A Louisiana man has been denied contact with his daughter in the latest development of a high-profile custody case between the father, John Barnes, and mother, Crysta Abelseth, who says their teenage daughter was conceived when Mr Barnes was 30 and Ms Abelseth was 16.
The encounter would constitute rape, regardless of consent, under Louisiana law.
The case made headlines earlier this summer when Ms Abelseth went public to say that she had lost custody – and we being forced to pay child support – to her alleged rapist.
Mr Barnes had been given full custody of their 15-year-old daughter after a complicated series of court proceedings dating back more than a decade.
On Friday, Tangipahoa County Judge Jeffrey Cashe ruled that the girl would remain placed with guardians approved by both parents. Mr Barnes was barred from initiating contact or visitation with his daughter. Ms Abelseth was ordered to take parenting classes and allowed visitation at the least on the first weekend of the month and possibly with more frequency if agreed to by the child and guardians.
In his decision, Judge Cashe attempted to summarise the complicated history of the case, dating back to the child’s birth in 2006, when a man other than Mr Barnes was named as the father on the birth certificate.
That man, according to the judge, was believed to be the biological father by Ms Abelseth but never formally acknowledged the child; he was incarcerated when the girl was four, and “it was at this time that John Barnes … was contacted regarding the possibility that he may be the father of the minor child”.
A February 2011 paternity test established that was the case and, through the courts, a joint custody agreement was established.
That agreement began to disintegrate the following year, when the relationship seems to have started breaking down. In June 2012, Ms Abelseth filed for more child support; less than a month later, Mr Barnes sought to hold her in contempt, according to Friday’s judgment.
Over the years, allegations were hurled on both sides and court proceedings became hostile.
Ms Abelseth, after receiving counselling, went to police in 2015 to say that John Barnes had raped her, resulting in the birth of their child. Nothing came of it for years, and her rape allegations only appeared in court proceedings in 2022.
In the meantime, the situation continued to spiral, with mother and father fighting over everything from mobile phones to overnight guests to counselling for the child. This culminated in Mr Barnes being awarded full custody the teenager in the spring. Ms Abelseth paid him child support, which set off her public airing of the case.
Following that, the courts temporarily removed the pair’s daughter from Mr Barnes’ custody and placed her with parent-approved guardians – the same ones who continue to care for the girl.
In a June statement – again after Ms Abelseth went public with the case and after a judge unsealed some court records – Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office admitted it had “dropped the ball” and only started really investigating in April, when she followed up on the matter.
“Upon receiving notice, a team of investigators were assigned to and worked diligently to delve deep into the facts surrounding the case. Due to the complex nature of their findings, the case was turned over to the District Attorney’s Office,” the statement said.
The Tangipahoa District Attorney’s Office on Monday did not immediately respond to requests from The Independent about the status of any possible prosecution.
Mr Barnes, who has to date not been charged with any crime, denies any wrongdoing.
In continued custody proceedings last month, he was resolute in his innocence.
“Barnes repeatedly said during the hearing that Abelseth said she ‘was a college student’ the night they had sex and refused to acknowledge that she was actually a minor,” The Advocate reported. “In a heated exchange, after Barnes interrupted [Ms Abelseth’s lawyer Jarrett” Ambeau several times, Ambeau told him to ‘shut his mouth.’”
“Barnes did acknowledge that ‘at face value,’ it was against the law for a 30-year-old to have sex with a 16-year-old,” Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper continued.
In his decision, Judge Cashe was scathing when describing the behaviour of both parents.
“In this case, the evidence and circumstances have profoundly proven that custody to either parent, joint or sole, would be substantially harmful to the child,” he wrote. “None of the issues presented were the result of a sudden or isolated incident; rather, they were the product of the parents’ adversarial dysfunction and continuous emotional and supervisory neglect of the child over the course of a decade.
“Furthermore, the Court does not find either parent to be credible.”
He described the girl at the centre of the case as “an articulate and bright lady, who is almost 16 years of age.
“She has managed to maintain good grades and involvement in extracurriculars despite the chronic trauma she has experienced throughout the years of ‘bitter, vengeful, and typically highly emotional conflict’ and litigation between her parents,” he wrote, citing another case.
He later added: “According to pleadings filed herein, the minor child desires to remain with [her guardians] and wants an improved relationship with Ms Abelseth but does not want to continue with her relationship with Mr Barnes.”
He did not, however, legally terminate Mr Barnes’ parental rights, musing upon Louisiana felony rape law.
“The Court recognizes and Mr Barnes has acknowledged his commission of Felony Carnal Knowledge of a juvenile,” he wrote. “The Court did not find compelling evidence of and heard direct testimony refuting Ms Abelseth’s claim of Simple or Third-Degree rape, including testimony of a non-party eyewitness to the actual sexual encounter.
“There is simply no authority, jurisprudential or otherwise, defining ‘felony rape’ or the application of Art 137 to Felony Carnal Knowledge of a Juvenile and this Court will not create law by judicial fiat where the Legislature has failed to do so.”
Judge Cashe did, however, agree to “insulate Ms Abelseth from ongoing custodial interactions with Mr Barnes”.
Lawyers for both parents did not immediately return request for comment from The Independent on Monday.
Ms Abelseth, however, previously told The Independent that she was “not doing well” during the ongoing court proceedings and inability to regularly see her daughter.
The mother, who recently remarried and has a 19-month-old at home, said in June that she was “mentally, emotionally and financially, just exhausted all the time to the point where it’s affecting my qualify of life – work life, home life, the rest of my family, just a strain on everything”.
She also said she felt let down by the justice system, which seemingly left her rape allegations uninvestigated or untouched for an extremely long time.
“This is the only time I’ve ever had to deal with, basically, law enforcement at all – and it’s not a great first experience.”
Ms Abelseth continued: “Every time I have to let her go and go back home without her, it’s very hard.
“I do get emotional, just like anyone else would, and I feel like I am a strong person, though – and I am fighting it, and I will continue to fight for her until my last breath.”
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