Senate Bill 844, which, takes effect on July 3, 2018, makes some major changes to who can request custody of a child. It affects grandparents’ rights to petition for custody; and under certain circumstances, it grants standing for the very first time to third parties. Senator Don White from the 41st Senate District first introduced this bill in July 2017 to expand custody rights in cases “where both biological parents are absent, whether due to death or for other reasons.” This is extremely significant in cases for individuals or relatives are assuming caregiver roles due to the opioid and heroin crisis in the Commonwealth.
The new law narrowly creates potential custody rights for third parties who have never previously parented the child. Section 5324 of the Pennsylvania Child Custody Statute, previously limited to grandparents, has been expanded to include any person who is able to establish by clear and convincing evidence: (1) that he or she has assumed or is willing to assume responsibility for the child; (2) that he or she has a sustained, substantial and sincere interest in the child’s welfare; and (3) neither parent has any form of care and control of the child. The person who meets this standard need not be a grandparent, or even a blood relative. In many cases, they may have already been performing parental duties. This category does not apply, however, if there is a pending dependency proceeding involving the child, or where the child has been adjudicated dependent and the court has made an award of legal custody to a children, youth and family services agency.
Section 5325 expanded grandparents’ standing for partial physical custody to include a situation where the relationship with the child began either with consent of a parent or under court order and where the parents of the child have commenced a custody proceeding and cannot agree on whether the grandparents should have custody. The court can refuse to hear a grandparent custody action, however, if both parents believe that contact with the grandparent is not in the best interest of the child.
If you are a grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin or concerned family friend interested in seeking custody of a child, please contact Bort Law for a consultation.