State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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Group pushes for controversial changes to PA custody law

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Apr 26, 2018 5:27 AM
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Advocates for automatic equal custody rights met in the Capitol Wednesday to call the legislature to advance select bills. (Photo by AP)

 

(Harrisburg) -- A coalition of advocates is trying to get lawmakers to act on what they're calling a "horrific parental alienation crisis."

The term "parental alienation" generally refers to a situation in which a custody agreement largely separates a parent from their child, and can strain their relationship. Specifically, proponents of the term say it involves one parent using their access to a child to turn the child's allegiance away from the other parent.  

The efforts of the group, known as the National Parents Organization, have inspired fierce opposition from domestic violence organizations. There is also a lack of consensus on how to handle parental alienation in both legal and medical cases.

Parental alienation is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  

Pennsylvania's chapter of the NPO--which until a few years ago was known as Families and Fathers--is pushing for two bills.

One would update the commonwealth's custody law to let a court order make-up custody time if one parent violates their agreement.

The other would make 50/50 custody agreements the default in contested cases.

"It seeks to articulate that parents should be presumed equal, and that to infringe on anything other than an equal order would trigger due process protections that we afford to common criminals when they're accused of a crime that might put them in jail," state NPO Chair Stephen Meehan said.

"They are presumed innocent, they have an opportunity to be heard, the burden lies on the prosecutor, and they have a right to a jury trial if they want, and they have to public defender if they are eligible."

Meehan noted, the bill "would make it much more difficult to have a full custody order," adding that "it would make it much less expensive to get divorced and transition to two happy, healthy homes."

Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Susan Higginbotham said she is concerned about the impact of that measure in particular, especially when it comes to instances of spousal abuse.

"It's trying to level a playing field that may not be level, and so it's sort of artificial," she said. "Our concern in general about these kinds of things, is it would set a new precedent around how to look at custody cases in a way that would probably be disadvantageous for a parent who is the victim of domestic violence."

Plus, she added, the concept of parental alienation "has been met with opposition from psychological and social workers, family and juvenile court, bar associations, child advocacy."

The two measures in question haven't gotten much political traction--though they saw renewed attention late last year following a committee hearing on parental alienation.

 

This story has been updated to clarify Mr. Meehan's comments as well as the nature of the medical and legal debate surrounding parental alienation. In one instance, the word "syndrome" is omitted in reference to parental alienation, because many who advocate for and study the issue no longer view it as a syndrome."

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