Friday, May 25, 2018
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Ottawa County court's action in custody case cleared

Discretion not abused in ordering youth from courtroom

COLUMBUS — The case came too late for her now that she’s turned 18, but the Ohio Supreme Court today ruled that a girl whose parents took turns whisking her away to places like Russia and Costa Rica to escape the other did not have a constitutional right to a seat at the courtroom table as her fate was decided.

In a 5-2 decision, the high court found that an Ottawa County Juvenile Court did not abuse its discretion when it denied her a seat alongside her attorney in the courtroom.

“Members of this court can debate whether the trial court’s ultimate decision to exclude A.G., then 13 years old, was eminently reasonable or a close call,” wrote Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. “But we cannot honestly debate whether the juvenile court abused its discretion in ordering A.G. out of the courtroom and into the classroom. It did not.

“We likewise decline A.G.’s invitation to announce an algorithm for determining whether a child who is the subject of the litigation should be excluded from custody proceedings,” she wrote.

Amelia Garmyn has dual Russian and American citizenship. Her parents divorced in 2001 when she was 5 years old. While divorce proceedings were pending at the time in Henry County, her Russian mother took her to Moscow, but eventually returned to the United States.

Then her American father fled with Amelia, traveling to multiple states, using false identifies, and at one point taking her to Costa Rica. He pleaded in 1999 to a misdemeanor charge of attempted interference with custody and received a suspended sentence.

After the divorce was granted, her mother took Amelia back to Moscow where the girl was later abducted from her grandmother’s home and taken from Russia via Ukraine to Paris to be reunited with her father. Once they all returned to the United States, the girl was again returned to her mother.

Her father later had supervised visitation rights with Amelia, but asked the court to approve unsupervised visitation in his North Carolina home in 2009.

Amelia asked the court for a seat at the table when that decision was made. The court realized when it heard arguments in October that a decision would come too late for Amelia, then 17, given she was about to become a legal adult.

Her father had also dropped his visitation request, making the case more about a potential constitutional right than about Amelia herself.

Chief Justice O’Connor was joined in the majority by Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Lanzinger, and Sharon Kennedy. Justices William O’Neill and Paul Pfeifer dissented.

Justice O’Neill agreed with the majority that the law does not mandate a minor’s personal inclusion in such cases, but here he said it was warranted.

“Here, the evidence clearly demonstrates that the child’s best interest was subordinated to the wishes of the litigious parents and their lawyers,” he wrote. “And even though the trial court accepted her motion to be treated as a party, and even though A.G.’s attorney was present throughout the proceedings, A.G. herself was excluded from the hearings where her very future was at stake.

“At the time of the hearing, she was 15, and her history of suffering as a result of her parents’ dispute is well documented in the record,” he wrote. “The trial court made no attempt to justify its ruling that A.G. could not attend the custody hearing — a hearing being held, ironically, on her own motion.”

Amelia was identified in court documents by her initials only, but her identity had been revealed in prior news coverage.

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