IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF: CHAD MICHAEL BESSETTE, Petitioner and Appellee, and JENNIFER RUTH BESSETTE, Respondent and Appellant.
Submitted on Briefs: June 27, 2018
FROM: District Court of the Eleventh Judicial District, In
and For the County of Flathead, Cause No. DR 15-800(B)
Honorable Robert B. Allison, Presiding Judge.
Appellant: Jennifer Ruth Bessette, self-represented, Bigfork,
Appellee: Sean R. Gilchrist, Johnson-Gilchrist Law Firm,
M. SANDEFUR JUSTICE.
Jennifer Ruth Bessette (Mother) appeals pro se the
judgment of the Montana Eleventh Judicial District Court,
Flathead County temporarily suspending a previously imposed
parenting plan for the minor child, L.G.B. We affirm.
We restate the dispositive issues as:
1. Whether the District Court erroneously granted and
maintained a temporary emergency order pursuant to §
40-4-220(2)(a)(ii), MCA, without an adequate showing and
finding of changed circumstances under §§
40-4-219(1) and -220(1), MCA?
2. Whether the District Court abused its discretion when
it limited Mother to supervised visitation?
3. Whether the District Court abused its discretion in
denying Mother's request to refer the matter to Family
Court Services in lieu of further involvement of the
court-appointed guardian ad litem?
4. Whether the District Court abused its discretion in
precluding admission of a psychological evaluation report
authored by a non-testifying mental health professional?
AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
On November 4, 2015, Chad Bessette (Father) filed a petition
for dissolution of his marriage to Mother and for imposition
of a court-ordered parenting plan for their minor child,
L.G.B., then six years old. After Mother timely responded and
litigation ensued for over a year, the parties eventually
stipulated to a final parenting plan. On December 6, 2016,
the District Court approved and imposed the stipulated plan
as a final parenting plan. The plan provided that, from March
through November of each year, the child would reside in
Father's custody and care from Thursday evening to Friday
evening, and alternating weekends. From November through
March, the child would reside in Father's custody and
care from Wednesday evening to Friday afternoon, and on
alternating weekends. The child would be in Mother's
custody and care at all other times.
On June 12, 2017, Mother filed a motion to amend the final
parenting plan supported by affidavit and a proposed amended
parenting plan. Based on an incident of domestic violence at
Father's home in the presence of the child, Father
subsequently applied for and obtained a temporary order of
protection against Mother. On August 8th, the District Court
denied Mother's motion for an amended final parenting
plan and set all remaining issues for bench trial. On
September 8th, 2017, Mother filed a motion for appointment of
a limited-scope guardian ad litem (GAL) to assess the
parenting dispute and make recommendations to the court
regarding what contact Mother should ultimately have with the
child in light of recent developments. On September 15th, the
court granted Mother's motion and appointed Christina
Larsen, Esq., as a limited-scope GAL for L.G.B.
On November 29, 2017, the parties participated in a
twelve-hour settlement conference encompassing a wide-range
of parenting plan, temporary protective order, and marital
estate distribution issues still outstanding. As a result,
the parties entered into stipulated parenting plan and
marital estate distribution agreements. On December 1, 2017,
the District Court adopted and imposed the parties'
now-second stipulated parenting plan as their amended final
parenting plan. The plan essentially placed L.G.B. in the
primary custody and care of Father subject to a three-phase
graduated transition schedule designed to incrementally
increase Mother's parenting time upon demonstration of
stable and appropriate parenting conduct. Under Phase 1, for
two weeks, Mother would have specified day visitation on
Saturdays or Sundays and after-school visits on Wednesdays.
Under Phase 2, for three weeks, Mother would have the child
overnight from Saturday at 8:00 AM to Sunday at 6:00 PM.
Under Phase 3, for four weeks, Mother would have specified
parenting time on alternating weekends. Upon the completion
of the phased transitional schedule, the parties would have
equal parenting time on a specified alternating schedule. The
stipulated plan provided that the previously appointed GAL
(Larsen) would oversee the transitional phases of the plan
and monitor the child's adjustment to Mother through the
first month of the plan. The parenting plan further
superseded the prior temporary protective order as to the
child and provided that parenting exchanges would be an
exception to the continuing protective order between Father
On December 13, 2017, only two weeks into the phased
transition schedule, an incident occurred at the parking lot
of Pick's Bowling Alley in Bigfork, Montana, where Mother
and Father had arranged to meet to exchange the child.
According to Father, he drove to the Bowling Alley,
accompanied by his girlfriend, and waited for Mother to
arrive with the child. Upon arriving with the child and
seeing Father's girlfriend, Mother rapidly accelerated
toward Father's car, stopping abruptly approximately two
feet short of where Father was standing next to the car.
Mother then angrily got out and repeatedly screamed "you
shouldn't bring that bitch here." The child then
became upset, yelling at Mother to "stop fighting."
According to Mother's version of the events, she merely
"parked very close" to Father's car
"because it was icy and snowy and [she] didn't want
[the child] to have to walk across the lot and slip on the
ice." Mother acknowledged that her "reaction could
have been better."
On December 15, 2017, Father filed a motion "for ex
parte interim relief" and a subsequent show cause
hearing. The motion requested immediate suspension of the
parties' then-governing amended parenting plan to bar
Mother from having unsupervised contact with the child. The
motion further requested that the court reauthorize the
court-appointed GAL to investigate and make further
recommendation as to what contact Mother should have with the
child. Father characterized the relief sought as "ex
parte interim relief" but did not expressly seek
modification of the parties' then-governing final
parenting plan. The District Court issued Father's
proposed ex parte order and set a show cause hearing
for January 3, 2018.
At the show cause hearing, the court heard testimony from
various witnesses regarding the circumstances of the bowling
alley incident and the damaging effect on the child of
Mother's continued belligerent behavior toward Father.
Testifying on behalf of the child and based on consultation
with the child's therapist, Mother's therapist, and
interviews of the child and Father, the GAL testified that
the child continued to be traumatized and scared by
Mother's uncontrolled anger and rage toward Father. The
GAL testified that Mother's behavior had not improved
under the amended parenting plan to date and thus recommended
that the court order her to complete anger ...