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Ainsworth v. Ainsworth

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 21, 2018

Lauren Daley Ainsworth
John Ainsworth.

          Superior Court Washington County No. W 11-120 Raymond E. Shawcross Associate Justice

          For Plaintiff: Michael P. Lynch, Esq.

          For Defendant: Steven A. Robinson, Esq. Daniel Chaika, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, and Robinson, JJ.


          William P. Robinson, Associate Justice

         The plaintiff, Lauren Daley Ainsworth, appeals from a July 22, 2015 order of the Family Court denying her motion to relocate with the parties' four minor children from Rhode Island to Australia. Her several appellate contentions are summarized later in this opinion.

         This case came before the Supreme Court for oral argument pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After reviewing the record and considering the written and oral submissions of the parties, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown and that this appeal may be resolved without further briefing or argument.

         For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the order of the Family Court.


         Facts and Travel

         The plaintiff, Lauren, and defendant, John, [1] were married in Australia on October 2, 1999, and four children were born of that marriage: Hope, Sydney, Jenny, and Jack.[2] Lauren is a citizen of Australia with permanent residency status in the United States, while John is a citizen of the United States; the children have dual citizenship. On March 23, 2011, Lauren filed for divorce on the ground that irreconcilable differences between the parties had led to the irremediable breakdown of the marriage. On October 31, 2012, while the divorce proceedings were pending, Lauren filed a motion to relocate to Australia with the children. On December 7, 2012, a justice of the Family Court issued a decision pending entry of final judgment, [3] which (in pertinent part) awarded joint custody of the children to the parties, with "physical possession" of the children being granted to Lauren and with John having "all reasonable rights of visitation."[4] More than a year later, a different justice of the Family Court conducted a hearing on Lauren's motion to relocate, which hearing took place over the course of five days in July and August of 2014. On August 27, 2014, said justice issued a bench decision denying the motion to relocate; and, on July 22, 2015, a final order denying the motion to relocate was entered, from which Lauren timely appealed. We summarize below the pertinent testimony adduced at the hearing on Lauren's motion to relocate.


         The Testimony of Lauren

         Lauren testified that, at the beginning, her marriage to John was "really good, " but that it began to deteriorate after the first six months-a deterioration that she attributed to John's alcohol abuse. Lauren recounted several instances of John's behavior while he was intoxicated, including several occasions when John allegedly threw various objects at her in the presence of the children. She also testified about John's purported abuse of the family dog and about a recurring situation in which John would allegedly drive up and down the street in front of their home in the presence of the children, "do[ing] burn outs" and "throw[ing] beer bottles." She further testified about an incident in November of 2011, after the divorce proceedings had commenced and while the children were living primarily with her and occasionally visiting John. According to Lauren, on November 18, 2011, John became intoxicated while caring for the children during one of their visits with him. She stated that, on that date, she had received a "hysterical" phone call from Sydney, who said that she "couldn't wake up daddy." Lauren further testified that, upon receiving Sydney's phone call and before driving to John's residence, she had called the police and asked them to check on the children. The police report concerning that incident (a full exhibit at the hearing) stated that, when Lauren arrived to pick up the children, John "became very irate" and lunged at Lauren while "screaming for her to leave."

         Lauren next testified that, during the divorce proceedings, both prior to and subsequent to the issuance of the December 7, 2012 decision pending entry of final judgment, she, John, and the children began attending monthly counseling sessions with Dr. Brian C. Hayden. She stated that the purpose of the counseling sessions was to conduct "reunification therapy for all of the children with their father and then co-parenting for John and myself." According to Lauren, these sessions were successful; she added that, as a result, the Family Court allowed the children to "have unsupervised overnight visitation with their father." However, Lauren further stated that, in spite of the apparent improvement in the relations between the parties, John still used his phone to record his interactions with her whenever she picked up or dropped off the children for visitation.

         Lauren explained that she wished to relocate with the children to Australia because such a relocation would offer her significantly better economic prospects and would provide a better quality of life for her and the children and also because she was concerned about her father, who lived in Australia and who had, shortly before the filing of her motion to relocate, been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She testified that, despite the fact that she held a college degree from a university in Australia, she had been unable to find a well-paying, stable job in Rhode Island; she added that, as a result, she worked part-time cleaning houses, earning approximately $250 a week. She stated that, in contrast, she had been offered a management position at a store in Australia, at an approximate annual salary of $60, 000. Lauren also testified that, while living in Rhode Island, she and the children had been relying on "food stamps" and heating assistance from the State of Rhode Island; she added that the house in which she resided with the children was then enmeshed in foreclosure proceedings. Lauren went on to state that, if she were permitted to relocate to Australia with the children, she and the children would be able to live in her parents' home, rent-free, which would alleviate many of her financial concerns. Lauren also testified that she intended to seek further education in order to obtain a teaching degree as a way of improving her economic prospects. She testified as to her understanding that it would take "[s]even years part time; four years full time" to obtain a teaching degree in Rhode Island. She further testified as to her understanding that the pursuit of such a degree in Rhode Island would cost her "[b]etween [$]80, 000 and $100, 000, " and she added that her lack of American citizenship made her ineligible for financial aid in this country. She stated that, in contrast, she could pursue a teaching degree at the University of Wollongong by paying an annual fee of $131.50 for full-time study; and a document reflecting her "Conditional Offer of Admission" to the graduate teaching program at that university was admitted as a full exhibit.

         Lauren further testified that she believed that it was "very important for the children to have a strong relationship with both their mother and their father;" and, to that end, she proposed a visitation schedule whereby the children, if they were relocated to Australia, would fly to Rhode Island for visitation with John during their school breaks. She stated that, under her proposed visitation schedule, the children would visit their father in Rhode Island for two weeks in April, two weeks in July, and an additional six weeks in December and January; she clarified that the six-week visit would occur during the Australian Summer, when the school year in that country would be over. Lauren added that, in addition to the several proposed visits to Rhode Island by the children, John would be welcome to visit the children in Australia "whenever he liked."


         The Testimony of John

         John testified that he had a "wonderful" relationship with his children. After acknowledging that his work as an "offshore fisherman" required regular absences from Rhode Island, John testified that he had been as actively involved in raising the children as he possibly could. He explained that, when he was on shore, he frequently took the children on bicycle rides and camping trips and participated in other outdoor activities with them. He further testified that he opposed Lauren's motion to relocate to Australia with the children because, in his estimation, it would cause his relationship with the children to "suffer greatly, " and he said that he was afraid that the children would grow to resent traveling from Australia to Rhode Island to visit him during their school breaks. He further testified that relocation would negatively impact the children's relationships with his side of the family as well as their relationships with their school and church friends in Rhode Island.

         While John admitted that he had suffered from an alcohol problem during his marriage to Lauren, he denied most of the alcohol-related misconduct about which Lauren testified, and he stated that he had never been convicted of the domestic assault charges which Lauren had lodged against him and which had served as the basis for the restraining orders that she had successfully sought. He did acknowledge, however, that, on November 18, 2011, police officers had removed the children from his care because he had, in his own words, "got[ten] drunk and passed out on the floor." He testified that that incident had caused him to become temporarily estranged from his two oldest daughters, but he added that he had remained sober since that date and agreed that he was very proud that he had attended Alcoholics Anonymous.

         John testified that, in April of 2012, during one of his visits with the children, he discovered a recording device which had been sewn into the clothing of one of the children; and he said that he believed Lauren was responsible for that device being there. (In an emergency motion filed with the Family Court on April 27, 2012, John had stated that he believed Lauren "ha[d] been serupticiously [sic] taping Dr. Hayden[']s sessions as well, " and he asked the Family Court to prohibit Lauren from "alienat[ing] the minor children of the parties from their father." Thereafter, the Family Court granted a "conditional [o]rder of removal" providing that the children would be removed from Lauren's care if she continued to "record either audio or video of the minor children of the parties with their father, the counselors, father's extended family or any service providers during any visitations or otherwise.") John further testified, however, that, despite what he characterized as Lauren's attempts to alienate the children from him, the counseling sessions with Dr. Hayden were able to open the lines of communication between him and his two oldest daughters and that, as a result of the success of those sessions, he now enjoys regular, unsupervised visitation with all four children.

         John stated that, when effectuating visitation, the parties would meet in public places to exchange the children, on which occasions he and Lauren did not speak to each other. He further admitted that he regularly used his iPhone to record the pick-up and drop-off interactions with Lauren in order "to protect [himself]" and "to keep [Lauren] honest."[5]


         The Testimony of the Guardian Ad Litem

         The guardian ad litem, an attorney, testified that she became involved with the Ainsworth family in October of 2011 and that she thereafter submitted two reports to the Family Court: an interim report dated February 24, 2012 and a final report dated July 31, 2014. Both reports were admitted into evidence as full exhibits. In her interim report, the guardian ad litem stated that "relocation should only take place [at] a time when the relationship between Mr. Ainsworth and his youngest children has been firmly re-established and all avenues to re-establish the relationship between Mr. Ainsworth and his two older children have been exhausted." In her final report, the guardian ad litem noted the practical difficulties that an international relocation would occasion for the parties, in view of the expensive and complex nature of international travel and the parties' limited financial means.

         The guardian ad litem testified that, when she first became involved with the Ainsworth family, the relationship between John and Lauren was "very acrimonious;" and she recounted that, in 2012, Lauren had sewn a recording device into the clothing of one of the children. She added, however, that, since that incident, Lauren had become "very, very cooperative" with respect to arranging visitation and that, as a result, the children had "cemented and enriched" their relationships with John.

         When asked about the children's preferences with respect to the proposed relocation, the guardian ad litem admitted that, although she believed at least two of the children were old enough to express an opinion on the subject, she had not spoken directly to any of the children in "a long time, " estimating that approximately one year had elapsed since she had most recently had a conversation with any of the children. She testified in an internally inconsistent and noticeably halting manner as to the ages of the four children, and she admitted that she was "not sure" what grades the children were in.

         The guardian ad litem's final report recommended that Lauren "retain primary placement" of the children and that John continue to enjoy "frequent and liberal visitation" with the children. The final report of the guardian ad litem further stated that "relocation to Australia would certainly benefit [Lauren], " but she also noted that relocation would result in the children having only "minimal contact" with John. Additionally, her report stated that "the ability of the children to travel the distance from one continent to another at this point in their lives is very questionable, both from a feasibility and financial standpoint." Although her final written report neither endorsed nor rejected the proposed relocation to ...

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