On appeal from Superior Court, Chancery Division, Family Part, Atlantic County.
Shebell, Long and Landau. The opinion of the court was delivered by Long, J.A.D.
This is an appeal from a determination of a trial Judge which awarded custody of four year old Nicole Sheridan to her father, Michael Sheridan, over the objections of her grandparents, Antoinette and Anthony Todd, with whom she had resided since birth and who also sought custody.
Sheridan and Beth Todd were married in 1983 and on April 9, 1988, Beth gave birth to a daughter Nicole. During Beth's pregnancy, Sheridan became engaged in a romantic liaison with Mary Camp. After Nicole's birth, Mary left her two children with her then husband. Sheridan and Mary moved in together.
Beth returned to live with her parents, Anthony and Antoinette Todd. She was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 1988, at which time it became nearly impossible for her to care for Nicole. The Todds became the primary caretakers of Nicole, especially Mrs. Todd, who took a leave of absence from work without pay to care for the child.
Sheridan visited Beth once a week on Thursdays between October 1988 and May 1989 to deliver a check to her. He sometimes saw his daughter on these afternoon visits and celebrated Nicole's first birthday with her. By May 1989, Sheridan had become more involved with Nicole, spending Tuesdays with her and having occasional overnight visits. He also took Nicole on special trips.
Beth had papers drawn up for Sheridan to sign which would have made her parents Nicole's guardians in case of her death.
Sheridan refused to sign these papers. Beth died April 2, 1990. On November 7, 1990, Sheridan married Mary Camp who was by that time divorced. Sheridan's regular Tuesday visits continued past Beth's death until Tuesday, December 11, 1990. On that date, he called the Todds' home and spoke with Mrs. Todd, explaining that he wanted to keep Nicole and raise her alone.
The Todds filed a complaint for custody and an Order to Show Cause pursuant to which the trial Judge ordered Sheridan to return Nicole to the Todds who were also awarded temporary legal custody. A hearing was held on eleven dates from January to June 1992.
The hearing basically focused on the issue of whether Sheridan or the Todds would be better primary caretakers of Nicole. This necessitated much testimony as to the parties' backgrounds as well as the background of Mary Camp Sheridan. The following is a brief outline of that testimony.
Sheridan married Terry Coyle in 1977 when they were twenty and eighteen years old respectively. One child, Stacey, was born of the marriage. His relationship with Stacey was not strong. According to Terry Coyle's sister, Marie, he had little interest in seeing Stacey when she was young. According to Sheridan, his relationship with Stacey faltered because Terry "tried to keep her away from [him] as much as possible, at that time." Nonetheless, he tried to see her and faithfully paid child support for Stacey in accordance with a court order in the amount of fifteen dollars a week.
In recent years as Stacey entered adolescence, Sheridan has had more contact with her because of her problems with her mother. Stacey spent the summer of 1991 with the Sheridans. She was fourteen years old. Stacey's mother objected to Stacey's living with the Sheridans and agreed to have Stacey live with her maternal grandmother.
During the summer Stacey stayed with Sheridan, she was allowed to double-date with Mary's daughter, Jennifer, who is one
year older. Both had boyfriends who were eighteen during the summer of 1991. Mary first discussed birth control with Stacey during that summer. In June of 1991, Mary took Stacey to a clinic for birth control pills for the first time. Mary made no effort to contact Stacey's mother or grandmother before taking her for birth control pills. Mary testified that she consulted with her husband and that she thought Stacey's mother would approve. The mother testified that she did not approve. Sheridan characterizes his present relationship with Stacey as a good one.
Mary Sheridan has three biological children. The oldest, Jennifer, was born out of wedlock when Mary was nineteen years old and was raised by Mary. In 1982, Mary married Bill Camp. She has two children from that marriage, Johanna and Billy. They were approximately five and one years old, respectively, when Mary left home. Mary and Bill Camp were divorced in 1989. She maintains a good relationship with him and her former in-laws and participates in family outings with them. Although Bill Camp is the custodial parent, Mary Sheridan has liberal access to Johanna and Billy and sees them often. Until the current litigation, Mary was under the impression that the divorce decree granted her joint custody of Johanna and Billy although the agreement actually states that Bill Camp has custody of them while Mary has custody of her older daughter, Jennifer. Mary testified in court that she had a tubal ligation and could only have more children if she has a reversal.
Michael Sheridan admitted to using marijuana and cocaine in the past. He testified that he ceased drug use in October of 1987. He was arrested in 1975 for possession of a weapon and served thirty days in county jail for the offense. In 1987, he was arrested for DWI for which he pleaded guilty. The police found methamphetamine on him when he was arrested. A number of witnesses testified that he sold drugs in the past. No one testified that defendant currently uses or sells drugs. During interviews with his expert psychologist, Sheridan unequivocally denied that he had
ever sold drugs. The trial Judge found "as a matter of fact" that Sheridan did sell drugs and that he lied about it.
The Todds have raised five children including their deceased daughter, Beth. Mrs. Todd testified that she and her husband have a warm and loving relationship with their children. Mrs. Todd knew that Beth used drugs for about ten years prior to her pregnancy and never discussed it with her husband. Mrs. Todd was also aware that her daughters, Karen and Dianne, used drugs. She did have Discussions with her children about the dangers of using and selling drugs.
The Todds' daughter Karen, who is in her twenties, lives with them. All five of the Todd children graduated from high school. Only the youngest child, a son, has attended college. Mr. Todd is a retired firefighter. He has worked a second job most of his life. Mr. Todd has had several episodes of depression and was, at the time of trial, under treatment for depression. The Todd marriage is essentially solid. Both of the Todds smoke.
Nicole is attached to both her father and the Todds and is treated very well by all parties according to the expert witnesses. Both experts agreed that Nicole would be provided a good home with either the Sheridans or with the Todds. The Todds' expert, Dr. Pokalo, testified that Nicole needed stability and should stay with her grandparents, although she should spend more time with her father. Sheridan's expert, Dr. Mosley, recommended that Sheridan should have custody of Nicole, but that the move to custody should be gradual. He further recommended that the grandparents should have regular visitation with Nicole.
Dr. Pokalo opined that the grandparents are Nicole's "psychological parents." Dr. Mosley argued that Nicole's relationship to the Todds is "close" to that of a child-parent relationship, but disagreed that the Todds are her "psychological parents." Rather, Dr. Mosley believed that Nicole has "bonded with the Todds and Mr. Sheridan." Dr. Mosley stated that if he found that Sheridan had indeed sold drugs, it would "have to change my entire evaluation because that would be built on the premise that
much of the information he gave me was incorrect, if that ...