How Domestic Violence Affects Child Custody in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania courts must consider domestic violence when determining custody.

By , Attorney · Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School
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The emotional effects of domestic violence often linger much longer than its physical marks. Both emotional and physical abuse are types of domestic violence, which has lasting effects on families.

Formerly hidden acts of domestic violence will be brought out in the open during a custody hearing. While an abusive parent will not automatically lose his or her visitation rights for a single incident of abuse, chronic or severe abuse by a parent may result in supervised visitation or even a termination of parental rights altogether. This article provides a general overview of the effects of domestic violence on child custody orders in Pennsylvania. If you have questions after reading this article, contact a Pennsylvania family law attorney for advice.

Overview of Child Custody Orders

In Pennsylvania as in every other state, child custody is based on the best interests of the child. Pennsylvania recognizes several types of custody including:

  • shared physical custody
  • primary physical custody
  • partial physical custody
  • sole physical custody
  • supervised physical custody
  • shared legal custody, and
  • sole legal custody.

A judge will decide which type of physical custody (where the child lives) and legal custody (who has decision-making authority on behalf of the child) will serve the child's best interests, after considering several factors. Among the factors considered are whether there has been any domestic violence and whether there is a continued risk of abuse or harm to the child. Learn more about Child Custody in Pennsylvania.

Overview of Domestic Violence

Pennsylvania law defines domestic violence as bodily injury, rape, false imprisonment, sexual assault, or threats of seriously injure or harm by a household member. For purposes of the domestic violence law, a household member includes:

  • the victim's current or former spouse
  • someone who lives or lived with the victim as a partner
  • the victim's current or former sexual or intimate partner (even if they never lived together)
  • the victim's parent or adult child
  • someone with whom the victim shares a child, and
  • an extended relative through blood or marriage.

Obtaining a Protection from Abuse Order

Often, abuse is not a one-time occurrence. If you are a victim of abuse and fear future abuse, you may need a protection from abuse order to keep you and your family safe. The court can include a variety of requirements in this order, including that the abuser must stay a certain distance away from you, your children, your home, and other places you frequent (such as your job or school).

If you need the protection order during weekday business hours, you can file the paperwork in your local county courthouse. However, emergency protection from abuse orders are available by calling your local police department or 911. The Pennsylvania Bar Association has published a pamphlet with instructions for obtaining and filling out a protection from abuse petition. After you have filed the correct forms at your local courthouse, a judge will hold a hearing on your case and hear evidence. If the judge determines that domestic violence has occurred and will likely occur in the future, your protection from abuse order will be granted.

Resources for Victims of Domestic Violence

Immediate help is available for victims of domestic violence. Contact the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence for local shelter and resource information at 717-671-4767. If you are in immediate danger, you can also call the 24-hour national domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Domestic Violence's Effects on Custody in Pennsylvania

While a single episode of domestic violence may not prevent the abusive parent from being awarded custody of his or her child, any domestic violence during the last five years will be considered by a judge. Before custody can be awarded to the abusive parent, a judge must find that the abusive parent does not pose a risk to the child's safety or well-being. After weighing all the evidence, a judge will decide whether any visitation restrictions are necessary to ensure the safest custody arrangement for the child or children involved.

Supervised Visitation

Supervised visitation is ordered when the safety or well-being of a child is at risk. Supervised visits require the presence of a third-party designated adult and may take place at an authorized agency.

A supervised visitation requirement may be a short, temporary restriction or a long-term requirement that cannot be lifted without approval from a judge. If the abusive parent is able to show that he or she does not pose a threat to the safety of the child, a supervised visitation requirement will be lifted.

Termination of Parental Rights

A termination of parental rights is an option of last resort. When a judge decides to terminate a parent's parental rights due to abuse, the judge's decision cannot be undone.

Termination of parental rights is uncommon. It happens only when clear evidence shows that any relationship with the abusive parent would be harmful to the child.

Situations that would likely result in a loss of parental rights include:

  • cruelty or chronic abuse of the child
  • sexual abuse of any child
  • felony assault resulting in serious bodily harm to the child or a sibling of the child
  • felony assault resulting in serious bodily harm to the child's other parent
  • murder or attempted murder of a sibling of the child, and
  • murder or attempted murder of the child's other parent.

A termination of parental rights occurs in only the most severe cases of abuse, when a judge has determined that the termination would serve the child's best interests.

If you have additional questions about the effects of domestic violence on custody rights in Pennsylvania, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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