Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, (DRB2204-03) (Hon. J. Michael Ryan, Trial Judge).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge
Before RUIZ and REID, Associate Judges, and STEADMAN, Senior Judge.
Appellant, Pamela Fields, the maternal great aunt of A.W., a minor, appeals from the trial court's order granting "sole legal and physical custody of [A.W.] . . . to [appellee,] Gary Mayo," A.W.'s biological father.*fn1 Ms. Fields contends, in part, that the case should be remanded to the trial court for consideration as to whether she should be recognized as a "de facto parent" under D.C. Code § 16-831.01 et seq. (2008 Supp.), a statute enacted after the entry of the trial court's order in this case, and after the filing of her brief in this court. She maintains that the trial court committed error by improperly applying a presumption in favor of Mr. Mayo as a biological parent, and concomitantly, imposing on her, the de facto parent, the burden of establishing by clear and convincing evidence that custody of A.W. by Mr. Mayo "would be detrimental to [A.W.'s] best interests." She also complains that the trial court (1) ignored K.W.'s wishes and K.W.'s "fundamental interest regarding the custody of her son," and (2) failed to "give sufficient weight" to the recommendations of the guardian ad litem. Discerning neither prejudicial error nor abuse of discretion, we affirm the trial court's judgment.
This case began on August 12, 2003, when Mr. Mayo filed a complaint for permanent custody of his biological son, A.W. Mr. Mayo amended his complaint on October 8, 2003, and Ms. Fields, who then had had custody of A.W. for several years, lodged an answer and a counterclaim for custody. During a proceeding which extended over seven days, beginning on December 14, 2004 and ending on September 26, 2005, the trial court heard testimony from several witnesses, including Mr. Mayo, Ms. Fields, K.W., and A.W.'s teachers. A.W.'s guardian ad litem also shared his views with the court.
The trial court's factual findings show that A.W. was born in January 1995, to teenage parents (17 and 18 years old at the time). He spent the first year of his life with his father, in the home of Mr. Mayo's mother. During the following year and several months, A.W. resided with his mother, K.W., in the southern part of the United States. As a result of K.W.'s request, Ms. Fields had custody of A.W., beginning in May 1997, and continuing to March 2006. Ms. Fields adopted A.W.'s sister in 2002, after the trial court found that K.W. had neglected her daughter. From May 1996 to 2000, Mr. Mayo had no contact with A.W. and provided virtually no financial support for A.W. Commencing in 2000, however, Mr. Mayo had regular contact with A.W. while the child was living with Ms. Fields, but other than the payment of two small sums of money in 2000 ($50 and $75), he did not financially support his son. However, the trial court found that "Mr. Mayo started becoming involved in [A.W.'s] education -- regularly visiting [his] school, conferring with teachers, etc. -- when [A.W.] was in 1st grade, and has been actively involved since." Ms. Fields and Mr. Mayo worked out a mutually agreeable visitation schedule, and the trial court determined that in the home of Mr. Mayo and his fiancee, A.W. "has his own bedroom and Mr. Mayo and his fiancee are able to give [A.W.] more personalized attention than he receives at Ms. Fields' home."
The trial court described the home of Ms. Fields and her husband as "a somewhat chaotic household." Ms. Fields cared for A.W., his younger brother and his sister on a full-time basis and her husband worked to provide financial support for the family.*fn2 In addition to A.W. and his siblings, the Fields' grandchildren and other relatives visited on a regular basis. Consequently, the trial court found that even "[t]hough [Ms.] Fields has been very involved in [A.W.'s] school life, she is not always able to afford him individualized attention in the home, due to the number of children in the home and other quasi-parental obligations ['there are always two or three children sharing a bedroom']."
The trial judge examined the hearing record and applied the statutory factors set forth in D.C. Code § 16-914 (a)(3) (2008 Supp.) that are pertinent to a custody decision.*fn3 In deciding whether Mr. Mayo or Ms. Fields should be awarded permanent custody of A.W., the judge recognized that "[c]ustody claims between parents are subject to the preponderance of the evidence standard of proof." However, because the case involved Mr. Mayo as a biological parent and Ms. Fields as "a non-parent third party to whom a biological parent, who has been found to have neglected at least one of her children has thrown her proxy or support," the trial court invoked the "presumption that the best interests of a child are served by being in the custody of a biological parent, unless clear and convincing evidence demonstrates that such custody would be detrimental to the child's best interests." The court concluded that Ms. Fields had not sustained her burden to overcome the presumption.
The trial court acknowledged (1) the guardian ad litem's position that the statutory factors were "evenly in balance but nonetheless . . . that [A.W.'s] best interests would be served by continuing placement with Ms. Fields," and (2) the guardian ad litem's reservations about Mr. Mayo. In response, the trial judge declared:
The Guardian's points are well taken, however the evidence in toto presented the Court with two households: one where [A.W.] has been 'treading water' barely staying afloat amongst several others doing the same; the other where the promise, which the Court finds to be borne out by the evidence, of individualized attention from a father who will take the time to help and guide [A.W.] as he grows up into a young man.
Furthermore, the trial court stated that its decision would not have been different if it had ignored the presumption in favor of Mr. Mayo and decided the case on a preponderance of the evidence standard:
[E]ven if Mr. Mayo and Ms. Fields were on an "even footing" arguing over the preponderance of the evidence, with the benefit of no presumption or heightened evidentiary burden, the facts of this case read through the statutory factors would nonetheless lead this Court to award custody to Mr. Mayo. This is not to ignore the contribution Ms. Fields has made to [A.W.] for the last seven years; it has been significant and at a time when no one else was available. [Ms.] Fields is to be commended for her efforts on behalf of [A.W.] and the Court will order liberal visitation in recognition of her efforts.
The trial court awarded "sole legal and physical custody of [A.W.] to [Mr.] Mayo," and left it to the parties to work out a "liberal ...