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Griffin v. Griffin

Supreme Court of Mississippi

February 1, 2018

NOLANA THORNTON GRIFFIN
v.
CHAD GRIFFIN

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 11/07/2016

         WALTHALL COUNTY CHANCERY COURT TRIAL JUDGE: HON. WAYNE SMITH

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: JOHN BENJAMIN ROWLEY GARY L. HONEA WILLIAM E. GOODWIN

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: TODD BRENTLEY OTT GARY L. HONEA

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: WILLIAM E. GOODWIN

          BEFORE RANDOLPH, P.J., MAXWELL AND BEAM, JJ.

          MAXWELL, JUSTICE

         ¶1. Mississippi law presumes visitation with the noncustodial parent is in the best interest of the child. But under the circumstances here-where an incarcerated mother sought a court order requiring her four children, one of whom has a social disability, to drive four hours to visit her in prison, every other week-the chancellor found it was not. In reaching this decision, the chancellor applied the correct legal standard and supported his decision with substantial evidence. Given the broad deference afforded chancellors in visitation matters, we affirm.

         Background Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2. Nolana and Chad Griffin married in 2001. They had four daughters together-one born in 2001, another born in 2004, and twins born in 2009.

         ¶3. Nolana was a high school teacher for the Walthall County School District. In early 2014, she confessed to Chad that she had engaged in sexual relationships with four of her teenaged students. Chad, an officer with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, immediately contacted the district attorney. In April 2014, Nolana pled guilty to four counts of sexual battery of a minor by a person of trust or authority.[1] For each count, Nolana was sentenced to twenty-five years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, with ten years suspended and the sentences to be served concurrently.[2] She was immediately remanded into custody and later transferred to the Washington County Correctional Facility in Greenville, Mississippi, four hours away.

         ¶4. According to Nolana, she and Chad "carried on as a married couple" for the first fifteen months of her imprisonment. Chad called her daily and regularly visited the prison. But in 2016, after starting a romantic relationship with his daughters' homeschool teacher, Chad filed for a divorce based on Nolana's incarceration.[3] Following a hearing at which both Nolana and Chad testified, the chancellor granted the divorce and awarded Chad physical and legal custody of the four girls, who were now fifteen, twelve, and seven years old.

         ¶5. While the Washington County Corrections Facility permits Nolana Saturday morning visits every other week, the chancellor declined to order any in-person visitation. Nolana offered testimony from the correctional facility's administrative assistant, Linda Jennings. Jennings testified the facility encourages family visits and tries to make them as smooth as possible. The girls would be frisked by a female officer. And even though visitation would occur in a communal room with other potentially violent offenders, in her years of oversight Jennings had never witnessed any problem. But Chad testified about his personal experience visiting Nolana in Greenville. He described what it was like to drive up to the prison. He also recounted his being searched by guards and walking through barbed-wire fences and metal gates. According to him:

Once I went through that process of seeing what it takes to go through a visitation for me, even as an adult, . . . as upsetting as it was to go through that process and seeing Nolana differently than I had ever seen her, it was very much a struggle just preparing myself for the visit. It's a four hour trip there. It's a four hour visit, and it's a four hour drive home, and it's physically and emotionally exhausting, and that was twice a month. And I just do ...

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