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Child custody case to be complicated over Amor orphan

Tabitha and Emma

No matter who gains guardianship of 7-month-old Emma Cox, it likely won't be an easy resolution.

Custody battles are difficult under typical situations, such as divorce. But in Emma's case, the matter is further complicated by a number of atypical factors - including her parents' youth and the violent way in which they died.

The infant girl was orphaned this week when her teenage parents died in a murder-suicide Monday.

Funeral services will be held Saturday near Amor for 17-year-old Dylan Cox - who authorities said shot his 16-year-old girlfriend Tabitha Belmonte multiple times before turning the gun on himself.

A visitation and prayer service for Tabitha will be held Sunday in Perham. The funeral will take place Monday morning.

Tabitha's relatives said they would fight for guardianship of Emma, whose whereabouts remain unknown.

Emma lived with Tabitha and Dylan at Dylan's parents' home - where the shootings took place - near Amor.

The Cox family has Emma in their care but said they won't disclose publically where she is.

The conflict between Emma's grandparents sets up a looming custody battle over the girl - which will likely be decided on a number of factors, said Jason McLean, a Fargo attorney who specializes in family law in Minnesota and North Dakota.

McLean said the final decision will focus on what's in the best interest of the child - a conclusion reached under Minnesota law by weighing 13 factors of consideration.

But Emma's unique situation likely won't make for an obvious decision by any judge, McLean said.

Both of Emma's parents were minors themselves, and then, there's the violent way they died.

"If you are the attorney for (Dylan)'s family, you do have the issue that he would be the alleged shooter," McLean said. "That's going to be something that would obviously play in."

However, Minnesota courts also give notable weight to the primary caretaker of a child.

In Emma's case, that would be the Cox family, with whom she's lived since she was born.

Tabitha's parents, Bobbi and Steve Teeple, live in nearby Dent, but their work as claims specialists takes them on the road for months at a time.

"Familiarity, stability and continuity are definitely going to be things that run through consideration," McLean said. "So if the paternal grandparents have had the child for a greater majority of the time, that's definitely going to be a factor."

"Is that going to be a be-all, end-all factor? It's hard to say," he added. "Courts have such a broad scope when it comes down to what they can do in their discretion."

Bobbi Teeple said her family called Otter Tail County social services and had an attorney petitioning for formal guardianship. No paper work regarding guard ianship had been filed as of Thursday.

Tabitha's relatives said they feared for Emma's safety after Monday's tragedy.

The Cox family said they hoped it wouldn't come to a custody battle but that they intended to keep Emma with them.

On Thursday, Otter Tail County Sheriff Brian Schlueter and Child & Family Services Supervisor Brad Vold both said they can't speak about Emma's situation due to privacy laws.

However, in general, Vold said his office offers guidance and resources to families seeking help.

In cases where a child's safety is questioned, Vold said staff will investigate the complaint and determine whether they need to take responsibility of a child in the short term.

However, that outcome is rare, he said.

"We certainly have situations where relatives or parents might be arguing about who's the best parent or best caregiver for the child," Vold said. "So they might call us thinking that we could get involved."

Oftentimes, though, Vold said he recommends families seek an attorney, since social services doesn't deal with legal matters, like custody.

McLean said family members' cooperation helps in deciding a child's future, especially in a potentially messy dispute.

"If it gets ugly, the only person that's going to get hurt by it is the child - that's the reality," McLean said. "I think the best thing that could happen with this is for it to be done with very quickly and very quietly."