DILLARD, P. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.
custody dispute, Laura Steedley, the mother of five-year-old
C. B. G., appeals a Clinch County Superior Court order
awarding custody of the minor child to his maternal
grandmother, Diane Gilbreth. The mother contends the trial
court erred in (1) awarding custody without making findings
of fact, (2) failing to afford the mother the statutory
presumptions regarding fitness and the best interest of the
child, (3) awarding custody based on insufficient evidence,
and (4) denying her motion to transfer venue to Lowndes
County. For the reasons that follow, we vacate the trial
court's order and remand for reconsideration consistent
with this opinion.
record shows that C. B. G. was born out of wedlock, and the
father has not legitimated or had any contact with him. C. B.
G. and the mother lived with the grandmother for a number of
years until the mother moved out to live with her husband, at
which point the grandmother still provided day care for the
child. On May 5, 2018, when C. B. G. was three years old, the
grandmother took him from his mother's house because he
told the grandmother his mother and step-father "were
mean to him." His parents purportedly "hollered at
him and they whipped him" and "he was terribly
unhappy." The grandmother refused to give C. B. G. back
to the mother. On June 18, 2018, the mother drove to the
grandmother's house to pick up C. B. G, an altercation
ensued, and the grandmother reported the mother as the
following day, the grandmother filed a petition for custody,
obtained an emergency, ex parte temporary order of custody,
and, with the help of the sheriff's department, took the
child back from the mother. This order did not contain any
findings of fact or details regarding the custody award. The
mother attempted to appeal the order, but we dismissed the
appeal because it was untimely. Steedley v.
Gilbreth, Case No. A19A0327 (dismissed Oct. 4, 2018).
The judge who issued the emergency order subsequently
disqualified himself, and a senior judge was appointed to
preside over the case. Following an evidentiary hearing, the
senior judge issued a December 31, 2018 temporary order
continuing custody with the grandmother. The mother timely
appeals from this order.
disputes between a parent and close third-party relatives,
including grandparents, are governed by OCGA § 19-7-1
(b.1). This statute mandates as follows:
Notwithstanding subsections (a) and (b) of this Code section
or any other law to the contrary, in any action involving the
custody of a child between the parents or either parent and a
third party limited to grandparent, great-grandparent, aunt,
uncle, great aunt, great uncle, sibling, or adoptive parent,
parental power may be lost by the parent, parents, or any
other person if the court hearing the issue of custody, in
the exercise of its sound discretion and taking into
consideration all the circumstances of the case, determines
that an award of custody to such third party is for the best
interest of the child or children and will best promote their
welfare and happiness. There shall be a rebuttable
presumption that it is in the best interest of the child or
children for custody to be awarded to the parent or parents
of such child or children, but this presumption may be
overcome by a showing that an award of custody to such third
party is in the best interest of the child or children. The
sole issue for determination in any such case shall be what
is in the best interest of the child or children.
following three presumptions are implicit in the statute:
"(1) the parent is a fit person entitled to custody, (2)
a fit parent acts in the best interest of his or her child,
and (3) the child's best interest is to be in the custody
of a parent." Clark v. Wade, 273 Ga. 587, 593
(II) (544 S.E.2d 99) (2001); Jewell v. McGinnis, 346
Ga.App. 733, 736 (1) (816 S.E.2d 683) (2018).
overcome the statutory presumption in favor of parental
custody, the close third-party relative "must prove by
clear and convincing evidence that the child will suffer
physical or emotional harm if custody were awarded to the
biological parent." Clark, 273 Ga. at 599 (V).
Harm is defined as "either physical harm or significant,
long-term emotional harm; . . . [not] merely social or
economic disadvantages." Id. at 598 (IV). In
considering the issues of harm and custody, trial courts
should examine a variety of factors, including
(1) who are the past and present caretakers of the child; (2)
with whom has the child formed psychological bonds and how
strong are those bonds; (3) have the competing parties
evidenced interest in, and contact with, the child over time;
and (4) does the child have unique medical or psychological
needs that one party is better able to meet.
(Citations omitted.) Id. at 598-599 (IV). According
to the Supreme Court, "[a]n analysis of these factors,
keeping in mind the statutory presumption of parental
custody, will enable courts to award custody to a third-party
relative only when a real threat of harm would result from
parental custody." Id. at 599 (IV).
the close third-party relative has established by clear and
convincing evidence that parental custody would result in
harm, this relative must then show "that an award of
custody to him or her will best promote the child's
health, welfare, and happiness." Clark, 273 Ga.
at 598 (IV); see OCGA § 19-7-1 (b.1). When reviewing
cases concerning parents and their children, we must also
keep in mind that
there is no judicial determination which has more drastic
significance than that of permanently severing a natural
parent-child relationship. It must be scrutinized
deliberately and exercised most cautiously. The right to
raise one's children is a fiercely guarded right in our
society and law, and a right ...