Child custody cases in Pennsylvania should be resolved in a manner that focuses almost exclusively on the child’s “best interests”. The “best interests” of a child generally include a child’s happiness, health (mental and physical), overall development and security. In the context of a custody trial, a family court judge will make a “best interest” determination after applying testimony and evidence to specific factors that are enumerated in the Pennsylvania child custody law. Most child custody cases are resolved prior to trial through a negotiated settlement. One way to approach a child custody case with the objective of reaching an out of court settlement is to objectively analyze each child custody factor in the context of the specific situation. After all, this is the same approach the court will take before the court makes a final determination. It is important to note that courts may give more weight to certain factors, but courts will analyze all of them.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 1: Which party is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and another party?
Even though parents may not be together, for purposes of co-parenting, they must make the child feel as though both parents are supporting one another and encouraging communication between themselves and the child. The court does not look favorably when one parent appears to be obstructing the child’s contact and relationship with the other parent. Parents should encourage the child to call or FaceTime the other parent. If the court believes that a parent discourages such contact, then that parent may have a difficult time convincing a judge that increased custody time is in the best interest of the child.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 2: The present and past abuse committed by a party, whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child and which party can provide adequate physical safeguards and supervision of the child.
This is perhaps the most important factor for the court to consider because courts give more weight to the factors that affect the safety of the child. Unfortunately, some child custody cases involve physical and emotional abuse by a parent towards a child. In these cases, the court will always protect the child from harm. Evidence of physical abuse can include testimony by the child or a treating physician or conclusions by Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare Services following an investigation. Physicians and other health care providers by law must report instances of abuse or suspected abuse. Parents who have documented anger management problems may have to overcome any negative inference that such anger occurs towards the child.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 3: The parental duties performed by each parent on behalf of the child.
Parental duties include cooking, cleaning, bathing, feeding, and dressing the child. Parental duties also include promoting the child’s education development, cultivating relationships with the child’s friends and their family, and attending to the child’s emotional and physical needs.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 4: The need for stability and continuity in the child’s education, family life and community life.
Children need stability and continuity. Children need consistency with matters such as where they go to school, where their friends are located, the activities they are involved with and relationships with family. To determine whether a custody arrangement would adversely impact a child’s stable environment, the court will want to explore the distance between the parent’s residences from one another. If one parent lives far from the child’s school and the distance will negatively impact the child’s ability to interact with friends, do homework or stay involved with extracurricular activities, then the court may want to reduce the amount of time the child spends with that parent.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 5: The availability of extended family.
Courts consider the child’s exposure to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other family members. This factor may be less important since each parent’s extended family can vary depending on the number of family members and proximity. The court will certainly want to make sure that the child is surrounded by loved ones when possible.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 6: Child’s sibling relationships.
Courts also consider the child’s exposure and relationship to siblings and how the custody arrangement may impact those relationships.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 7: The well-reasoned preference of the child.
For this factor, the age of the child is important. A child who is 3 years old cannot communicate a well-reasoned preference; however, older children can. Judges will want to know how the child feels about the custody situation. This factor is very important so long as the preferences of the child are “well-reasoned”. If the child prefers to be with a parent because that parent is rarely at home and does not impose strict parental guidance on the child, then the court will not consider the child’s preference to be “well-reasoned”. However, if the child wants to spend more time with a parent because they are more comfortable and it’s a more stable environment, then the Judge will pay attention to the specific facts and circumstances and give deference to the child’s wishes.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 8: The attempts of a parent to turn the child against the other parent.
Judges will not tolerate a parent who attempts to turn the child against the other parent. Parents need to encourage the relationship of the child with the other parent, not destroy it.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 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?
This factor is often considered with Factor 10.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 10: Which party is more likely to attend to the daily physical, emotional, development, education and special needs of the child?
Parents need to be more than just friends with the child or glorified baby-sitters. Parents must be proactive in helping the child mature with confidence and prepare them for their future. Courts want to know what the parents are doing to be proactive in the child’s development including homework, healthy meals, hobbies and activities, extra-curricular activities, etc.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 11: The proximity of residences.
If parents live close to one another, the court will view this as less disruptive for the child. The court may look to whether the parents live in the same school district, for example, so that the distance will not interfere with the child’s educational needs and scholastic activities.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 12: Each party’s availability to care for the child or ability to make appropriate child-care arrangements.
Court’s will look at the parents’ work schedules and general availability in determining an appropriate custody award. Courts will prefer to give a parent additional physical custody time as opposed to the child spending that time in day care.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 13: The level of conflict between the parties and the willingness and ability of the parties to cooperate with one another.
If parents are fighting with one another and are having a difficult time communicating with one another, the court will want to know how this could impact the child and the court will take steps to mitigate this circumstance.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 14: History of drug and alcohol abuse.
Drug or alcohol abuse usually impact a parent’s ability to care for the child. Courts will be very diligent when there are allegations of drug and alcohol abuse and will often order an evaluation of that parent.
CHILD CUSTODY FACTOR 15: The mental and physical condition of a party or member of a party’s household.
The court wants to know if there are any mental or physical conditions by either parent or by someone who lives with either parent which may interfere with the child’s development.
In conclusion, each of these factors must be carefully considered when evaluating a child custody case. Family law attorneys who have tried child custody cases in court can use that experience in future cases. Even though each case is different and has its own set of unique characteristics, knowing the tendencies of custody conciliators and judges can be extremely valuable when negotiating an out of court settlement.
Since its inception over 20 years ago, The Martin Law Firm, P.C., located in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, has represented mothers and fathers in child custody cases. Call us today at 215-646-3980 to discuss your case with a family law attorney.