Cutting Kids in Half

Aug 8, 2012 by

A bill has been introduced into Pennsylvania legislature proposing a shift in child custody determinations made by the court from the current “best interests of the children” preference to joint physical custody by both parents. The Pennsylvania Families Association is lobbying on behalf of the bill and claims it will prevent child custody from being used as leverage in divorce cases. The group contends the change will save both time and money spent in court.

The current state laws in Pennsylvania require a judge to choose custody arrangements based primarily on the best interest’s of the child and the child’s well-being. A parent’s ability to foster ongoing contact between both spouses and the child, as well as any history of abusive behavior are also heavily considered under the current laws. Joint custody is an option in the current system, but only when in the best interests of the child. The new bill would swap the current set-up to mandate that judges first consider joint custody unless it is proven to be detrimental to the child’s best interests.

A group opposing the introduction of the bill, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, claims the bill will put parent’s desires above the best interests of the children. The group fears the switch to a joint custody preference might put children at risk of being awarded to abusive parents and force more time in court as parents argue over their merits as sole custodians.

Both sides of the argument have their supporters in the state, with many outside observers suggesting that any type of custodial mandate could compromise the critical importance of child custody matters and that the courts should probably examine all aspects of a case when awarding custody. The American Bar Association and American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers have traditionally opposed joint custody preference in divorce cases. Opponents have often claimed joint custody disregards the best interests of children in favor of judgments based on a parent’s desire to simply split custody in half and avoid paying child support.

The new bill would establish joint custody as the presumptive best interest of a child and would require the court to state on record the reason for any award other than joint custody. Under Pennsylvania law there is no presumption of joint custody as the best choice and if joint custody is ordered it is usually bitterly contested in court. It will be interesting to see how the bill fares as it moves forward in the legislature. If the bill passes it will have a major impact on future divorce custody settlements in the state.

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