenting plan in April of 2023. In Sept. 2023, following mediation with Judge Christopher’s law clerk, ManyWounds and Whyte, who represented themselves, had agreed to all but two points of a parenting proposal Whyte had drafted. Ultimately at issue were: fully implementing the custody split by 2025 (ManyWounds argued the time frame should be determined by C.L.W.’s comfort) and a passport so Whyte could bring the child to visit extended family in his native country of Jamaica. ManyWounds wanted to wait until the child was 14 to get a passport.

According to the MSC’s order, during Sept. 11, 2023, hearing proceedings ManyWounds “explained that she was concerned about ‘jumping into’ sending C.L.W. to Oregon too quickly because she, felt that Whyte and C.L.W. had ‘essentially . . . no relationship.’”Additionally, “Whyte advised the court that he was proposing that, for the next two years, he wanted ‘to be more involved, then after the two years I would have him for the next summers after that.’ Whyte’ further advised the court that he understood that for the next two years, those visits would occur in Montana.”

During the hearing Judge Christopher stated Whyte’s proposed plan was “a better deal than you’re going to get from me.” She ultimately transferred sole custody of the child immediately to his father for five years and ordered no contact with his mother until unspecified therapy Whyte was ordered to provide for C.L.W. deemed it appropriate. In response ManyWounds petitioned the Montana Supreme Court on a Oct. 24, 2023, for a write of supervisory control and to vacate Judge Christopher’s ruling. 

According to the MCS order, Judge Christopher did not take into consideration “continuity and stability of care,” going so far as to ignore the advice of her own expert, who stated, “this child needs both parents and each in their own way.” MCS also found that Judge Christopher ignored her own expert’s advice of it being “very important” to the child’s wellbeing that ManyWounds accompany him to the father’s residence in Oregon. Instead Judge Christopher ordered the immediate full custody be given to his father.

The order futher states, “In this case, the parties came before the court to resolve minor disagreements between their proposed parenting plans. At the outset, Judge Christopher stated that she found Whyte’s proposed parenting plan to be very reasonable … However, for reasons that are not apparent from the transcript, as the hearing progressed Judge Christopher became increasingly upset with the parties’ de facto_custody arrangement, intensifying her criticism of ManyWounds while extolling Whyte’s perceived virtues. In her response to this petition, Judge Christopher acknowledged that she found the matter ‘shockingly disturbing’ and found herself unable (to finish her draft of the Parenting Plan for several weeks after the hearing because ‘there was significant emotion in the draft’ and she felt the need to ‘review the case with more judicial temperament.’ In the Parenting Plan itself, Judge Christopher writes that she did not issue the Parenting Plan for almost two months ‘until some of the dust and emotions cleared from one of the most odd, painful and difficult hearings ever held by this Court in 23 years.’”

The order states, “Judge Christopher’s lack of meaningful consideration of the § 40-4-212, MCA, factors in relation to C.L.W.’s best interests is further illustrated by what she did not ask in the hearing. After making her ruling that transferred sole custody of C.L.W. to Whyte, she then inquired of Whyte, for the first time, whether anyone else resided in the home with him. At no time did she inquire as to the safety or stability of his residence, if he had a bed for C.L.W., his work schedule, or any other details that would indicate that he was adequately prepared to accept immediate long-term, sole custody of a five-year-old child, beyond his apparent willingness to do so. Her only pre-ruling inquiry was whether Whyte had a car seat. Upon learning he did not, ManyWounds then offered to transfer hers into Whyte’s vehicle. The court further ordered ManyWounds to return home, gather C.L.W.’s belongings, and deliver them to the court for Whyte to pick up.”

In a unanimous decision handed down on Jan. 3, 2024, Montana Supreme Court justices wrote, “We conclude that here, the District Court erred as a matter of law because it failed to determine a parenting plan in accordance with the best interest of C.L.W. Instead, Judge Christopher created a parenting plan whose stated purposes were to punish ManyWounds for the court’s belief that she had treated Whyte unfairly, to reward Whyte because she found him likeable, and to deliberately subject C.L.W. to potential trauma in a misguided attempt to ‘develop the stress muscles’ of a child that the court believed had been overly protected by his mother and grandmother.”

The Montana Supreme Court’s Jan. 2 order restored custody to ManyWounds until a final parenting plan is issued, the cause and jurisidiction of which was reassigned to Twentieth Judicial District Court Judge Molly Owen.

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