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Cooper v. Merwether

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division III

May 2, 2018

RACHEL COOPER APPELLANT
v.
CHRIS MERWETHER APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE WOODRUFF COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 74DR-16-18] HONORABLE E. DION WILSON, JUDGE

          Robert S. Tschiemer, for appellant.

          One brief only.

          PHILLIP T. WHITEAKER, Judge

         In this one-brief appeal, appellant Rachel Cooper challenges the order of the Woodruff County Circuit Court granting appellee Chris Merwether primary custody of their daughter, A.M. Her sole argument on appeal is that the circuit court erred in finding that placing custody with Merwether was in A.M.'s best interest. We disagree and affirm.

         Cooper and Merwether are the parents of A.M., who was born in September 2014. Although Cooper and Merwether were never married, they lived together following A.M.'s birth until sometime the following spring.[1] After their separation, the parties agreed that each parent would keep A.M. for a week at a time, and neither would pay child support. In April 2016, Merwether filed a paternity complaint and petition for custody of A.M. Cooper answered and filed a counterclaim asking that custody be placed with her.[2]

         The circuit court held a hearing on the complaint and counterclaim in February 2017. The parties stipulated to paternity, and the court heard evidence only on the issue of custody. Merwether presented evidence about his education, work history, and home life, and he related his concerns about Cooper's home life. One of those concerns involved a period of time in which Cooper resided in a camper trailer, which Merwether felt was an inappropriate environment for A.M. Another concern involved the safety of Cooper's current residence due to crime in the area. He also expressed his worries about her parenting skills, specifically referencing episodes of severe diaper rash that went untreated by Cooper, and he complained about the cleanliness of Cooper's home and A.M.'s hygiene while in Cooper's care. He further described his frustration with her refusal to cooperate in shared parenting, mentioning specific instances when she refused to return A.M. at the appointed time.

         Cooper likewise presented evidence of her circumstances. She explained that she was a stay-at-home mother and was able to do so because of her husband's income. She admitted that for a brief time, she and her husband lived in a camper trailer because of the failure of the heater at their rented apartment. She described her current apartment accommodations and noted that A.M. had her own bedroom, as opposed to Merwether's home, where A.M. and Merwether shared a room. Cooper conceded that there recently had been a shooting at the apartment complex, but she denied that it was an unsafe environment for A.M. She expressed her concerns about Merwether's being the primary custodian, explaining that he was too reliant on his mother for care and assistance of A.M.; here, she complained that his mother had serious health problems that required a significant amount of narcotic medications. She also objected to the fact that Merwether lived in a three-bedroom home with his mother, his mother's boyfriend, and his adult brother.

         After the hearing, the circuit court entered an order in which it summarized the testimony of the parties and witnesses. In pertinent part, the court wrote as follows:

[Merwether and Cooper] lived together for about seven months after [the] minor child, A.M., was born. At that time, [Merwether] worked and paid [the] bills of the household. [Cooper] did not work during this period of cohabitation. The parties separated around September 2015 and agreed to a child visitation schedule. [Merwether] testified that he kept the child for a period of 71 days without contact from [Cooper] because of living arrangement problems encountered by [Cooper]. [Merwether] testified that 71 days passed with no contact from [Cooper] about minor child, A.M. [Cooper] disputes the length of time absent, as well as witnesses who testified on behalf of [Cooper].[3] The court carefully observed and listened to the testimony on this issue, as well as all other testimony. The Court believed [Merwether] and considers the actions of [Cooper] in being absent from her child at a young age for that extensive period of time, very detrimental conduct concerning the health, welfare and safety of a minor child.
. . . .
Each party presently maintains an appropriate home for the minor child, although the mother lives in an apartment complex, which apparently has some history of violent crime. The child has assistance in care while in the custody of the father from her paternal grandmother. The mother of the child has apparently not worked since prior to the child's birth. Her present husband appears to be an appropriate stepparent and appears to have the child's best interests at heart.
The father presented significant evidence indicating that the mother had frequently refused to return the child when agreed or otherwise communicate with the other parent regarding the minor child. This same evidence indicated a willingness on the father's part to accommodate the mother's visitation with the minor child.
Based upon all of the foregoing facts, evidence, and credibility of [Cooper] regarding her period of absence from her young child, the Court finds that primary physical custody of the minor child is appropriate with the father and awards same to him as plaintiff. [Cooper] shall have visitation pursuant to the standard Schedule A visitation ...

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