Child Custody and Domestic Violence in Pennsylvania

When domestic violence occurs in the home, either against a parent or the children, it can have a major effect on child custody decisions made by a Pennsylvania court. Because domestic violence leaves both physical and emotional scars, as well as fear, anxiety, and depression, New Jersey courts take it into consideration harshly against the party who committed it.

How domestic violence effects child custody decisions plays a major party in determining a courts choice. An experienced Pennsylvania custody lawyer can help you with your case.

Child Custody Overview

Custody is a broad term that encompasses the legal care-taking and decision making for the children. Most custody cases arise between separated parents, but can also come up when certain third parties desire custody, such as:

  • potential adoptive parents of a child
  • a grandparent, especially in cases of abuse and neglect
  • a guardian of a child that has cared for him or her for a substantial period of time

Physical Custody vs. Legal Custody

A parent has physical custody when he or she actually is taking care of the child and has the child in his or her possession. Legal custody refers to the right to make decisions about and for the child, such as the child's education or health care.

Joint/Shared vs. Sole Custody

Joint or shared custody refers to when the child is split between the parents. Both parents get a significant amount of time with the children (though not necessarily equal). Shared or joint custody arrangements typically occur when both parents have a healthy relationship with the children.

Sole custody describes when one parent has 100% of the physical and legal custody over the children. This is rare but is much more common in situations of abuse, neglect, or domestic violence. The other parent may be granted limited visitation, often supervised, or this parent may not be allowed to see the children in extreme circumstances.

Domestic Violence in Pennsylvania

Domestic violence occurs against certain people who are considered "family or household members" including:

  • spouses (current or former),
  • intimate dating partners (both former and current),
  • individuals who have "lived as spouses,"
  • parents,
  • children, stepchildren, or adopted children, or
  • people who have parented a child or children together,
  • others related by blood of "affinity."

Other individuals may qualify under this definition as well under certain circumstances. 

Domestic violence is defined under Pennsylvania criminal law, and it occurs when certain other names crimes are committed against a family or household member. These crimes include:

  • Sex crimes, including rape, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault, or sexual assault;
  • Stalking (engaging in a course of conduct or repeated acts in a way that places another person in reasonable fear of danger); or
  • Causing bodily injury or attempting to cause bodily injury either intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly;
  • Any act that places another family member in "reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury,"
  • False imprisonment;
  • Terroristic threats;
  • Reckless endangerment;
  • Strangulation;
  • Involuntary manslaughter;
  • Physical or sexual abuse of minors.

The domestic violence considered by criminal law must be related to specific other crimes, but this phrase along with "abuse" can be considered more generally by a court when making a custody determination.

Common Abuse Situations

Certain types of abuse and domestic violence are common, and can have a significant effect on a judge's custody decisions:

  • physical abuse of a child
  • physical abuse of a parent
  • sexual abuse of a child
  • sexual abuse of a parent
  • verbal abuse of family and household members
  • threats of violence
  • stalking or spying
  • voyeurism (filming or taping family members during private moments)
  • locking a child in a bedroom for a long period
  • failure to properly feed or clothe a child
  • failure to get appropriate medical care for a child

Effect of Domestic Violence on Custody Decisions

Any domestic violence that has occurred in the home could be considered by a Pennsylvania judge in determining how to award custody of the children. If the judge determines that abuse has occurred in the past, the only way a judge can award him or her custody is to determine that the parent does not pose a risk the child's health, safety, and well-being.

A judge can also decide whether to place restrictions on a parent when awarding or denying custody to the abusive parent.

What is Supervised Visitation?

A judge may order supervised visitation when the safety or well-being of the child is at risk because of the abusive parent. These visits require a third party adult to be with the abusive parent and child during the entirety of the visit. Depending on the judge's order, the visitation may also be required to occur at an authorized agency.

An order for supervised visitation can be temporary or long-lasting. A judge may set an amount of time that supervised visitation will last, or may instead set an order that all visitations will be supervised unless otherwise approved by the court. To get this type of order lifted, the parent will have to prove he or she no longer poses a risk to the child.

Termination of Parental Rights

While it is usually a last resort, a parent's rights can be fully terminated by a New Jersey court. Once this decision is made by the judge in the case, it cannot be undone. This is not very common and only tends to happen when very clear evidence shows that any amount of relationship with the parent would be harmful to the child.

Situations that can cause a termination of parents rights include, but are not limited to:

  • chronic abuse of or cruelty to a child
  • sexual abuse of a child
  • felony assault that results in serious injury to the child or other parent
  • murder or attempted murder of either the child or the other parent

Consult a Pennsylvania Custody Lawyer

Domestic violence can have a serious effect on a judge's decisions related to child custody.

If issues of domestic violence are a part of your divorce, experienced Pennsylvania custody attorney Joseph D. Lento can help with your case. Contact us today for a consultation of your case, or call at 888-535-3686.

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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience practicing Family Law in Pennsylvania. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you and your family, contact our offices today. Family Law Attorney Joseph Lento will go above and beyond the needs for any client and fight for what is fair.

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