Pennsylvania State Child Custody Abandonment Laws

By Bernadette A. Safrath
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A parent who is overwhelmed, mentally ill or is controlled by an addiction to drugs or alcohol can feel like caring for a child is too much. In Pennsylvania, a court is permitted to terminate a parent’s parental rights if abandonment has occurred. This allows an abandoned to child to be adopted in order to reinstate some kind of stability in the child’s life. Additionally, a parent who abandons her child by leaving him without supervision faces criminal penalties.

Abandonment

Under Pennsylvania Constitutional Statute section 2511, if a parent leaves her child in someone else’s custody and “refuses or fails” to acknowledge her responsibilities as parent for six continuous months, she has abandoned her child. In Pennsylvania, the child’s guardian or another state agency can petition the court to terminate that parent’s parental rights. This proceeding involves involuntarily termination, meaning that a court will approve the petition, based on the parent’s abandonment, regardless of whether the parent consents to the termination.

Parent's Whereabouts Unknown

When a child is placed in a foster agency’s custody and her parent cannot be identified or the parent is known but cannot be located, that child has been abandoned, according to Pennsylvania law. If the parent cannot be located and fails to retrieve her child from the agency within three months of the child’s placement, her parental rights will be terminated by a Pennsylvania court.

Agency Custody

If a child has been placed in agency custody because of abuse or neglect, a parent has six months to address the conditions that led to the removal. If a parent does nothing to improve the home environment and the child cannot be returned to the parent’s custody, the agency can petition for involuntary termination of parental rights based on the parent abandoning her child. If a parent initially attempted to make improvements in order to get her child back and then failed to follow through, the agency can file a petition for termination of parental rights twelve months after the child was removed from the parent’s custody.

Failure to Support

In Pennsylvania, a newborn child is considered abandoned if a parent knows the child exists, but does not live with the child and has failed to provide sufficient financial support in order to provide for the child’s basic needs. If this failure to support continues for four continuous months, a court may involuntarily terminate that parent’s rights.

Infant Safe Haven Law

In order to prevent harm to newborn infants, Pennsylvania passed an infant safe haven law set forth in Pennsylvania Constitutional Statutes sections 6502 through 6505. A parent is permitted to turn over her newborn infant, younger than 28 days of age, to the custody of a health care provider. That parent will not be criminally charged for turning his child over to a hospital. The hospital is required to perform a medical exam on the infant and contact the local Pennsylvania police department within 48 hours of the parent’s surrender of the infant.

Endangering the Welfare of a Child

A parent who knowingly abandons her child by violating her “duty of care,” leaving the child without necessary protection and supervision, can be charged with endangering the welfare of a child under Pennsylvania Constitutional Statute section 4304. For example, if a parent leaves her child in a grocery store or alone at home, her child is put at risk for some psychological or physical harm to occur. The reasons for leaving the child alone do not matter. If the abandonment occurs only once, regardless of whether it was because the parent ran to get milk or went to buy drugs, the offense is a First Degree Misdemeanor. If the parent is found guilty, she can serve up to five years in prison and pay a $10,000 fine. If a court finds that the parent established a “course of conduct,” continually leaving the child without supervision, she can be charged with a Third Degree Felony. This is punishable by no more than seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

About the Author

Bernadette A. Safrath is an attorney who has been writing professionally since 2008. Safrath was published in Touro Law Center's law review and now writes legal articles for various websites. Safrath has a Bachelor of Arts in music from Long Island University at C.W. Post, as well as a Juris Doctor from Touro College.