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.
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.
At the end of 2011, the custody laws in Pennsylvania were changed. The courts still look at the best interest of the child above all. Interestingly, however, Section 5328 of the new legislation sets forth 15 factors that a court must consider when awarding custody.
We practice in Western PA. Out in Eastern PA, the law firm of Karen Ann Ulmer, PC (“Eastern PA”) was among the first to blog about this and set forth the 15 factors as follows:
(1) Which party is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and another party.
(2) The present and past abuse committed by a party or member of the party’s household, whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child or an abused party and which party can better provide adequate physical safeguards and supervision of the child.
(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 well-reasoned preference of the child, based on the child’s maturity and judgment.
(8) The attempts of a parent to turn the child against the other parent, except in cases of domestic violence where reasonable safety measures are necessary to protect the child from harm.
(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 between the parties and the willingness and ability of the parties to cooperate with one another. A party’s effort to protect a child from abuse by another party is not evidence of unwillingness or inability to cooperate with that party.
(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.
Section 5323 provides that the court must detail the reasons for its decision either on the record in open court or in a written opinion. Therefore, the court must go through each factor that it considered and explain why it decided as it did. So far, the Superior Court has been strict in upholding this requirement. In J.R.M. v. J.E.A., the court awarded primary custody to the mother and father appealed on the basis that the trial court did not consider the 16 factors listed in Section 5328. 2011 Pa Super 263 (2011). The Superior Court granted the appeal, finding that the trial court did not properly consider the factors listed in the statute. Accordingly, all parties in a custody action should be prepared to argue on all of the relevant factors and also ensure that the court addresses all relevant factors in their decision.
Eastern PA aptly noted:
“Section 5323 provides that the court must detail the reasons for its decision either on the record in open court or in a written opinion. Therefore, the court must go through each factor that it considered and explain why it decided as it did. So far, the Superior Court has been strict in upholding this requirement.”
Great post, Eastern PA!
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