Toddlers and Tiaras: Child Custody Determinations

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Toddler Sunbathing in a BikiniA child custody battle taking place in Campbell County, Kentucky where a mother is being charged with being an unfit parent after outfitting her tot with fake breasts under her clothing as part of a Dolly Parton costume is causing a quite a stir.  

Bill Verst has asked a court in Kentucky to grant him sole custody of his daughter Maddy Verst after her mother, Lindsay Jackson, dressed her 6 year old daughter in the costume, complete with a padded bra and fake padded buttocks.  Some critics such as children’s rights advocates were quick to condemn the outfit as too provocative for a young child. 

Jackson says that the costume is not meant to be sexual, and that pageant audiences find it “hysterical” when Maddy comes out on the stage with her padded bra and bottom.  Jackson also points out that if a child can be taken away from a parent for an activity such as pageants, it leaves it open for courts to disapprove of any other type of activity children may choose for their kids. 

Verst calls the outfit sexual exploitation, and is joined by a court appointed psychologist in the case in his request to remove Maddy from Jackson’s custody and place her in his care.

Although the question of whether it is healthy for a child to participate in toddler pageants may be a matter of contention among mental health professionals, the question of whether these pageants are overtly harmful to children or not seems to be a matter on which reasonable minds could disagree. 

The fitness of parents is questioned automatically under the law in many states under certain egregious circumstances, such as a history of domestic violence perpetrated by one parent against either the children or the other parent, drug or alcohol abuse by one parent, or when there are clear attempts by one parent to deprive the other parent of time with the child.

These circumstances all share one thing in common— unlike the pageants where Jackson parades Maddy around in her silly costumes – a reasonable mind wouldn’t question whether any of these things are detrimental to a child.  It is obvious that children are better off if they live in a home free of domestic violence. 

Are courts allowed to make value judgments related to child rearing choices which might be acceptable or not depending on a parent’s point of view? 

“Absolutely,” says a child custody lawyer we spoke with who asked not to be named.  Parents need to be aware that judges don’t necessarily decide custody cases impartially.  Child custody is decided by determining what is in the child’s best interest in the judge’s discretion.

“Most states have laws providing guidelines about what factors judges should consider when determining what is in the best interest of a child,” she says, “but judges’ decisions are unavoidably shaped by their own values when deciding where children should live.” 

The thought of a court taking a child from one parent and giving the child to the other parent based on a costume at a pageant brings up a variety of hypothetical situations.  Making the decision to allow your adolescent daughter to wear makeup or join the cheerleading squad comes to mind, among other things. 

While deciding the case, the court ordered Jackson to refrain from bringing Maddy to pageants.  However, it appears that the case is moving forward to determine whether sole custody should be taken from Jackson and given to Maddy’s father. 

It’ll be interesting to see whether the Kentucky court finds it enough to simply order Jackson to refrain from further pageant activity or “provocative” costumes, or whether the court actually takes the drastic measure of deciding that Jackson’s costume choice for Maddy amounts to sufficient evidence to find her unfit to parent her daughter. 

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