TALLAHASEE -- A Florida attorney says a father overstepped his boundaries by allegedly repeatedly sharing religious rhetoric that became abusive to his children.
So far, a trial court and appeals court have agreed with S. Scott Walker, the attorney who is representing the man's ex-wife, Emily Koch. Walker is managing partner of Folds and Walker Law Firm in Gainesville. Koch's former husband, Michael Koch, gave up a right to religious freedom when it emotionally damaged his three children, Walker told the Florida Record.
“The line gets crossed, if you use something in a way that creates a detrimental situation for the children. Then the court or authorities step in and say this is beyond what you’re supposed to be doing,” Walker told the Florida Record.
A trial court granted the Kochs’ divorce and the First District Florida Court of Appeals, based in Tallahassee, affirmed the decision Sept. 28. The appeals court also upheld a judgment prohibiting Michael Koch from discussing religion during visitation with the children.
“The welfare and best interests of the children must prevail,” said Judge Ross Bilbrey, writing for the three-judge panel.
While a court usually cannot restrict a parent from discussing religious beliefs, "religiously motivated behavior with an impact on a child's welfare cannot be ignored,” the judge wrote.
The children were 12, 10 and 8 when the divorce petition was filed by Emily Koch in September 2014, Walker said.
“The constant refrain was if the mother proceeds with the divorce then she is going to be subject to eternal damnation,” Walker said. “And the children were going to be there with her.”
Michael Koch was initially granted two hours a week for a supervised visitation with the children. It was later changed to unsupervised, Walker said.
Bilbrey noted in the court’s opinion that the trial court had ordered the supervised visitation to improve Michael Koch’s interactions with the children.
“However, this effort was unsuccessful and … (Michael Koch) adamantly refused any suggestion that (he) change his aggressive communications with the children so as to improve his relationships with them.”
There were three professional counselors involved in the case, evaluating all of the parties, Walker said.
“All of the three professionals testified that there were a number of behaviors that the father conducted that were harmful to the children,” Walker said. “Accordingly, he was provided supervised visitation.”
Walker said the current status of visitation is stayed, until Michael Koch’s final appeal is heard. He expects action on that by mid-November.
In the appeals court opinion, it was noted that court-appointed social investigator Linda Abeles testified that Michael Koch had admitted that he was abusive to his wife and three children, and called himself "a monster," but he was trying to change.
“The testimony of the expert witnesses during the bench trial, and … follow-up testimony in the third review hearing constituted a ‘clear, affirmative showing that the religious activities at issue will be harmful to the children,’” Bilbrey wrote. “Under the particular circumstances of this case, the trial court’s restriction on appellant’s discussion of ‘religious matters’ during his parenting time did not exceed the court’s discretionary authority of violate appellant’s rights.”
Koch, who is an attorney and reportedly represented himself in the case, did not return a call seeking comment.