APPEAL from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County; the Hon.
DAVID W. COSTELLO, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE GEORGE J. MORAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Plaintiff, Joseph A. Huffman, Jr., appeals from a judgment of the circuit court of St. Clair County granting permanent custody of the parties' two minor children to defendant, Sheila Huffman, and setting plaintiff's child support payments at $400 per month.
Plaintiff contends that the custody award was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence, that the trial court erred in failing to make a report of those matters discussed at the "in camera" conference with each of the minor children, and that the trial court erred in allowing certain "expert" testimony on the question of the proper award of custody. By way of a supplemental brief, plaintiff argues that the court's modification of his monthly child support payments from $250 to $400 was likewise against the manifest weight of the evidence.
The plaintiff and defendant were married on March 4, 1961, and a divorce was granted to Joseph Huffman, Jr., on June 26, 1975, on the grounds of mental cruelty. Among other things, the agreed-upon complaint for divorce provided for the joint custody of the two minor children.
One child, Grant Huffman, was born to the couple on October 15, 1968, and the other child, Brian Huffman, was adopted shortly after his birth on March 10, 1967. During the marriage plaintiff pursued and obtained a doctor of philosophy degree in education while his wife worked. At all times relevant to this litigation he has been an instructor of child development and general psychology courses at a junior college while defendant worked as a secretary.
At the time of the divorce decree, it was agreed between the parties that they would have joint custody of the two children, this agreement being specifically incorporated into the decree of divorce. However, for a number of reasons which will be set out in greater detail later, the joint custody arrangement failed almost from the beginning. After motions by both parties asking for the permanent custody of the children and after several temporary orders which attempted to establish an acceptable and workable joint custody plan, the trial court held a lengthy hearing on April 6, 1976, to settle all issues and to finally determine the question of custody. By its subsequent order of July 14, 1976, the court granted permanent custody of the minor children to the defendant and gave plaintiff weekend and alternate holiday visitation rights. Among other things, the court ordered plaintiff to pay the sum of $400 per month as child support. Plaintiff has brought this appeal from the July 14 order.
Plaintiff first contends that the award of permanent custody to the defendant was against the manifest weight of the evidence. Conceding that the joint custody arrangement was totally unsuccessful, plaintiff makes the argument that permanent custody should depend on who was at fault in causing the joint custody arrangement to falter. In support of this position, plaintiff points to several acts of misconduct on the part of the defendant, including her grabbing and shoving the children during custody transfers, her creation of scenes by beating on plaintiff's door and by calling the police to enforce the exercise of custody rights, and by her attempted suicide in the month of August 1975.
Defendant argues that plaintiff has been intentionally uncooperative in the custody arrangement by refusing to deliver the children at times designated by court order and this is what caused the scenes. Defendant also contends that her agreement to the divorce was procured by plaintiff's false guarantees of future reconciliation. Her attempted suicide is explained as a reaction to information that her husband was going on a family vacation with the former family babysitter who was also a student in one of plaintiff's classes.
Defendant contends that plaintiff has used his professional training and experience in child development and general psychology to influence the preference of the children. She calls attention to the testimony of Linda Barringer, who often babysat for the defendant during the day. Ms. Barringer testified that the plaintiff would drive by her house and sound his horn as soon as the children arrived there from school. In addition, she testified, the plaintiff was at school in the morning when she dropped the boys off.
The defendant also calls attention to the testimony of Phyllis Shaw, also a babysitter, who testified that the plaintiff followed immediately behind her and the boys in his car for quite a lengthy time. There was also testimony that he would drive by the children's school at recess and get their attention.
Our review of the record convinces us that plaintiff did in fact use his training and experience to influence the preference of the children. He was the plaintiff in the divorce. The defendant had no lawyer and entered her appearance. In finding the defendant guilty of mental cruelty, the decree merely recited that she was "guilty of extreme and repeated mental cruelty as defined by the divorce statutes of the State of Illinois." The decree further provided that the parties were to have joint custody of the children. The plaintiff was awarded the marital home and the furniture. Prior to the divorce the plaintiff's present wife was a student of plaintiff. She then became a babysitter in his home. Then came the divorce; then came the marriage to the babysitter.
When the plaintiff exercised his custody, the children were in the home they were accustomed to and with people they were accustomed to being with. They were also lavishly treated. When they were with the defendant, they were on a very limited budget and living in cramped quarters. In addition, plaintiff engaged in a calculated effort to gain the attention of the children while they were in the defendant's custody.
During the lengthy in camera proceedings conducted with each child by the trial court, the children displayed an unexplainable hostility toward their natural mother and great affection for the plaintiff's new wife. They explained that they like it at their father's house because of the barbecues, etc. When answering questions directed by the trial judge, they exhibited a remarkable ability to field all of his questions. One of the children accused the trial judge of "testing" him.
However, assuming there was insufficient evidence to prove that plaintiff deliberately alienated the children from their mother, we still believe a man of his qualifications and experience could have asserted enough influence on them so that they would ...