Dads Against the Divorce Industry

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Court: Divorced mom can keep address secret from ex-husband

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

Divorced fathers can be barred from knowing their child's home address if there is a history of domestic violence and the mother can show she still fears for her safety, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In a 5-0 decision, the court said even a fit father with joint custody and liberal visitation rights does not have an automatic right to know the whereabouts of his child. The court concluded a father's access to his child's home address will be based on a case-by-case analysis that focuses on the "best interests of the child."

"This is an important victory for battered women," said Lawrence S. Lustberg, the Newark attorney who represented the mother on behalf of the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women.

The case involves Walter Sacharow, 34, his ex-wife, Cynthia Sacharow, 35, and their 7-year-old son. The Sacharows lived in Clinton before their divorce; the boy now lives with his mother.

Eight months after her husband sued for divorce in 2000, Cynthia Sacharow accused him of domestic violence because he repeatedly called her pager. She said he was harassing and stalking her, acts considered domestic violence under New Jersey law. However, a judge refused to issue a restraining order against Walter Sacharow, concluding the incessant calls were not harassment but an attempt to track her down so he could see his son at a time when his ex-wife was living in a homeless shelter.

Two lower courts later ordered Cynthia Sacharow to turn over her address, but those orders were put on hold pending appeals. Yesterday, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court decisions.

The court said the mother is entitled to a hearing to give her an opportunity to show she was the victim of domestic violence and still fears for her safety. If she satisfies that test, the court said, the father must then show it is in the best interest of the child for him to obtain the home address.

In a decision written by Justice Virginia A. Long, the court said that while both parents have "a fundamental right to the care and custody of their children ... the sole benchmark is the best interest of the child."

In assessing the child's best interests, the court said, trial judges should consider the prior history of the couple, the relationship between each parent and the child, any efforts by either party to alienate the child from the other parent, the effect address confidentiality has on those relationships, and any special needs of the child.

Lustberg said he believes Cynthia Sacharow can show she was a victim of domestic violence. Lustberg said she was not represented by a lawyer when she first made the allegations of abuse and was not able to fully explain the history of domestic violence.

Walter Sacharow represented himself and could not be reached for comment. Lee Hymerling, a court-appointed attorney assigned to assist Mr. Sacharow, did not return calls.

Nancy Goldhill of Legal Services of New Jersey, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the mother, said the need for a hearing is important because many victims of domestic violence do not have restraining orders.

"This doesn't mean the child's father doesn't have adequate access to the child. Mr. Sacharow has had visitation," Goldhill said. "If the victim has a cell phone, an emergency contact or provides visitation by meeting at a neutral spot, the noncustodial parent's rights are not infringed. We're very happy with the court decision today."

With its ruling, Lustberg said the court reaffirms the importance of New Jersey's Address Confidentiality Program Act, a 1997 law enacted to protect victims of domestic violence from abuse by allowing them to keep their home address confidential. Cynthia Sacharow was accepted to program, which says the victim must simply report domestic violence to a court or police agency to qualify. The court, however, stressed its decision was not a comment on the rules of the program.

Justices Peter Verniero and Barry Albin did not participate in the case.

Copyright 2003 All Rights Reserved.

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