Mother may regain custody of 7-year-old

A Family Court judge has given new hope to a young mother involved in a custody battle with her parents.

Chastity Primmer was 16 when she gave birth to her first child in May 2000. Her parents, Matthew and Marilyn McLaughlin, obtained guardianship of the boy a short time later and have had legal custody ever since.

In October, a hearing master denied Primmer's request to end the guardianship, but Judge Cynthia "Dianne" Steel recently agreed to reconsider the matter.

"I'm gonna tell you: I love mamas having their own babies, and it breaks my heart when your mama takes your baby, but you needed your mama to take your baby then, OK?" Steel told Primmer. "But it's your baby. You gave birth to that baby."

In agreeing to reconsider Primmer's request, Steel ruled that Hearing Master Patricia Doninger erred when she applied a new legal standard to the case.

Doninger said she based her decision to deny Primmer's request on a recent Nevada Supreme Court ruling that "put a stronger burden" on those seeking to end guardianships. In its 7-0 decision, the state high court ruled that what is known as the "parental preference doctrine" does not apply under such circumstances.

"Had you applied maybe a year ago, before the Supreme Court case came down, this might be coming out a little differently; but it's new sets of laws that we have to follow now," Doninger told Primmer at the October hearing.

However, Steel said the state high court's ruling did not apply to Primmer, because the justices determined that parents who voluntarily establish guardianships for their children do not "waive their right to the parental preference at a subsequent proceeding to re-evaluate the custody arrangement."

Doninger found that Primmer never voluntarily relinquished custody of her child, but Steel disagreed.

Although Primmer initially objected to the guardianship, Steel said, she withdrew the objection before the case proceeded to an evidentiary hearing. There, her parents would have had to show that she was either an unfit parent or that other extraordinary circumstances justified removing the boy from her custody.

"She decided that instead of fighting her parents over it right now, she'd just go ahead and acquiesce, because at 16 or 17, she had no job and no way of fighting them in court, no way of taking care of that child, because she had no job," Steel said. "And she basically was giving up, because she was a teenager."

Steel said no judge has found that Primmer is an unsuitable parent, but she questioned why it had taken the woman so long to bring the case back to court.

Records show no activity in the case for four years before Primmer filed a petition to terminate the guardianship in December 2005.

Primmer's attorney, Stephen Caruso, said the McLaughlins allowed their grandson to live with his mother for three years before taking him back in December 2005. Caruso said his client is now married, working full time and raising a second son.

Steel set aside a full day on Nov. 7 to hear evidence and promised to focus on the best interests of the 7-year-old boy at the center of the case. She urged the parties to strive for a settlement in the meantime.

"If I find that she's suitable, the child's going back to mom; and guess what happens to your visitation or your opportunity to see and bond with that child?" the judge asked the McLaughlins. "Do you understand? It could be zero. And that's not in the child's best interest. He's had two viable families in his life right now that should be working to make his childhood better and not to make his childhood worse."

Primmer, now 24, told the Review-Journal she does not plan to propose a settlement because she has tried unsuccessfully to resolve the case out of court for years.

The McLaughlins have refused to comment on the case.

Although Primmer described her relationship with her parents as "slim to none," she said she does not plan to keep them from seeing their grandson if she regains custody of him.

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