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Posts Tagged ‘custody’

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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Nothing says “I love you” like a restraining order, or at least, that’s the title of a song by post-hardcore band Our Last Night. All kidding aside, a restraining order – a/k/a Protection From Abuse Act Order (“PFA”) – is serious business.

No level of abuse should be tolerated.  Any amount of abuse is too much.   For this reason, the Pennsylvania legislature created the concept of a PFA, which creates an immediate right to have a person tossed in jail, if he violates either the temporary or “permanent” PFA.

A PFA can save a person’s life.

Unfortunately, abuse can go both ways.  It is not uncommon for the PFA procedures in PA to be abused by those looking to go on the offense against a current (or former lover) or family member when no “abuse” or fear of abuse ever existed.  So long as a person is willing to testify that another person (related by blood, prior sexual relations, or affinity) was physically abused or made serious threats, the entry of a PFA order is a near certainty unless the party defending the action has some pretty reliable evidence to the contrary.  This is the case mostly because the courts err on the side of separating the parties and entering a PFA.

Meeting the threshold amount of evidence to obtain a PFA is easy for those willing to distort the truth.  The term “abuse” is defined pretty liberally in the PFA statute:

23 Pa.C.S. § 6102 (2012)

§ 6102. Definitions.

(a) General rule. –The following words and phrases when used in this chapter shall have the meanings given to them in this section unless the context clearly indicates otherwise:

“Abuse.” –The occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members, sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood:

(1) Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault or incest with or without a deadly weapon.

(2) Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury.

(3) The infliction of false imprisonment pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S. § 2903 (relating to false imprisonment).

(4) Physically or sexually abusing minor children, including such terms as defined in Chapter 63 (relating to child protective services).

(5) Knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury. The definition of this paragraph applies only to proceedings commenced under this title and is inapplicable to any criminal prosecutions commenced under Title 18 (relating to crimes and offenses). (Emphasis added).

As you can see, a PFA can be warranted where no physical harm results.  Rather, an “attempt” to cause “fear” is enough.  The definition is broad enough to include stalking or repeated interaction, which could mean having coffee at the same Starbucks as the Plaintiff, by chance or routine, every day, or driving past the plaintiff’s home if it’s on the defendant’s way to work every day, so long as that puts the plaintiff in “fear.”  (Do you see how this well-meaning statute can be abused?)

The blind entry of a PFA can cause enormous prejudice to the defendant, who may have been innocent of any wrongdoing.  A PFA can be used to wreak the following on an innocent person, who may face one or all of the following through an improper PFA:

    • Immediate eviction from his residence with the Plaintiff
    • Loss of freedom to travel down a street where the Plaintiff lives, even if it’s on the defendant’s way to work
    • Loss of the right to possess firearms even if the Defendant is and avid gun collector or merchant of weapons for a living
    • An order for child support even though no formal claim for support had been filed through the family courts
    • The court costs of the PFA (over $200),
    • The PFA can be served on the Defendant by sheriff or constable when the defendant is at work, ruining his reputation;
    • The PFA can be used for leverage in any custody, divorce, or support proceedings, and
    • The court may impose other relief that the court deems fair and just.
A PFA also creates a mark on a person’s permanent and public record.  Although a PFA does not create a criminal record per se (unless one violates the PFA and is found guilty of indirect criminal contempt), a PFA does appear on the civil docket as a finding of abuse, which the world can see, because the civil docket is public record.

Most employers only search one’s criminal records via the state police website, but some also check the civil dockets for blemishes.  We know for sure that those applying for section 8 housing will be subject to a search of PFA instances.

It is possible to have a temporary PFA expunged from the civil docket (which based on only one party’s side of the story, also called ex parte), but not a permanent PFA.  This is because, expungement applies to the removal of charges and accusations, not actual findings of fact related to a full hearing where all parties may attend.  Thus, if you are found to be an abuser following a hearing where you had a chance to testify, that record cannot be removed.  Thus, to be clear, if you go to court on the PFA and lose such that it becomes permanent, then the permanent PFA cannot be expunged.  An excellent analysis of this concept appears in a blog by Linda A. Kerns, who practices in Eastern PA. 

For these reason, if you have had a PFA served on you, you should immediately seek experienced counsel to defend the action or get the opposing party to accept some deal short of permanent PFA.   We get at least one call a month from some poor, unfortunate individual who decided to attend the hearing on the PFA alone (or with a family “friend” attorney who doesn’t handle these cases regularly) and came away from the process with a 3 year PFA against him.

Also keep in mind that, if you go to a hearing and lose, the PFA order is not the only public record, but rather, the testimony against you is also recorded and a transcript of the same can be ordered by anyone with a beef against you, so he or she can read about all the different forms of abuse according to at least one witness  under oath.

We strongly recommend that you seek experienced counsel in defending against any PFA action. Out East, consider Linda A. Kerns, Esquire, who wrote about whether a PFA can be expunged. In Harrisburg and Millersburg, consider Shaffer & Engle, which did a nice analysis of “bad faith PFA“s on their blog.  For all matters in Western PA including Pittsburgh (and all of Allegheny County and the surrounding Counties – Beaver, Butler, Washington, consider our Pittsburgh PFA lawyers.

Call or email our law firm any time for a free consultation.

412.780.0008

Email Us! 

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Legislative Action

State Senator Lisa Baker said introduced a bill that mandates no judge enter an order changing the custody arrangement of a child of a deployed military service person.  This custody law came in response to a complaint by grandparents who lived in her senatorial district and were barred from seeing their grandson during their son’s deployment  to Iraq.

The separation of children from their parents serving in the military overseas is already a challenging situation.  It gets compounded when a child is also separated from the deployed parent’s relatives.

On April 12, Governor Tom Corbett signed the bill into law in Pennsylvania.

Under the new law, a service member who is being deployed abroad may now petition the court for a temporary order to assign custody rights to his or family members while he or she is overseas.  This also means that when a service member is deployed, a judge cannot then change the custody arrangement for the child unless it finds it is in the best interest of the child to do so.

Importantly, it also allows the the family members of the deployed soldiar to step into the shoes of the serviceman or woman to exercise the same custody rights that their service member, while he or she is away, which provides a shortcut to allow involvement of extended family.

The law also eases the burden of soliders overseas in terms of attending court and conferneces. The new law specifically allows parents serving in the military overseas to testify in court via phone, videoconference or other electronic means if they can’t appear personally in court.  This law is designed to recognize the sacrafice of service persons deployed to serve their country.

This is a positive development overall for the interplay between state courts and our troops who are obeying natoinal duties.  Kudos to State Senator Lisa Baker and all those who supported this law.

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