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How Does the Court Determine Who Gets Custody in Pennsylvania?
It is encouraging when parents involved in a custody dispute are able to reach an agreement amongst themselves. However, this is not possible in all situations. When parents are unable to find a mutually agreeable custody arrangement, the next step is to seek court intervention.
BUCKS COUNTY COURTS EMPLOY A MULTI-TIERED PROCESS FOR DETERMINING CUSTODY
The first level is a custody conference. Conferences are held before a Family Master and all parties and attorneys must attend. The Bucks County Family Masters are court employees and licensed attorneys. The conference officer will have an opportunity to hear from both parents and will try to find a mutually agreeable solution to the parties’ dispute. If the parties are able to reach an overall agreement at the conference, their agreement will be formalized into a court order which both parties are obligated to follow.
If the parties cannot come to an agreement at the conference, the conference officer may enter an interim order and request that the matter be scheduled for a hearing before a judge. During a custody hearing before a judge, the parties will each be permitted to testify, call witnesses on their behalf, and present evidence to support their position. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge will make a ruling that will become the parties’ formal custody order.
With the opportunity for a custody conference and participation in a custody evaluation as discussed below, most custody cases do not even reach the level of a hearing before a judge.
PRIOR TO MAKING A CUSTODY DETERMINATION, THE BUCKS COUNTY COURT MAY DIRECT THE PARTIES TO ATTEND CCES
CCES is the Court Conciliation and Evaluation Services (CCES) program. In the CCES process, a court appointed counselor will interview the parents, children, and all other relevant individuals, such as grandparents, stepparents, significant others, etc., in various sessions over a six to eight-week period. The CCES counselor then has forty-five days to prepare and submit a formal report for the court’s review.
The goal of the CCES program is to diminish tensions between the parties, to provide the court with helpful information about the parties (i.e. the personality strength and weaknesses of each party, co-parenting abilities, etc.), and to offer recommendations that will aid the court in its resolution of the dispute. The process gives the parties’ an opportunity to discuss co-parenting and learn how the process will affect their children.
The parties may obtain a private evaluator if they wish. While private evaluations are often more extensive, they are also much more expensive running up to $10,000. The cost of CCES in Bucks County is roughly $1,000 per person. This is why most parties choose to participate in CCES.
Bucks County courts give significant weight to child custody evaluations and in most cases require the parties to attend CCES to obtain this evaluation. This is because parties are often more amenable to settlement negotiations after completion of the CCES program. Even if the parties go directly from a conference to a hearing, the judge will likely order the parties to attend an evaluation before conducting the hearing.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY HAS A MULTI-STEP PROCESS FOR DETERMINING CUSTODY
The resolution of a custody dispute in Montgomery County is a multi-level process similar to that of Bucks County. First, the parties must attend a mediation orientation session where mediators who are in the legal or mental health field will attempt to help the parties resolve their dispute. If the parties reach an agreement at this level, they must submit a copy of the signed agreement to the court for approval as an order.
If the parties cannot agree, they will proceed to the second step, the “parenting program,” where they are required to attend an educational seminar on parenting responsibilities of separated or divorced parents. Any party that fails to attend the parenting program can be sanctioned or fined by the court.
The third step is the Custody Conciliation Conference. The conference is held before a court appointed attorney and both parties and counsel are required to attend. If the conciliation officer determines it is necessary to interview the children, that would be done in a separate session. If the parties reach an agreement at this level, an agreed order will be submitted to the court.
If the parties cannot agree at the conciliation conference, they will proceed to the short list conference where the court will attempt to assist the parties in resolution of their dispute. Failing an agreement at the short list proceeding, the parties would then be scheduled for an expanded hearing before a judge.
WHEN DETERMINING CUSTODY, THE COURT MUST FOLLOW PENNSYLVANIA’S “BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILDREN” STANDARD
In making this decision, the court will want to know as much as possible about each parent, including physical and mental health, parenting abilities, each parent’s relationship with the children, and each party’s relationship with the other parent.
When awarding custody and evaluating what is in the best interests of the children, the court must consider the sixteen factors set forth in Pennsylvania Statute 23 Pa.C.S.§5328, including:
Which party is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and the other party;
- Any present and past abuse committed by a party or member of the party’s household, whether there is a risk of continuing abuse, and which party can best provide safeguards from abuse;
- Parental duties performed by each party;
- Need for stability and continuity in the child’s education and family life;
- Availability of extended family;
- Child’s relationship with siblings;
- Well-reasoned preferences of the child, based on the child’s maturity and judgment;
- Attempts of a party to turn the child against the other party;
- Which party is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child;
- Which party is more likely to tend to the child’s daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational, and special needs;
- The proximity of the residences of the parties;
- Each party’s availability to care for the child or make appropriate childcare arrangements;
- Level of conflict between the parties and the willingness and ability of the parties to cooperate with one another;
- History of drug or alcohol abuse of a party or member of the party’s household;
- Mental and physical health of a party or member of the party’s household; and
- Any other relevant factor.
THE COURT’S GOAL IN DETERMINING CUSTODY IS TO FIND AN ARRANGEMENT THAT WILL FOSTER AND MAINTAIN HEALTHY AND POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE CHILDREN AND EACH PARENT
This is because it is almost always in the best interests of the children to have relationships with both parents. Additionally,
the court places high priority on the safety and well-being of the children, as well as a parent’s ability to properly meet the children’s needs. Once the court considers the above factors, it will attempt to create an arrangement that is fair to both parties and is in the best interests of the children.
The custody process can be long and arduous; however, you don’t have to go through it alone. The attorneys at Cooley & Handy are experienced in handling custody disputes at all levels in both Bucks and Montgomery Counties, and can help guide you through this difficult process.