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Family court awards child custody to recovering alcoholic mother instead of ‘gaslighting’ father

By Catherine Hutton, Open Justice reporter NZ Herald

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Photo: RNZ / Anneke Smit

A recovering alcoholic has been awarded custody of her two children after the family court found the father subjected his ex-wife to an “attack of emotional and psychological abuse”.

After their divorce in 2021, the couple initially had a shared custody arrangement.

But according to a decision released this week, things came to a head in March 2022 when the father claimed the mother had relapsed and started drinking again.

Concerned for the well-being of his children, he and his brother drove to his ex-wife’s house and attempted to take both children with them, but only managed to pick up his young daughter.

The mother denied that she had been drinking and explained that she was suffering from migraines.

The woman’s mother, neighbor and police, who were present that evening, said nothing in the mother’s behavior indicated she was drunk.

Although the mother admitted that she was an alcoholic, she provided evidence to the court that she had addressed her alcoholism through regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and counseling.

She stated that her ex-husband’s behavior was harmful to the children. This included keeping the children in custody for a number of weeks, with only minimal contact possible.

She said he also breached interim parenting orders and began a campaign of psychological abuse against her, referring to her in a derogatory manner in multiple emails copied to the children’s doctors and the children’s school principal.

The court also criticized the father’s brother, who it said had shown “concerning patterns of behavior” toward his former sister-in-law, including sending threatening emails, trying to obtain her personal medical records from her doctor and adding of inflammatory comments to his brother’s statement.

It turned out that the father and his brother had carried out a joint gaslighting exercise against the mother.

The mother also had concerns about the father’s ability to manage his son, who has special needs.

The mother alleged that her ex-husband was prone to anger, had physically disciplined his son and had difficulty coping with his son’s condition.

She said he was not supportive of his son’s overall well-being, including a reluctance to have his son evaluated by a pediatrician.

The son told his lawyer that there were some disagreements between his mother and father. Whenever he accidentally did something wrong, his father would grab him and yell at him. His mother just sighed and said, “Oh (Thomas)” (not his real name).

Following the 2022 incident, there were numerous requests and appeals to the Family Court, prompting a judge to describe the file as a “procedural quagmire.”

The decision described the material as “voluminous” and said the material showed troubling power and control dynamics on the part of the father.

The court refused to continue co-parenting, saying there was no sign of the campaign against the mother subsiding. The report said awarding custody to the mother gave the children the best opportunity to move on with their lives without being “left in the middle of the onslaught of emotional and psychological abuse that is evident throughout these proceedings.”

Where to get help

Women’s shelter: (0800 733 843

It’s not okay 0800 456 450

Gloss: 0508 744 633

Victim support: 0800 842 846

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 – press 0 at the menu

The National Network of Family Violence Services NZ has information about specialist family violence agencies.

This story originally appeared in the NZ Herald.