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Darby v. Combs

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

November 9, 2017


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 04/27/2015






         ¶1. In this custody case, the chancellor found the natural parents unfit to retain custody of their young daughter. After considering the child's best interest and conducting an Albright[1] analysis, the chancellor awarded joint custody to the child's maternal great-grandparents and paternal grandmother. The paternal grandmother appealed. She argued Mississippi Code Section 93-5-24 (Rev. 2013) prohibits joint-custody awards to third parties.

         ¶2. We assigned this case to the Court of Appeals, and the appellate court affirmed the chancellor's decision. Darby v. Combs, 2016 WL 6276610 (Miss. Ct. App. Oct. 25, 2016). The paternal grandmother then petitioned this Court for certiorari review, which was granted. After review, we find Section 93-5-24 allows joint-custody awards among third parties. Thus, the chancellor did not abuse his discretion, and the Court of Appeals was right in recognizing as much. We therefore affirm.

         Background Facts and Procedural History

         ¶3. Adriana Rose Darby (Addie) was born to unwed parents on February 11, 2013. Her mother Crystal Combs was eighteen. Her father Andrew Darby was twenty. Crystal lived with her grandparents, Harold and Karron Combs. The Combses had cared for Crystal since she was three years old, after obtaining full custody of her by court order. Andrew Darby lived with his parents, Ross and Monica Darby. He frequently visited Crystal and Addie at the Combses' home.

         ¶4. Crystal was Addie's primary caregiver following her birth. But on August 20, 2013, Monica Darby filed a petition for custody or, alternatively, visitation with Addie. She alleged Crystal and Andrew had neglected Addie and were unable to care for her properly. Crystal and Andrew each answered and requested custody of Addie. Andrew also sought a filiation order, declaring him Addie's father. Because of the neglect allegations, the chancellor appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL). The GAL was ordered to investigate and prepare a written report with her recommendations.

         ¶5. On February 24, 2014, Monica Darby filed a motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO). She cited Crystal's arrest for drug paraphernalia the previous week. The chancellor granted the TRO. He temporarily awarded full custody of Addie to Monica and set a preliminary injunction hearing. Soon after, the Combses filed a motion to intervene, which was granted. They asked the chancellor to award them custody of Addie and declare Crystal and Andrew unfit.

         ¶6. At the preliminary injunction hearing on March 18, 2014, the chancellor found Addie would be irreparably harmed unless Mrs. Darby continued to have full custody. His order enjoined Crystal from any contact with her daughter. On April 15, 2014, the chancellor entered an order granting the Combses' request for visitation with Addie, stipulating Crystal would have no contact with Addie. The chancellor later amended the order to give Crystal supervised visitation.

         ¶7. On October 2, 2014, and December 18, 2014, the chancellor heard arguments on Mrs. Darby's custody petition. There was extensive testimony and evidence about Crystal's and Andrew's parental fitness. Harold Combs testified that Andrew had twice attempted suicide at their home by cutting his arms. Both times the police were summoned. On another occasion, Andrew was charged with domestic violence and simple assault. He had thrown a telephone at Crystal while she was holding Addie. The telephone struck Crystal in the head, and she was taken to the hospital for stitches.

         ¶8. Monica Darby testified that on August 6, 2014, Andrew smacked Ross Darby in the head with a skillet during an argument. Ross had to have the wound stapled, and Andrew faced criminal charges for the incident. There was also testimony about Andrew's history of drug and alcohol abuse.

         ¶9. Andrew's history of mental illness was also highlighted, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Andrew had received mental-health treatment on several occasions. At one point, he was committed to the state hospital in Tupelo. After his discharge, Andrew moved to Jonesboro, Arkansas, to live with his grandparents and attend college at Arkansas State University. Monica testified that Andrew receives outpatient treatment and is doing well.

         ¶10. Crystal's fitness was similarly at issue. She admitted she could not provide a stable home for Addie at that time. Crystal testified about her own drug use. She explained that she and Andrew had used drugs and alcohol with Mr. Darby, without Mrs. Darby's knowledge. Karron Combs testified that Crystal was arrested for possessing drug paraphernalia in February 2014. This was when she and her husband first discovered Crystal was using drugs. Karron viewed her granddaughter as an accomplished liar who had fooled them about her drug use. Crystal admitted using drugs at the Combses' home. She claimed they were unaware because she had concealed her drug use from them. According to Karron, Crystal later completed a drug rehabilitation program. Since then, her attitude and behavior had improved greatly.

         ¶11. The chancellor commented on the "very disturbing" nature of the case. He said he faced a scenario where "both parents are admittedly unfit to have custody." Citing this dilemma, he proceeded under Mississippi Code Section 93-5-24(1)(e) and arranged third- party custody between Monica and the Combses. Though he found this arrangement was in Addie's best interest, his Albright[2] analysis recognized that Monica and the Combses "le[ft] a lot to be desired."

         ¶12. Both sides believed they were best suited for custody of Addie. Karron testified she and Harold Combs were fully able to care for her. Harold has no significant health problems and is a computer programmer with flexible hours. And Karron is a retired teacher. While she has some health problems, she said her conditions are managed and would not interfere with her ability to care for Addie. Both Harold and Karron agreed that Crystal was unfit for child custody and that any visitation with Addie should be supervised.

         ¶13. Monica testified that she was Addie's primary caregiver since the TRO was granted in March 2014. She works for a utility company during the week. But her hours are flexible, and Addie was in daycare while she worked. In addition to Addie, Monica cares for three other children-ages fifteen, thirteen, and nine. Each is thriving in school and extracurricular activities. Monica has a health problem she manages with medication, which she insisted does not affect her ability to care for Addie or the other children.

         ¶14. The GAL report was admitted in evidence. She also testified at the hearing. The GAL recommended Monica be awarded custody of Addie with the Combses receiving visitation. The GAL found that neither Andrew nor Crystal could provide a safe and stable environment for Addie. She recommended any visitation granted to them be supervised. She believed the Combses' failure to recognize and address Crystal's destructive behavior had endangered Addie. The GAL also faulted the Combses for allowing the toxic relationship between Crystal and Andrew to continue in their home. But she still felt Addie's best interests required the Combses' continued involvement in her life.

         ¶15. In his January 23, 2015 order, the chancellor found it in Addie's best interest that Monica and the Combses share joint physical custody. He fashioned an arrangement in which Monica had custody of Addie while Andrew was away at college. And the Combses would have custody during alternating weekends, holidays, and the summer months. The chancellor also set a visitation schedule. He ordered that any visitation by Andrew or ...

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