Custody Modification • Alcohol Use • Psychological Assessment • Inpatient Treatment • Visitation Suspension • Best Interests of Children

Burchell v. Hunsberger, PICS Case No. 13-0559 (C.P. Bucks March 1, 2013) Rubenstein, J. (37 pages).

The court denied father’s request for increased custody because there was substantial evidence father failed to comply with the court’s order to refrain from alcohol use while in the presence of minor children; the court, sua sponte, issued a temporary suspension of custody and visitation privileges and encouraged father to obtain treatment for alcoholism. Affirmance recommended.

Mother Laura Ann Hunsberger and father Wade C. Burchell, who lived within a few houses of each other, shared legal custody of their two minor daughters, ages 15 and 13. Mother had primary physical custody and father had partial physical custody. Father filed a petition to modify custody and the court ordered mother and father to undergo a custody evaluation with a psychologist. Daughters were also interviewed.

Mother disclosed that she divorced father because of his alcoholism and propensity for verbal, emotional and physical abuse. Mother cited specific incidences of father’s unsafe conduct with daughters fueled by alcohol. Mother further complained that father’s girlfriend made critical and disparaging comments to daughters. Mother asserted father’s visitation with daughters should be continued only upon father’s participation in an alcohol treatment program and anger management counseling.

After the evaluation, it was determined that father lacked insight into his alcohol problem and resulting behaviors. Father did not admit to excessive drinking and believed mother sabotaged daughters’ relationship with him by incessantly referring to his drinking.

Elder daughter recounted being fearful of father and indicated her awareness of father’s alcoholism.

Younger daughter also provided detailed and specific responses to psychologist’s questions. She described her relationship with father as uneasy and intimidating and indicated she was aware of father’s drinking.

Father’s daughter from a previous relationship was also interviewed and corroborated daughters’ comments, stating father was "definitely an alcoholic."

Following the custody hearing, the court issued a temporary order suspending father’s partial custody and modified visitation until father engaged in an alcohol evaluation at a professional treatment center. After submitting to an evaluation, father filed an emergency petition for modification of custody and alleged mother was in contempt of the court’s visitation order. In support of his petition, father provided the treatment center’s report, which stated father was not dependent on alcohol or drugs and required no treatment.

Mother was found in contempt and father received visitation with daughters on four consecutive weekends. Father then filed a petition to modify custody order relying on the treatment center’s evaluation and conclusion that he required no treatment. Father conceded the evaluation was self-reported and mother and daughters were not interviewed.

The court also heard from daughters’ stepfather, who testified that daughters complained about father drinking alcohol in their presence. Father testified to drinking in the presence of his younger daughter but denied becoming intoxicated.

The court determined that daughters were reluctant to visit father, although mother encouraged them to respect the court’s visitation order.

The court concluded father was in denial about the severity of his alcohol abuse and ruled that it was in their best interests to suspend father’s custody and visitation rights. The court suggested, but did not order, that father participate in an inpatient alcohol treatment program.

The court noted that although the matter before it was father’s petition to modify custody, it acted within its discretion to grant special relief on its own accord, and the weight of the evidence supported its decision to temporarily suspend father’s visitation rights and grant sole physical custody to mother.