Pennsylvania passed legislation that overhauled the state's existing child custody laws in 2011. The new laws addressed visitation, child custody determination and many other elements of family law. Pennsylvania, like most other states, uses a "best interests of the child" standard in determining custody as well as visitation. For that reason, the overwhelming majority of non-custodial parents get some visitation with their children, and a legal presumption exists that both parents have equal rights to the child.
Child Custody Basics
When determining custody and visitation, Pennsylvania courts take into account a number of factors that may affect a child's well-being. These include the physical, emotional and financial health of each parent; the parents' willingness to foster relationships and cooperation with one another; the involvement of each parent with the child; and the parenting competence of each individual. State law acknowledges the importance of parental involvement with children, and parenting plans are required to help foster a good relationship and ongoing contact with the non-custodial parent except in extreme cases of abuse or neglect.
In many states, the laws governing child custody and visitation are purportedly gender-neutral, but according to child custody evaluator Robert Galatzer-Levy, many experts believe custody decisions are often biased in favor of the mother, and some factors, such as income, sexuality and political views, can unfairly bias cases in favor of the father. Pennsylvania's new law contains a gender-neutrality provision intended to level the playing field and ensure that both parents have equal rights to custody of their children. If the father and mother are equally competent caregivers, there is a strong presumption in favor of joint custody.
When a court in Pennsylvania issues a custody or visitation order, the judge now is required to explain what factors were considered and why a certain ruling was reached. This is intended to help eliminate bias and create a record that can be challenged on appeal. For example, if a judge awards limited visitation to one parent because that person is romantically involved with a third party, the parent could appeal the custody ruling and the underlying reasoning far more easily than would have been possible under the prior law.
Non-custodial parents are entitled to visitation under Pennsylvania law unless an overriding safety issue exists. Parents with a history of drug or alcohol abuse may be granted supervised visitation, but Pennsylvania law recognizes the importance of the family unit and seeks to grant visitation rights to parents in most situations. There are no specific rules on visitation, and judges may establish parenting plans based on the needs of the child and the overall situation of the family.
Seeking Legal Advice
Family law can be complex. If you are fighting for custody of your child or visitation rights, consider seeking advice from a qualified family law attorney.
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Child Custody Law in Pa. New This Month
- State of Pennsylvania: Domestic Relations Title 23
- The Scientific Basis of Child Custody Decisions; Robert M. Galatzer-Levy
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