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Court rules in favor of father who abused ex-wife in custody case

A police officer who abused his former wife during their marriage should be given custody of the couple’s two children because they have become so estranged from her that one might attack her, while the other is at risk of suicide, the Massachusetts Appeals court ruled Friday.

The court said the case was not about punishing past bad deeds, but about doing what was best for the children.

In a unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel of the court supported the decision by Probate and Family Court Judge John D. Casey, who rejected testimony from the mother’s expert that the father had “brainwashed’’ the children into saying he was the only parent they could live with.

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Writing for the court, Appeals Judge Ariane D. Vuono said a searching examination of the troubled family by a guardian ad litem concluded that the father was the only safe haven for the children.

The conclusion by the guardian — who interviewed all four family members, as well as therapists and teachers — was properly given more weight by Casey than the mother’s expert, who only interviewed the mother and then listened to trial testimony, Vuono wrote.

“Cases concerning the custody of children are often difficult and emotionally charged, and may be rendered even more complex when domestic violence is involved,’’ Vuono wrote. “The judge properly recognized that the present case was not about punishing a party for past bad behavior, but was about deciding what was best for the children going forward.’’

The court identified the parties only by the fictitious initials K.A. and T.R.

The court said the couple’s turbulent marriage, which began in 1997, was marred by violence between the two, especially when they argued about what became a chronic issue for them, their struggling finances. The father filed for divorce in April 2010.

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When the children were young, the mother was the primary caretaker because the husband worked the overnight shift at a police department while also working paid details. The mother worked at a school cafeteria, the court said.

When the couple argued, the father would leave the house for a few days or a week at a time, having no contact with the children, both of whom are now teenagers, according to the court.

But the relationship between the mother and the children changed dramatically, and the children became fearful of her to the point where they would wake up their father and seek his intervention, the court said.

During the divorce proceedings, the mother’s expert testified that the behaviorial change was a “red flag’’ signaling that the father had “brainwashed’’ the children into turning on their mother. But Casey, citing the guardian, found the father had repeatedly been supportive of the mother with the children.

After a trial, Casey ruled for the father, citing the guardian’s conclusion that the one of the children might assault her mother and the second was in such an emotionally vulnerable state that he might commit suicide if ordered to live with their mother.

The Appeals Court concluded that Casey’s rulings “reflect consideration of relevant circumstances ... and the potential risks to the children should the father not have primary physical custody.’’

The court said in its ruling that the mother will, all the same, have substantial parenting time.


John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.

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