Articles Posted in Family Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this case to consider what constituted a “compelling reason” for early termination of delinquency supervision under Pennsylvania Rule of Juvenile Court Procedure 632. At the time of the May 2014 delinquency termination hearing at issue herein, D.C.D. was an intellectually low-functioning and socially immature twelve-year-old boy who was a victim of sexual abuse. He originally entered the delinquency system in the fall of 2012, at age ten, due to allegations that he committed indecent assault against his five-year-old sister. Rather than formally adjudicating him delinquent at that time, the juvenile court entered a consent decree pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. 6340, which allowed for the suspension of delinquency proceedings prior to formal adjudication, and placed D.C.D. in a specialized foster care program administered by Pressley Ridge. In subsequent years, D.C.D. would be placed in multiple foster homes, removed each time for sexual harassment against foster family members, and for trying to start fires in the homes. Some residential treatment facilities (RTF) were unwilling to accept children who had incidents of fire-starting, and others could not provide services for his level of intellectual functioning. Given the available options, the parties agreed that D.C.D. should be moved to the Southwood Psychiatric Hospital - Choices Program (Southwood), a RTF which had a bed immediately available and which focused specifically upon his cohort: intellectually low-functioning, sexual offenders. Despite the parties’ agreement to place D.C.D. at Southwood, Southwood informed them that it could not accept him due to his adjudication of delinquency for a sexual offense. However, the director stated that they could accept D.C.D. if the delinquency supervision was terminated. As a result, D.C.D.’s counsel filed a motion for early termination of delinquency supervision under Pa.R.J.C.P. 632 to which the York County District Attorney objected and requested a hearing. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court properly determined that the juvenile court acted within its discretion in granting early termination to the juvenile in this case to allow him to obtain necessary and immediate treatment, after properly taking into account the three aspects of balanced and restorative justice (BARJ) embodied in the Juvenile Act and incorporated into the Rules of Juvenile Court Procedure. View "In Re: D.C.D." on Justia Law

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J.L.P. (“Mother”) and J.D.M. (“Father”) were the parents of A.D.M. (born March 2007) and L.B.M. (born May 2011). Franklin County Children and Youth Services (“CYS”) conducted a home visit with Mother. The visit was prompted by a referral alleging that Mother was on the verge of becoming homeless. Mother contacted CYS seeking to place the children due to her unstable living conditions. At the time, Father was incarcerated. That same day, the trial court ordered the children to be placed with CYS. Soon after, the children were adjudicated dependent. As required by statute, the trial court appointed a GAL for the children at the beginning of the dependency proceedings. Mother pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia and was sentenced to twelve months of probation. Following Mother’s repeated periods of incarceration, CYS filed a TPR petition. The trial court declined to terminate Mother’s parental rights, finding that Mother, while only recently released from jail, had obtained both housing and employment. However, she would be incarcerated again for probation violations. A second termination hearing was scheduled. The trial court recognized that A.D.M.’s bond with Mother was much stronger than L.B.M.’s, and that A.D.M. would be affected adversely by the termination. However, the trial court found that A.D.M. also had a strong bond with his foster parents, and that it was in A.D.M.’s best interests to sever the bond with Mother because his most important need was permanency. The trial court terminated Mother’s parental rights, finding that Mother had not remedied the conditions leading to the children’s placement. In assessing the children’s best interests, the court found that L.B.M.’s primary bond was with his foster parents. Mother appealed, alleging that the trial court erred in denying Mother’s motion for the appointment of counsel, and that the trial court abused its discretion in terminating Mother’s parental rights. This case required the Supreme Court to determine whether 23 Pa.C.S. sec. 2313(a), which mandated the appointment of counsel for children involved in contested involuntary termination of parental rights proceedings, was satisfied by the appointment of a GAL provided that the GAL is an attorney. The Supreme Court held that it was not. "Because the trial court erred in failing to appoint counsel for the children, and because that error is structural, we remand for a new TPR proceeding following the appointment of counsel. Because of the remand, we need not reach, and we express no opinion regarding, Mother’s challenge to the trial court’s finding on the merits that Mother’s parental rights should be terminated." View "In Re: Adoption of L.B.M." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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This was a direct appeal from a common pleas court order invalidating a statutory provision giving grandparents standing to seek custody of their minor grandchildren. The question this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the parents’ fundamental rights were violated by the conferral of standing based solely on a parental separation lasting at least six months. Appellees G.J.P. and A.P. (“Parents”) married in 2006 and had three children. Parents separated in October 2012, albeit they did not initiate divorce proceedings. Because they were in agreement as to custody matters while living separately, Parents never sought court involvement and no custody order was issued prior to this litigation. In December 2012, Parents mutually agreed that all contact between the children and their paternal grandparents, appellants D.P. and B.P. (“Grandparents”), should have been discontinued. The grandparents filed suit seeking partial custody of the minor children. Grandparents did not suggest that Parents were unfit or that the children were in any danger. As their basis for standing, they relied on Section 5325 of the Domestic Relations Code (the “Code”). "Section 5325 cannot survive strict scrutiny and, as such, it violates the fundamental rights of parents safeguarded by the Due Process Clause." Upon review, the Supreme Court "salvag[ed the] statute to the extent possible without judicially rewriting it" by severing the first half of paragraph (2) from the remainder of paragraph (2) and the remainder of Section 5325 generally. The Court then affirmed dismissal of the grandparents' petition. View "D.P. v. G.J.P." on Justia Law

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M.D. (“Mother”) met M.C. (“Father”) in 2002, when she was teaching in South Dakota, and the two became romantically involved, residing together until Mother returned to Pennsylvania in October 2003. Father briefly moved to Pennsylvania in January 2004 to be with Mother; however, the relationship quickly ended, and he ultimately returned to South Dakota. Shortly thereafter, Mother learned that she was pregnant with twin boys, and she moved in with her parents, who resided in Lycoming County. Although Father was aware that Mother was pregnant with his children, Father and Mother spoke infrequently throughout the pregnancy, and he did not visit. In October 2004, Mother gave birth to M.R.D. and T.M.D. Father visited for a few days following Children’s birth and returned for visits in December 2004 and January 2006; however, Father did not visit again, and his subsequent efforts at maintaining a relationship with Children were marginal at best. When Mother discussed the possibility of traveling with Children to South Dakota to visit with Father and his family, Father refused. In this appeal by allowance, the issue before the Supreme Court was whether, in order to facilitate the termination of a biological father’s parental rights, a grandfather could adopt his grandchildren with the children’s mother - his daughter. After review, the Supreme Court found the “cause” exception in the Adoption Act, 23 Pa.C.S. section 2901, did not under such circumstances, excuse a mother from the Act’s requirement that she relinquish her parental rights. Accordingly, as the contemplated adoption could not proceed, the Court reversed the order affirming the termination of the father’s parental rights. View "In Re: Adopt. of M.R.D. and T.M.D." on Justia Law

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Appellant, I.S. (“Mother”), had twin sons born in Serbia in 1998. In 2005, Mother married Appellee, A.S. (“Stepfather”) in Serbia and subsequently the family relocated to Pennsylvania. The parties and the children resided together until 2009 when the parties separated. Following their separation, Mother and Stepfather informally shared physical custody of the children, who were about eleven years of age. In 2010, Stepfather filed for divorce. Mother graduated from law school in May 2012 and took the California bar examination in July 2012, planning to relocate to California with the children at the end of September that year. In August 2012, Stepfather filed a complaint for custody of the children and an emergency petition to prevent Mother’s relocation, asserting that he stood in loco parentis to the children. In 2013, the trial court held a hearing on Mother’s various preliminary motions seeking to dismiss Stepfather’s complaint for custody for lack of standing. The trial court concluded that Stepfather indeed stood in loco parentis to the children, and therefore it denied Mother’s motions. The case proceeded to a full custody hearing. Mother filed a complaint for child support against Stepfather. Following a support conference on March 4, 2013, a support master dismissed Mother’s complaint reasoning that Stepfather owed no duty to support the children because he was not their biological father. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to determine whether a stepparent could be obligated to pay child support for his former spouse’s biological children when he aggressively litigated for shared legal and physical custody of those children, including the filing of an action to prevent his former spouse from relocating with them. The Court held that we hold that when a stepparent takes affirmative legal steps to assume the same parental rights as a biological parent, the stepparent likewise assumes parental obligations, such as the payment of child support. View "A.S. v. I.S." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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In this appeal by allowance, the issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether an order denying a petition to intervene in a custody action was appealable as a collateral order as of right pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 313. Child ("L.A.") was born on in late 2011 to L.A. (“Mother”) and Q.M. (“Father”). Several months later, Northampton County Children and Youth Services (“CYS”) filed an emergency application for protective custody over Child. The trial court adjudicated Child dependent and granted CYS legal custody. CYS subsequently removed Child from Mother’s home and placed her in the care of Appellant D.M. (“Maternal Aunt”), and Appellant L.N., a friend with whom Maternal Aunt resided (collectively “Appellants”). Child lived with Appellants from February 10, 2012 to September 20, 2012, at which time the trial court granted Appellants and Father shared legal and physical custody over Child. The trial court later vacated its adjudication of dependency on April 4, 2013, awarded sole legal custody and primary physical custody to Father, and awarded partial physical custody to Appellants every other weekend. Throughout the entire period during which he exercised custody over Child, Father resided with his mother and stepfather, Appellees V.C. and K.C. (“Paternal Grandparents”). Nearly two months after he had been awarded primary custody, Father suddenly passed away. Paternal Grandparents began caring for Child, and, on June 13, 2013, they filed a complaint for custody against Mother, seeking sole legal and physical custody over Child so as to “preserve and maintain the status quo.” Mother did not contest the matter; however, Appellants filed a petition for intervention, wherein they asserted that they stood in loco parentis to Child and sought primary legal and physical custody. In response, Paternal Grandparents filed an answer and new matter in which they alleged that Appellants lacked standing to seek legal or physical custody over Child, claiming they were only temporary foster parents. Appellants appealed the order denying intervention to the Superior Court, which directed them to show cause why the appeal should not be quashed in light of the fact that the order did not appear to be final or appealable. In response, Appellants argued that the trial court’s order was final and appealable under Pa.R.A.P. 341, and, alternatively, that the order was a collateral order subject to an appeal as of right pursuant to Rule 313. After review, the Supreme Court held that such an order is a collateral order appealable under Rule 313, and reversed the Superior Court’s order quashing the appeal and remand to that court for consideration of the issues raised therein. View "K.C. v. L.A." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this case to consider whether the Superior Court exceeded its scope and standard of review by substituting its judgment for that of the trial court in determining whether the child at issue in this case suffered abuse and whether that abuse was perpetrated by his mother. In 2011, twenty-one-month-old L.Z. was brought to Abington Memorial Hospital by L.F., his mother, and R.F., his maternal-aunt, who lived and cared for child together, to be treated for a deep cut nearly halfway around the base of his penis. The physicians also observed a dark bruise in the buckle area (above the jawbone and below the cheekbone) of Child's right cheek and another on his left cheekbone, as well as a severe diaper rash and yeast infection on the front of his body. The child was also unkempt with very dirty legs and feet. The presentation of these injuries was consistent with abuse and inconsistent with several explanations given by Mother and Aunt, which led the treating physicians to suspect that the injuries were non-accidental. The hospital staff filed a report with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS). After initial emergency proceedings, the court placed the child in protective custody, with physical custody given to Child's maternal grandfather. At an adjudicatory hearing at which Mother was present and represented by counsel but did not testify, the court considered DHS's dependency and aggravated circumstances petitions. The trial court determined that the Mother perpetrated the abuse, and that medical evidence presented by DHS demonstrated the child's injuries were neither accidental nor self-inflicted. The Superior Court reversed the trial court, and the Supreme Court's review of this matter centered on whether the Superior Court misapplied the Child Protective Services Law's (CPSL) definition of child abuse and whether the court misconstrued the evidentiary presumption of 23 Pa.C.S. 6381(d), which provided that when a child incurs abuse not ordinarily suffered absent acts or omissions of a parent or other person responsible, the fact of abuse suffices to establish prima facie evidence of abuse by the parent or person responsible. The Supreme Court concluded that the Superior Court indeed misapplied the CPSL and misconstrued the evidentiary presumption of 23 Pa.C.S. 6381(d). Accordingly, the decision of the Superior Court was reversed and the trial court's order reinstated. View "In the Matter of: L.Z." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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D.C.D. was born in March 2011 to Mother C.Y.D. and Father J.T.W. Clinton County Children and Youth Services (“CYS”) took custody of D.C.D. the following day because she suffered medical problems as a result of Mother’s drug use, presumably during her pregnancy. Although she was placed briefly with maternal relatives and another foster family, Child has lived most of her life with her current foster family. The trial court found that she has bonded with this family, who was willing to adopt her. In this appeal, the Supreme Court reviewed the Superior Court's holding that a termination of parental rights petition filed by CYS must be denied if the agency failed to employ “reasonable efforts” to reunify a child with her parent. The Supreme Court held that there were remedies available to a court faced with an agency which was not providing reasonable efforts, "refusing a properly proven termination of parental rights petition, and thus harming an innocent child, is not among them." Accordingly, the Court reversed the Superior Court and reinstated the trial court’s decision terminating father’s parental rights. View "In the Int of: D.C.D." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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This case involved petitions for the termination of parental rights to five siblings. The Supreme Court took the opportunity to discuss how trial courts should weigh the existence of "pathological" emotional bonds between parents and children. The Court concluded that trial courts must determine whether the trauma caused by breaking those bonds are outweighed by the benefit of moving the children to a permanent home. After exhaustive review and consideration, the Court concluded in this case that severing the parental bond served the best interests of the children at issue here, and reversed the lower courts' decisions denying petitions for termination of parental rights. View "In Re: T.S.M, T.R.M., T.J.M., T.A.M., and N.D.M." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court granted allocatur in this case to consider the Superior Court's application of the standard of review and to evaluate the relevance of a parent's incarceration to a trial court's decision to terminate a father's parental rights. G.P. (Father), then nineteen, and B.D. (Mother), then approximately seventeen, were involved in an intimate relationship prior to Father's incarceration in December 2004 for the shooting death of his stepfather. While Father was incarcerated, S.P. (Child) was born in May 2005. After Child’s birth, Mother took her to visit Father several times while he was incarcerated at the county prison awaiting trial. In December 2005, Child was declared dependent, when Mother tested positive for THC, a chemical found in marijuana, and was involved in a domestic assault in the presence of Child. Following the declaration of Child’s dependency, Mother and Child apparently moved between several foster homes and Child’s grandmother’s home. In 2007, Child and Youth Services (CYS) filed an emergency shelter petition on behalf of Child when it could not ensure Child's safety. In 2008, Mother voluntarily relinquished her parental rights to Child. At a hearing, testimony was presented that revealed Child suffered from developmental delays and was possibly autistic. A year later at another hearing, CYS moved to terminate Father's parental rights. As applied to this case, the Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court erred in reversing the trial court’s decision to terminate Father’s parental rights: "the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it concluded that “the conditions and causes of the incapacity . . . [could not] or [would] not be remedied” by Father." View "In Re: Adoption of S.P." on Justia Law