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The difficulty of child custody cases

Custody is one of the most difficult and contested parts of a Pennsylvania divorce. Courts deciding child custody must balance and address several interests when they determine the best interests of the child.

Parents have a constitutional right to custody and care of their children. Courts generally try to foster the children's relationship with both of their parents. Judges presume that parents act in their children's best interests, but there are times they may have to intervene when this presumption is not true.

Usually, both parents will receive visitation or parenting time with their children. Judges believe that non-custodial parents have this right. A hearing will be held, however, if there is a credible danger to the child if this visitation is granted. Earlier violent or criminal behavior does not automatically prevent visitation if there is no evidence that the parent abused or threatened them. Courts can order a psychiatric evaluation, anger management or completion of parenting classes if a parent has serious behavior or mental health problems.

A judge must also address 16 factors and explain their orders awarding custody; this preserves a case history for a future judge. The explanation, among other things, identifies and discusses abuse, child protection involvement and a criminal history. According to studies, an estimated 20 percent of litigated child custody cases involve domestic violence allegations.

Importantly, cases go before family law judges only when parents do not successfully negotiate their own custody agreement. Settlements help families reach creative agreements that meet their needs. Judges must often reach these decisions with limited information, especially if the parents are fighting.

A qualified family law attorney can help negotiate a fair and reasonable custody agreement that meets a family's needs. Legal representation also helps assure that rights are protected if the case goes to court.

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