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Appellate Division upheld denial of visitation rights of young child with incarcerated father. Matter of Ellett v. Ellett, 265 A.D.2d 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999)


In Matter of Ellett v. Ellett the court was ask to grant an incarcerated individual in-person visitation with his young daughters. That would require the daughters to be brought to him at Clinton Correctional Facility.

In matters of visitation rights for incarcerated individuals, New York law acknowledges the importance of maintaining parent-child relationships while considering the child’s best interests. The court may grant visitation even during incarceration, presuming it aligns with the child’s well-being. However, factors such as the child’s age, the nature of the parent’s sentence, and the potential impact of visitation on the child’s welfare play pivotal roles. While visitation denial is a drastic measure, the court weighs these elements judiciously to ensure decisions align with the unique circumstances of each case, emphasizing the paramount interest of the child involved.

In Matter of Ellett v. Ellett, the parents, having two daughters born in 1992 and 1994, faced a complex situation. The father, convicted in May 1995 of first-degree robbery and assault, resulting in a 7 to 21 years and 4 to 12 years prison sentence, sought visitation rights with his children while incarcerated at Clinton Correctional Facility. After a hearing, Family Court granted the father two annual visits with the older daughter, residing with the mother in Binghamton, Broome County, with transportation arranged by the paternal grandmother. However, personal visitation with the younger daughter, living with the maternal grandfather, was deemed against her best interests. The court allowed the father reasonable contact through mail and telephone with both children, awarding custody to the mother. The father appealed the decision not to permit him to have in person visitation with his younger daughter, arguing that there was no basis in the record for such a prohibition.

Whether denying visitation with the younger daughter was in the daughter’s best interest.

Holding and Discussion
Family Court justified its decision based on factors like the lengthy travel required to the correctional facility, the severity of the petitioner’s sentence, the child’s tender age, and the absence of a substantial pre-existing relationship. While granting reasonable contact through mail and phone, the court upheld the denial of personal visitation, signaling a delicate balance between parental rights and a child’s well-being.

Discussion: The court’s considerations reflect a nuanced evaluation, weighing the potential impact of prison visits on a young child against the incarcerated parent’s rights. The court highlighted that transporting the child to the correctional facility in Clinton County, where the petitioner was incarcerated, would entail a lengthy round trip of at least 10 hours by automobile. This logistical challenge, coupled with the young age of the child, influenced the court’s determination. Additionally, the court took into account the child did not really have a prior relationship with her father. She had not seen him since she was five months old.

The Family Court noted that while personal visitation was not deemed suitable for the younger child, the petitioner would be allowed reasonable contact through mail and telephone. Furthermore, the court left the door open for the petitioner to seek a modification of visitation if he were to be transferred to a correctional facility in closer proximity to his children in the future.

The differentiated approach to visitation with the older child underscored the court’s recognition of the individual circumstances. The elder daughter, being two years older and having an established relationship with the petitioner, was deemed better suited for the considerable travel involved in visitation. This decision aimed to balance the child’s existing bond with the petitioner against the practical challenges posed by visitation logistics. The court’s nuanced approach reflected a consideration of the unique dynamics within the family unit, demonstrating an effort to tailor the visitation arrangements to the specific needs and relationships involved.

In navigating the complex terrain of incarcerated parents seeking visitation, Matter of Ellett v. Ellett underscores the court’s commitment to assessing each case individually. The judgment, grounded in the child’s best interest, offers a roadmap for future considerations in similar family law disputes.


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