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Pennsylvania experimented with the use of a parental coordinator in custody cases, as you may recall from a prior post on this site  That is to say, in PA, a judge could appoint a parental coordinator to enforce a custody order or handle the process of making modifications to it.

Good Law?   

Long story short, in 2013, Pennsylvania ended its experiment with the use of parental coordinators.  This was made official via the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adoption of Rule of Civil Procedure 1915.11-1.  Pursuant to the new rule, only judges may make decisions in child custody cases, which also includes hearing officers/masters.  Thus, the courts may not appoint any other person to render decisions or recommendations or alter a custody order in child custody cases.  Moreover, effective May 23, 2013, all existing orders appointing Parental Coordinators were vacated.

Why The New Rule?

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania had a concern with recent controversies in 2 different counties concerning juvenile placement and guardians ad litem.

The Consequences:  A Good Thing? 

It depends on whom you ask.   Many Judges like the idea of delegating duties to a parental coordinator.  Certain family law attorneys viewed the program as having value as an important bridge between the parties, lawyers, and the courts.  An argument could be made that the program should have been tweaked, but not dismantled.    Regardless, abolishing the program will favors transparency and add to more direct accountability for decisions in child custody court.

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What is a “parenting coordinator”?

A parenting coordinator is a person appointed by the judge in custody cases to help execute and coordinate ancillary issues of a custody order.  This helps ease the burden of the trial judge in dealing with the day to day aspects of implementing a custody order.  Parenting coordination has become a significant area of law in Pennsylvania child custody.  One concern is the following:   Is the appointment of a “parenting coordinator” the improper delegation of judicial decision-making authority?   Another issue is this:  what about the requisite credentials of the parenting coordinator?  Should that person be an attorney?  A mental health professional? 

One of the leading cases in this area is Yates v. Yates, 963 A.2d 535 (Pa. Super. 2008). There, the appellate court (the Superior Court) ruled that a trial court may appoint a parenting coordinator in cases with high-conflict parents who have demonstrated difficulty in rendering parental decisions independently.  There, the appellate court also constricted the parenting coordinator’s authority to side issues and not central matters such as legal and physical custody decisions. The Yates court also decided that a de novo review of a parenting coordinator’s decision must be utilized if either party disagrees with the parenting coordinator’s decision.

Recently, in the case of A.H. v. C.M., __ A.3d __, 2012 PA Super. 277 (December 18, 2012), the Superior Court once again addressed the requirement of a de novo review of a parenting coordinator’s decision.  There, the appellate court decided that the trial court erred in failing to hold a deno hearing on the mother’s petition to review the parenting coordinator’s decision.

On appeal, the Superior Court in the A.H. case held that the trial court erred in failing to hold a de novo hearing on C.M.’s (the mother’s) petition to review the parenting coordinator’s decision.

As one attorney, Micheal E. Bertin, noted:

 “[A.H. v. C.M.] is important for family law practitioners as it provides further guidance on the issue of parenting coordination. There exists a proposed rule of civil procedure permitting a judge to appoint parenting coordinators at any time after a custody order has been entered. The proposed rule mandates a de novo review of the parenting coordinator’s rulings if the party seeks review of the same. In the past, there was also proposed legislation that was on the other end of the spectrum and provided, in part, “a judge of a Court of Common Pleas shall have no authority to appoint a parenting coordinator in an action involving custody of a child. Any decision rendered by a parenting coordinator shall be void.” The proposed legislation was never enacted and the proposed rule has not been promulgated. Therefore, the current law regarding parenting coordinators remains the holding in the Yates decision and the Superior Court’s affirmation and reiteration of the mandates contained in the Yates decision as reflected in the recent case of A.H.”

Contact our Pittsburgh lawyers any time for a free consultation about this matter, or any other issue involving custody, support, divorce, of PFA.

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Pennsylvania has long clung to the presumption of paternity by estoppel, which means simply:  if you hold yourself out as the parent, you are the parent, even if you are not the biological parent.  Under this fiction, DNA evidence is not admissible.  Some states are moving away from this somewhat archaic presumption.    In the holding of K.E.M. v. P.C.S., No. 67 MAP 2011, 2012 WL 573635 (Pa. Feb. 21, 2012), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently declined an opportunity to do away with the presumption entirely, but it did add one ripple: the courts must look at the best interest of the child when applying the presumption of paternity by estoppel.  There, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania deemed that paternity in Pennsylvania by estoppel will continue in this Commonwealth.  There, the biological mother acknowledged that she had an extramarital affair with the alleged father during the course of her marriage to her husband. Testing did establish that her husband was not the biological father of the child.

The alleged biological father asserted paternity by estoppel to defeat the child support claim and argued that the husband had established the father relationship with the child, adding that his involvement in the child’s life had been insignificant. Also, the mother and her husband remained married even though they were separated.

The alleged father maintained that he has little involvement in the child’s life and that the mother remained married to her husband, though separated.  This prompted the lower court and Superior Court to grant his motion to dismiss the support action against him.  The husband remained responsible for the child’s support.  But then the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania had a look and reversed the lower court’s decision.  Specifically the Supreme Court remanded to the lower court for proceedings with the following directive:  the purpose of paternity by estoppel is to keep families intact and protect the best interests of the child. It was then up to the lower court to evaluate the best interest of the child based on a new evidentiary hearing.   This left in tact the doctrine of paternity by estoppel but it must be supported by a consideration of the best interest of the child.

Before this new provision in the law, the party seeking to challenge an order to pay child support based on paternity by estoppel could defend on two grounds:  (1) show that he did not hold himself out as the parent; or (2) show that he relied on the other parent’s false and fraudulent claim that he was the biological father, when he was not.  This issue came up a few years ago in a case that was litigated in Allegheny County before the Honorable Judge Wetch and appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.  The case was also profiled in the New York Times.

In that case, the mother was married to her husband, Mike, when she had a child (“L”) with another man, Rob.  Her husband held himself out as the child’s father even though he knew he was not, eventually, and claimed that he had only done so because his wife had lied and told him was, in fact, the biological father.

This is how the New York Times described the case:

The real issue, her attorney, Todd Elliott, told the court, was that Mike didn’t really want to stop being L.’s father.  ‘Every time he was given a chance to deny paternity, he never did,’ Elliott said, according to the transcript. ‘He signed consent order after consent order because he wanted to be the father. The testimony here today is that he only did it because of some philanthropic belief that he wanted to step up. That’s not true. . . . He fought for every other weekend. He fought for having her overnight on a Wednesday. He fought for having her not be able to leave the jurisdiction. These aren’t things that someone does because they are just philanthropic. He wants to be the dad; he just doesn’t want to pay support.’ Elliott’s accusation infuriated Mike, who believed it accurately described Rob, not him.

The hearing officer was persuaded by Elliott’s argument: Mike hadn’t been defrauded into admitting paternity after the DNA tests, and he had hardly abandoned L. after he learned the truth. Still, the officer ruled, Rob had also acted “essentially as a parent.” During the hearing, Stephanie testified that Rob was the biological father, and that he and L. loved each other. He had taken her on vacations to Disney World, Las Vegas and the ocean, celebrated at her birthday parties, bought her gifts and attended her soccer games and school activities. As such, the hearing officer ordered, Rob should help pay her support, too.

Despite being named a defendant in Mike’s lawsuit, neither Rob nor any legal representative for him ever showed up in court or contested the rulings. But Stephanie did. Her attorney argued in an appeal that parenthood shared by one mother and two fathers “would lead to a strange and unworkable situation.” So, the lawyer reasoned, Rob should not be forced to help pay for L.’s care. David Wecht, the state-court judge charged with hearing the appeal, agreed with Stephanie’s conclusions, albeit for different reasons. Pennsylvania law did not allow for the recognition of two fathers of the same child, he wrote in his opinion, and thus he could not order two men to pay paternal support. Wecht concluded that under the law, Mike was L.’s legal father. Fraud is the only way to rebut the key paternity doctrine, and Wecht, like the hearing officer, concluded fraud did not induce Mike to continue as L.’s dad after the DNA results; love did.

The superior court agreed with and fully upheld the lower court’s decision.  The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania declined to hear the case.  There, however, the issue was whether the lower court erred in failing to find fraud, not whether the presumption of paternity by estoppel should be abandoned or abrogated, which did not occur until recently, in K.E.M. v. P.C.S., No. 67 MAP 2011, 2012 WL 573635 (Pa. Feb. 21, 2012), as set forth above, and now the court may — and must — consider the best interest of the child when applying paternity by estoppel.

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There is no easy way to identify and eliminate child abuse, unless the abusive parent comes 100% clean and decides to trust outsiders with knowledge of what’s been happening in the home.

The broader question is:  what should happen when there are mere allegations that a child has been neglected, abused, or exposed to an environment where drugs or alcohol are present?  The knee-jerk answer is simple:  get the district attorney involved, punish the parent(s) and relocate the  kids.  But the solution is not so simple.  Many parents who deeply love their children also struggle with addiction.

In most instances, a parent may need counseling of some sort in lieu of the state bursting through their front door and stripping them of their children.  Some cases are easier to decide than others.  The parent whose daily intoxication allows young children to wander the streets requires special attention, of course.  But in many other less obvious cases of neglect, it may not be realistic to completely demonize a parent at the mere suggestion of drug use or neglect.

Pennsylvania has relied heavily on county entities called CYS, which stands for Children and Youth Services.  (In Allegheny County, it’s called Children and Youth Families, or CYF.)  The job of CYS is not easy.  CYS needs to investigate to get facts from parents who are understandably reluctant to be forthright.  Hence, CYS needs to draw certain inference from little facts, in many instances.  A recent story in the news highlights the difficulties in this area.

The case involved a new mother in New Castle, Pennsylvania, who failed a drug test given at a Lawrence County Hospital.  This prompted authorities in Lawrence County to seize her newborn baby, and the mother intends to file a civil rights law suit.  But the mother has an interesting explanation for her failure of the test.

Rich Lord, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, reported:

“Elizabeth Mort and Alex Rodriguez, parents of Isabella Rodriguez, have said that poppy seeds on a Dunkin Donuts everything bagel caused a false positive on an April drug test conducted by Jameson Hospital in New Castle. Poppy seeds contain opiates that are sometimes mistaken for drugs, although there are blood tests that can discern between compounds in the seeds and illegal substances.

The test result prompted Lawrence County Children and Youth Services to remove Isabella from her home the day after her discharge from the hospital, and put her in protective custody for five days.

The ACLU and attorney Patricia Dodge, of Meyer, Unkovic & Scott, plan to represent Ms. Mort in suing both the county and the hospital, according to a news release by the ACLU. Her attorneys declined to be interviewed, but a copy of the complaint to be filed today indicated that they will seek a finding that authorities need more evidence than a single drug test to remove an infant from its parents.

The complaint says the county agency is “removing newborns without any reasonable suspicion that they have been abused or are in imminent danger of abuse, in violation of parents’ fundamental constitutional rights, and Jameson is aiding and abetting that constitutional violation” by conducting tests that aren’t medically necessary.

Lawrence County Commission Chairman Steve Craig said that Children and Youth Services acted properly based on the information provided by the hospital.

“When [hospital employees] say she failed a drug test, what do you do, say, ‘Oh, well, we understand she ate a bagel?’ ” said Mr. Craig. He added that Ms. Mort told county case workers that she had a history of drug use, and called the claim that a bagel was to blame “an allegation. There’s nothing to back that up in this case.”

The complaint says Ms. Mort did not use illegal drugs while pregnant. She has no criminal record in Pennsylvania.”

To read more, go to: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10301/1098650-54.stm

Let’s assume that CYS got it wrong in this instance; namely, the mother had no prior record and there was no other evidence of neglect or drug use on her part in the past.  Does this mean CYS should relax its vigilance any?

The truth is, there is no quick and easy solution to the problem of suspected abuse. Modern society does not have any easy answer.  At the gut-wrenching suggestion of abuse, it’s tempting to cast a wide net and simply demonize every person and entity involved:  the parents, school, teaches, and entities such as CYS that often fail to properly investigate the “real” instances of neglect.

Three things will never change:  (1) abusive parents will never be totally forthright about the harm they are doing to young children (2) CYS will overstep its bounds in the future and cause pain to innocent families, and (3) we will always need investigative bodies like CYS to have authority to make decisions that help improve the lives of innocent children.

The system will never be perfect.  But an alert public, good reporting, and a constant effort by CYS to improve its procedures will help reduce the number of cases where CYS over steps it bounds in the future.

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It looks like things are getting worse for Charlie Sheen.  It appears that he has a court date coming up in February, but according to reports,  Hanes has already dropped him from its advertising.   It may be some time before the courts take a serious look at whether there is any truth to the recent allegations about Charlie Sheen.   

In the short run, any allegation of abuse will (and should) be taken seriously. When a party to a relationship claims abuse, the courts are quick to grant a Protection From Abuse Act order if only to keep the parties separated.  The courts often seem to say:  “Hey, who cares who did what?  I just don’t want to see any kind of abuse happen in the future on my watch, you hear me?  I’m ordering that the alleged aggressor stay away.” 

You really can’t blame the court for taking this approach.  If you were wearing the judicial robe, you would probably do the same thing.  Imagine if you were to deny a Petition for Protection From Abuse (PFA), only to learn that the alleged abuser seriously hurt (or killed) the petitioner only hours after exiting  your courtroom.  Hence, when in doubt, it often makes the most sence for a judge to err on the side of granting Petitions for Protection From Abuse when the facts are unclear. 

But what about cases involving criminal charges above and beyond a PFA?  There, it’s a whole different situation.  When charged with a crime, as a matter of constitutional right, we are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Here, the courts are not allowed to rush to judgment.   The defendant will get the right to a jury trial and he’s entitled to have his day in court.  He has a 6th Amendment Right to confront witnesses offered against him.  He can challenge whether the allegations of abuse are support by proof of touching (bruises, cut, broken bones), and whether any witness would support the accusers version of the facts. 

In the meantime, however, it is generally best for the parties to agree to avoid contact for at least as much time as needed for a cooling or more permanent separation.  Charlie Sheen should listen closely to his advice of legal counsel on this, because every case is different.  Settlement agreements can come to haunt the parties, so the wording matters.  Plus, unfortunately, the system can be abused by those falsely claiming abuse to gain leverage in a divorce, custody, dispute or to evict someone from a shared premises.   Every case must be looked at on its facts to ensure that (1) courts are being fair to all parties and (2) right solution is found.  

What makes these cases particularly difficult is when the parties are public figures and the allegations of abuse become the subject of headlines.  Typically, the final agreement between the parties will often involve a non-disclosure clause and the public may never know the truth.  This is also true if the parties reconcile, so the public might only see the allegations, absent any evidence of serious injury.

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The White House EmblemThe National Christmas Tree

Our firm takes pride in helping familes grow through the loving concept of adoption.  This process involves the legal termination of rights of the biological parent(s) followed by a proceeding for adoption of the child into a new family.  

Aside from the legal services we offer, we want our clients and the general public to know that adoption is an important concept in our society and it should be embraced and supported.  November was National Adoption Month.  It came and went without much national attention, unfortunately.

Each year, the American President issues a proclamation about adoption in the United States.  This year, in October, Barack Obama penned a proclamation that November was National Adoption Month.  As reported on Adoption.com, the President’s proclamation honored families that strengthened America through adoption and recommitted the United States to reducing the number of children currently awaiting adoption in the United States.   Here is the Proclamation signed October 30, 2009:

All children deserve a safe, loving family to protect and care for them. In America, thousands of young people are waiting for that opportunity. During National Adoption Month, we honor those families that have strengthened America through adoption, and we recommit to reducing the number of children awaiting adoption into loving families.

America is a country rich in resources and filled with countless caring men and women who hope to adopt. These individuals come from all walks of life, united in their commitment to love a child who is in need of the protective arms of a parent. We must do more to ensure that adoption is a viable option for them. By continually opening up the doors to adoption, and supporting full equality in adoption laws for all American families, we allow more children to find the permanent homes they yearn for and deserve.

This month, we also focus on children in foster care. These children are not in the system by their own choosing, but are forced into it by unfortunate or tragic circumstances. These young people have specific needs and require unique support. Federal, State, and local governments, communities, and individuals all have a role to play in ensuring that foster children have the resources and encouragement they need to realize their hopes and dreams.

The course of our future will depend on what we do to help the next generation of Americans succeed. This month, we celebrate those families brought together by adoption and renew our commitments to children in the foster care system.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 2009 as National Adoption Month. I call upon all Americans to observe this month by reaching out to support and honor adoptive families, as well as to participate actively in efforts to find permanent homes for waiting children.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirtieth day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fourth.

BARACK OBAMA

Through the Holidays and into 2010, let us all remember that strong, loving families are the backbone of our civiliation.  Those who are noble enough and brave enough to adopt deserve our collective support and recognition all year long.

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The Western Pennsylvania lawyers at Elliott & Davis, PC understand the impact that any family law matter can  have on your life.  We are intimately familiar with events such as divorce, custody disputes, and support claims and other family law matters.  We all know that a divorce is a life changing experience.  However, some practical advice can make the transition a little easier.   The blogosphere has advice for you!

Here’s ten tips that I found on the LegalMatch blog.  Parenthetically, LegalMatch picked up these tips from the Kentucky Family Law Blog, which received the tips from  Nolo Press. These tips were originally authored by Emily Doskow

1. Be Flexible

Where your children are concerned, the best present you can give your child is to head off conflict about special days like birthdays and holidays. The collaborative rule for you in this situation is adjust your agreements to fit your kid’s needs.

For example, if the kids express a strong desire to spend a holidays or birthday with your ex, understand the importance of allowing them to do just that, regardless of whose time it is “officially.”

2. Be Proactive and Plan Ahead

Always keep in mind that your new family arrangements require much more planning than when everyone was living under the same roof. One way to avoid disappointment is to communicate early and often with the children and your ex. Give your children’s mom plenty of time to think about your proposals and to respond. And keep in mind that pushiness usually produces more resistance than cooperation.

3. Be Kind and Generous

Especially during holidays, keep any bitterness you still feel over the divorce between you and your ex. If you can’t say anything nice, just smile. Avoid putting the children in the awkward position of taking sides. Be as generous as you can with your kids about their relationships with their ex and the rest of the family. Encourage them to talk about the gifts they received and activities they engaged in with other family members they see over the holidays. Let them know they can show happiness with both parents. Help your children shop for the other parent, as well as their sibling, grandparent, or stepparent.

4. Keep Your Word

Be particularly careful to follow through on whatever promises you make related to the holidays. It’s extra important to keep promises to your kids around holiday times — the holidays are a big deal for kids.

5. Include the Kids In Your Planning

Whenever it’s reasonable, let your children help make the choices about when and where to celebrate the holidays, and with whom. But before asking their opinions, make it clear that all plans must be cleared with everybody involved. This will help teach your kids to be part of the collaboration between you and your ex.

6. Create Two Holidays or Birthdays

Having two holiday or birthday celebrations for the children — one at your house, one at Mom’s — is often a positive solution for extended families. Just make sure that the plans you make are collaborative and that they are made well in advance. This arrangement reinforces for the kids that they have two homes and cements new family rituals and holiday customs.

7. Avoid the Indulgence Trap

Many divorced parents, especially dads, are still reeling from their personal hurt and guilt over the divorce. They may be overwhelmed by these feelings and respond to the children’s pain with too much money or too many gifts. Try to stay away from this unhealthy dynamic with your kids.

8. Take Care of Yourself If You’re Alone

Holiday time can trigger a resurgence of memories and melancholy feelings, especially if you are surrounded by couples and families. As holidays or birthdays approach, if you know you’re not going to get to see your kids, be sure to make your own special plans for the day.

9. Build New Family Traditions

Divorced parents, especially dads, often make the mistake of trying to duplicate exactly the pre-divorce family traditions. But you’ll be much happier and more satisfied if you create your own traditions for your new family.

10. Nurture Your Blended Family at the Holidays

If you remarry or get into a committed relationship and your new partner has children, they will undoubtedly have their own ideas about how to celebrate holidays and birthdays. Discuss with your new partner ways that you can bring together the children from both sides of the family, and get all the kids involved with planning what you’ll do together and incorporating everyone’s traditions.

Birthdays and holidays are special times for you and your kids. Communicate clearly and stay calm and flexible, and your extended family will have something to celebrate.

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