A Westchester County woman who shepherded her young son to forensic psychologists in what a court said was a concerted effort to undermine his relationship with his father, and paid a former soap opera actress $57,000 to prep her for a “role” as a witness, has been stripped of custody.
Supreme Court Justice John Colangelo’s (See Profile) 40-page decision, which followed an 18-month trial that included 25 days of testimony by the mother, concluded that the woman was so fixated on undermining the father that she “cannot be trusted” to make dispassionate decisions regarding the boy who has been at the center of an epic custody battle for seven of his nine years.
“When left to her own devices, she misused her decision-making authority to trot a mentally healthy child to numerous psychological appointments clearly aimed to deprive him of a relationship with his father—a result that may have, and if allowed to recur, certainly will rob [the boy] of his remaining childhood,” Colangelo wrote in E.V. v. R.V 10602/2007, dated July 2.
In shifting custody, Colangelo rejected the recommendation of both the court-appointed psychologist and the attorney for the child. The mother has already filed notice of appeal and obtained a status quo temporary restraining order allowing her to retain custody for now.
Colangelo’s ruling delves into cutting-edge issues in custody litigation, especially the use of hired forensic psychologists to bolster a parent’s argument and trial consultants to prepare witnesses for their testimony.
The judge was critical of the mother and “her too clever-by-half” evasiveness during two full weeks of cross examination, her use of trial consultants and a Westchester psychologist, Daniel Lobel, to whom she paid $6,000-a-day for what the court deemed subjective and result-oriented testimony.
Colangelo noted that the woman hired a onetime soap opera actress, who is not named in the decision, to coach her for the witness stand.
She also spent more than 50 hours with psychologist Jonathan Gould, a prominent forensic evaluator from North Carolina who prepared her for an interview with the court-appointed psychologist, Stephen Herman of Manhattan. And, the court noted, the mother had retained or consulted with six mental health professionals and several lawyers in an obsession to “deprive [the boy] of a meaningful relationship with his father.”
“Such a goal might well have proven laudable had [the father] actually been the abusive monster [the mother] sought to depict,” Colangelo wrote.
But with no evidence that the father is anything other than a caring, reasonable man who recognizes the need for both parents in the child’s life, the mother’s conduct is “inimical” to the welfare of the boy and leads “inexorably toward the conclusion” that he needs protection not from the father, but from the mother, the court said.
“Absent the imposition of some stringent boundaries on [the mother's] prerogatives and conduct, based upon her actions to date, [the child] will surely spend the remainder of his childhood being prodded and probed by a constant parade of mental health professionals seeking to find something wrong with a healthy child who needs only a true, loving relationship with both parents,” Colangelo wrote.
The custody dispute is rooted in the ill-fated marriages of E.V. and R.V., who have married and divorced each other twice. “G,” the child at issue, was born in 2005 during their second marriage.
Records show that E.V. brought a divorce action in Westchester County Supreme Court in 2007, and around the same time brought an unfounded family offense petition against R.V.
While the divorce was pending in 2007, Family Court Judge Charles Devlin awarded the parents equal time with the child. The mother unsuccessfully challenged the order to the Appellate Division, Second Department.
After a custody trial in 2008 before Family Court Judge David Klein (See Profile), the parties were awarded joint legal custody, with the mother retaining final decision-making authority. She then went to the Second Department to challenge the equal access schedule, but the panel unanimously upheld the trial judge. She then retained new counsel and continued to seek a modification of the order.
Colangelo said that the mother, “after sufficiently hectoring” the father, obtained his consent to retain a mental health professional for their child.
However, after several experts refused to serve as both the child’s therapist and the mother’s witness, the mother retained Dr. Lobel of Katonah, and then misled the father into believing that Lobel had been recommended by the child’s pediatrician, the court said.
“As it turns out, Dr. Lobel’s principal champion was not a physician at all, but an attorney—E.’s counsel—who could vouch for Lobel’s qualifications as a witness; not surprisingly, Dr. Lobel expressed no qualms, then or after, about wearing two hats—the child’s therapist and one parent’s paid witness,” Colangelo wrote. “Indeed, Dr. Lobel reveled in the idea that he was hired because he knew his way around the courtroom—this despite the concerns among his peers that such dual role created an unacceptable conflict.”
Colangelo said that Lobel was “unable to promptly coax out of [the child] … any significant statements critical of his father, or the time spent with him,” adding that the mother’s relentless effort to “obtain a report to support her effort to sever [the boy's] relationship with his father grew to a fever pitch” after the child spent a happy and fun vacation week with his dad.
Lobel declined to comment.
Colangelo said the mother has gone to extraordinary lengths to make it as difficult as possible for the child to spend time with his father. For instance, he noted that when the parents would meet to exchange the child, the mother tried to make the transition “as traumatic as possible” by bringing along the boy’s grandparent, favorite toys and puppy.
“While E. claimed that she did so to encourage [the boy] to see [his father], it does not take a trained psychologist to surmise that such a display would have the opposite effect; after all, what five year old would be overjoyed to exchange his mother, grandpa, toys and puppy for a car seat?” Colangelo asked. “Had the ramifications of this situation not been so serious, the events … would have humorously resembled a British farce.”
Colangelo said the lengthy trial revealed how the mother “used her joint legal custody, her primary physical custody and, more significantly, her decision making authority … as a weapon to try to create a case” against the father.
He said her sole witness was Lobel, “who was paid handsomely for his time.”
“Parenthetically, the court notes that, in the end, Dr. Lobell’s gall proved equally noteworthy,” Colangelo wrote. “After seven days of testimony at $6,000 per day and, more important, three years of weekly therapeutic appointments with [the child] for which he had been paid no less than $40,000-$50,000 total, Dr. Lobel had the audacity to suggest that [the child] now needs to see yet another mental health professional to do the job he should have done—help heal the rift in the [father-child-mother] relationship.”
Colangelo acknowledged that both the court-appointed psychologist, Herman, and the attorney for the child, Janet Gutterman of White Plains, favored continuing primary physical custody with the mother. But he also said the child needs both parents in his life.
While the court said its decision “may appear extreme,” by revoking the mother’s legal custody, she “will no longer be armed with the authority to do as she pleases with [the child's] psychological welfare and treatment to again build a meritless case to change the access and custody regimen.”
Ronald Bavero of White Plains is attorney-of-record for the father and Timothy Tippins of East Greenbush served as trial counsel. James Nolletti of Collier, Halpern, Newberg, Nolletti & Bock in White Plains argued for the mother.
Tippins, a Law Journal columnist and adjunct professor at Albany Law School, declined to discuss the specifics of the case. But he said the exhaustive ruling is a primer on modern custody disputes.
“This is a very important decision,” he said. “It is very instructive not only for lawyers and judges but also for forensic psychologists, for therapists who don’t stay within the bounds of therapy and inject themselves in litigation roles, for forensic consultants who are engaged to prepare a litigant for the interviews with the court appointed evaluator.”
Nolletti said mother will pursue an appeal.
“We have already filed the appeal and obtained an interim stay,” Nolletti said. “While we understand that the court has the right to disregard the recommendations of its own neutral court-appointed forensic psychologist as well as the attorney for the child, as it did in this case, we believe the decision is inconsistent with both the facts and the law.”
Nolletti said Colangelo’s focus was “misdirected” from the sole legal issue—the best interest of the child—and distracted by ancillary matters such as the incidental coaching his client received from the former actress. Nolletti declined to identify the actress, but said referring to her as such misrepresented the fact that she is a nationally recognized and highly qualified trial consultant.