AZ Supreme Court says family courts can determine care, but only in special situations

Photo by Ted Eytan | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that family courts have the authority to determine the type of care a child can receive, but only in limited circumstances, in a case that centered on a divorced couple who disagreed on how to care for their child with gender dysphoria.

The case, Paul E. v. Courtney F., began in 2013, when the child, who is referred to as L, wanted to wear a skirt to school. L was born male but “displayed an early interest in toys and clothes generally associated with girls.”

At the heart of the debate was whether the court could intervene in the child’s care. Arizona’s highest court determined that family courts could intervene if the child is “at risk for physical danger or significantly impaired emotionally” if certain treatments are not made available.

The father disagreed with the court appointing a doctor who specialized in helping transgender children. He claimed that the court didn’t have the sweeping authority to make such an appointment because he had earlier been granted sole legal authority over the child’s care.

The Arizona Court of Appeals agreed, reversing the family court decision.

However, the mother appealed the decision, arguing that the limitations put in place and the appointment of the specialist allowed the court to direct L’s care to protect L’s mental and physical health.

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed that such measures needed to be in place to protect L, but that the family court had overstepped its bounds.

L’s mother let the child wear a skirt to school and began talking with L about issues around gender dysmorphia, unbeknownst to the father and the family court, which had earlier established rules for the parents that forbade such actions.

Once the father learned of this, he brought L to a professional counselor.

The counselor made a number of recommendations on how to care for L, including only discussing the issue in a clinical environment. L’s mother didn’t entirely abide by the counselor’s rules, so L’s father petitioned family court in December 2013 to grant him sole legal decision making power for L.

The court sided with the father, immediately ordering the mother to temporarily remove all girl-oriented toys from her house, quit dressing L in feminine clothing, stop referring to L with feminine pronouns and no longer discuss gender related issues with L.

Both parents ended up following the rules set by the court.

In the two years that followed, multiple health professionals diagnosed L with gender dysmorphia, though none of them agreed how to properly care for L.

L would often voice anger about the rule that disallowed femine toys and clothes, eventually leading to the mother violating the rule.

Then in Feb. 2015, L said “I want to die” due to the rule, prompting L’s mother to take the child to the nearest hospital. The transgender community experiences suicide at a far higher rate than the rest of the population, according to studies.

This led to the mother attempting to vacate the rule, but she was unsuccessful.

A doctor appointed by the court decided that joint legal decision-making by the parents would likely not work, as both of the parents had a “high level of conflict,” leading the doctor to recommend that one parent be given sole legal decision-making authority. The doctor recommended the father.

The doctor also recommended that the rule disallowing the mother from discussing gender issues with L be held in place.

After a four-day trial in December 2015, the court appointed the father as the sole decision-maker and the court stipulated several mandatory guidelines that had to be followed.

The rules and the appointment of two doctors by the court, who had broad authority granted to them, were key to discussions by the Arizona Supreme Court.

“When an impasse occurs, the court is authorized to determine not only the parenting plan element in dispute, but also ‘other factors that are necessary to promote and protect the emotional and physical health of the child,’” the court said in its opinion released Thursday.

The Arizona Supreme Court eventually sided with the mother, stating that evidence suggested that L would have been “physically endangered or suffer significant emotional impairment,” if the father had decided to not continue therapy for L. However, the court also stated that it believed the father was unlikely to do this.

The court sent the ruling back to the family court with the directive that any future directives be narrowly tailored and supported by evidence that harm is imminent for the child.

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.


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