How are Child Custody Cases decided in Pennsylvania Courts?

Although the final decision in any custody case is made by a Judge, almost every county has some preliminary process, which varies from county to county. In Blair County, the parties initially meet with an intake worker from the child custody office. If no agreement is reached, a conference is scheduled with a mediator, who is a person with training in assisting people to find common ground.

In Bedford and Huntingdon Counties, the initial conference is held before a Judge, who will hear briefly from the parties, and if there is no agreement, may issue a temporary order, and schedule a hearing. In Cambria County, child custody cases are initially heard by a master, who is an attorney appointed by the court to conduct the initial hearing.

Despite the difference in procedures, the courts all encourage agreements between the parties.

In an emergency situation, a Petition for Special Relief can be filed, seeking a temporary Order from the Court.

What is the Legal Standard?

Custody decisions are made in terms of the best interests of the child. A wide variety of facts can be looked at to decide this question. The Custody Act mentions some of the factors, which include:

(1) Which party is more likely to encourage and permit contact with the other party.
(2) Present or past abuse committed by a party or member of the party’s household.
(3) The parental duties performed by each party on behalf of the child.
(4) The need for stability and continuity in the child’s education, family life and community life.
(5) The availability of extended family.
(6) The child’s sibling relationships.
(7) The child’s preferences. Can The Child Decide?
(8) Attempts of a parent to turn the child against the other parent.
(9) Which party is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child adequate for the child’s emotional needs.
(10) Which party is more likely to attend to the daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational and special needs of the child.
(11) The proximity of the residences of the parties.
(12) Each party’s availability to care for the child or ability to make appropriate child-care arrangements.
(13) The level of conflict and ability of the parties to cooperate.
(14) The history of drug or alcohol abuse of a party or member of a party’s household.
(15) The mental and physical condition of a party or member of a party’s household.
(16) Any other relevant factor.

Rights of Parents versus Grandparents or Other Relatives

The rights of parents come before other relatives, but are not absolute. Grandparents, or other persons who have cared for the child for a significant amount of time may have the right to seek custody. Separate provisions of the law permit Grandparents to seek visitation rights.

Enforcing a Child Custody Order

The Court has authority to enforce its orders, and can sanction serious violations with fines, or jail time (which happens only in the most serious cases). Contempt cases are begun by filing a Petition, and are heard directly by a Judge.

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