The Court of Appeals affirmed an award of child custody to a maternal grandfather in its October 2015 decision in Brawner v. Miller.(1) There, the biological father of two minor children had petitioned for legitimation and custody after the children’s mother was murdered. Although the trial court granted legitimation, it awarded custody of the children to the maternal grandfather who had intervened, finding that the children would suffer significant, long-term emotional harm if custody was awarded to the father.(2) The Court of Appeals focused on the evidence that: the children had primarily lived with the grandfather since their parents separated, had never lived with their father, and considered grandfather’s home to be their home; the children had a strong bond with grandfather and their aunt who also lived with grandfather; father had utterly failed to fulfill his parental responsibility to assist in supporting his children since the end of his relationship with the mother, to the extent that a court had held him in contempt; and most importantly, father had interacted with the children only sporadically since he and the mother separated, despite living a mere five blocks away. The grandfather testified that the children were still struggling emotionally from the sudden and tragic loss of their mother and that the healing process undoubtedly would be harmed if they were uprooted from the only home they had ever known to live with a father who had yet to build a meaningful relationship with them.(3) Viewing the “particular and unique circumstances presented in the case,” the Court of Appeals concluded that clear and convincing evidence supported the trial court’s conclusion that the children would suffer significant, long-term emotional harm if father obtained custody.(4)

The Court of Appeals reversed an award of child custody to a maternal grandmother in its October 2015 decision in Bell v. Taylor.(5) There, the maternal grandmother had served as the temporary guardian of the child of two unmarried parents and had reared the child between the ages of 3 and 5, until the father petitioned for legitimation and custody. The trial court granted legitimation but awarded primary physical custody to the grandmother. Testimony at the final hearing contrasted father’s checkered past, involving drug and alcohol usage and little role in the child’s life, with the two years prior to trial in which father had been clean and sober, had become a responsible worker, had obtained a stable life and home in a marriage with two stepchildren, and had evidenced a desire to be a father to his son.(6) Nonetheless, considering only who the past and present caretakers of the child were, with whom the child had formed psychological bonds and the strength of those bonds, and the extent to which the competing parties had evidenced an interest in, and contact with, the child over time, the trial court found that it would be harmful for the child to be removed from his grandmother’s home.(7) The Court of Appeals reversed, because the trial court’s findings did not evince any finding of physical or significant long-term psychological harm and instead fell within the level of stress and discomfort that constitutes an acceptable price for reuniting a child with a parent.(8)

The Supreme Court of Georgia reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated a trial court’s award of child custody to maternal grandparents in its March 2016 decision in Strickland v. Strickland.(9) Relying on a guardian ad litem’s investigation and recommendations and the unrebutted trial testimony of the children’s treating psychologists, the trial court had found that the minor children’s mother lacked an income and a stable residence, displayed a sporadic interest in the children, exhibited disruptive and erratic behavior in public in the presence of the children, had a history of daily alcohol and marijuana use, had experimented with other illegal substances in the past, pled guilty to reckless driving for driving under the influence during the pendency of the custody case against the grandparents, and failed to inform the psychiatrist who treated her for bipolar disorder of her marijuana and alcohol usage.(10) As for the children, the trial court relied on the testimony of their therapists, the findings of the GAL, and the court’s own interviews with each child, that they had bonded with and exclusively lived with their grandparents for the prior ten years, and that they each had unique psychological issues which only the grandparents had addressed.(11) In finding clear and convincing evidence that the children would suffer psychological harm in mother’s custody, the trial court apparently relied on the testimony of the children’s therapists, who asserted that: one child suffered from an adjustment disorder resulting from anxiety, and a heightened level of insecurity due to the conflict between mother and grandparents, and would suffer long term emotional harm if removed from the grandparents’ care and placed in mother’s custody; another child had been psychologically damaged by mother’s unreliable, unpredictable, immature, and embarrassing behavior, and would suffer long term emotional harm if placed in mother’s custody; and the third child was being treated for a diagnosed major depressive disorder.(12) In reversing the Court of Appeals after it had reversed the trial court’s award of custody to the maternal grandparents, the Supreme Court deferred to the trial court’s credibility determinations, factual findings, and resulting conclusion that the children would suffer significant, long-term emotional harm if removed from their grandparents’ care and placed in mother’s custody.(13)

(1) Brawner v. Miller, 334 Ga.App. 214, 778 S.E.2d 839 (2015). (2) Id., 334 Ga.App. at 214-215. (3) Id., 334 Ga.App. at 217-218. (4) Id., 334 Ga.App. at 218-219. (5) Bell v. Taylor, 334 Ga.App. 267, 779 S.E.2d 42 (2015). (6) Id., 334 Ga.App. at 267-268. (7) Id., 334 Ga.App. at 269. (8) Id. (9) Strickland v. Strickland, 298 Ga. 630, 783 S.E.2d 606 (2016). (10) Id., 298 Ga. at 632. (11) Id., 298 Ga. at 632-633. (12) Id., 298 Ga. at 633 fn. 3. (13) Id., 298 Ga. at 633-635.

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