Last Fall brought us a decision from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania holding that a grandparent did not have standing to terminate a Father’s parental rights incident to an adoption. Last week brought us a Superior Court case in which the appeal comes from a Mother and her own Father in a custody case involving a 12-year-old child.
Mother had a girlfriend. To show the seriousness of their commitment, Mother and Girlfriend decided they would adopt each other’s children. The family remained intact for 13 years until April, 2011. A few months after the split, Girlfriend filed to obtain sole legal and physical custody of her natural child (a son) and primary physical custody of Mother’s child, a daughter. Mother counterclaimed for primary custody of both children.
After some initial skirmishes in the Montgomery County courts, a consent order was formed in August, 2012. Each parent would keep primary custody of her natural child. Problems began to arise between Mother and her adopted son and a parent coordinator was appointed who thought psychiatric and psychological support was necessary. In addition, a custody evaluation was ordered at the instigation of the parent coordinator.
Matters boiled over and on May 27, 2013, Mother shot Girlfriend in the presence of both minor children. Mother was charged with attempted homicide and endangering the welfare of the children. She was sentenced to a lengthy prison term exceeding 20 years. Mother was prohibited from communicating with her adopted son and from discussing the incident with her own natural child. Mother’s assertion to this day is that she acted in self-defense.
Once the shooting took place, Girlfriend (who had been shot by Mother) filed an abuse action and emergency custody petition. Mother’s own Father (Grandfather) filed a petition to intervene, requesting that he have custody of his granddaughter, the natural child of Mother. His allegation was that Girlfriend was tolerating physical abuse of the 11-year-old girl by her adoptive brother. Girlfriend, having recovered from the gunshot, asserted that the allegations were false and that Grandfather had no standing. Grandfather amended his petition in the wake of the objections to allege other incidents of abuse and to assert a right to custody under 23 Pa.C.S. 5325(2). Ironically, that ground as a basis for custody was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court while this appeal was pending. See. D.P. v. G.J.P. 146 A.3d 204 (Pa. 2016). The Superior Court notes that Girlfriend did not preserve the standing issue at trial so that it could not be asserted on this appeal. Judge Strassburger dissents on the standing issue but let’s keep our story on track.
Eight days after the shooting, the Trial Court entered an Order granting custody of the daughter to the Grandfather. (Mother’s father). A local attorney was appointed as child advocate and it was ordered that only the advocate could discuss the incident where the girl witnessed his natural mother shoot her adoptive parent.
A two-day custody trial followed. As the Superior Court notes, Grandfather needed to show an unaddressed risk of harm to have standing under 23 Pa.C.S. 5324. The Trial Court concluded that the risk was not sufficient to afford Grandfather the standing to seek custody he had filed to obtain. Accordingly, it granted the Girlfriend’s preliminary objection and therefore, concluded that the best interest analysis set forth in 23 Pa.C.S. 5328(a) was superfluous.
While all of this was awaiting trial, there was no interim custody order. The Trial Court instructed the attorneys and the child advocate to craft some form of physical contact. After two visits totaling 36 hours, the child advocate suspended Grandfather’s access because her directives were not being followed. Shortly after this occurred Girlfriend filed for sole legal and physical custody of both children. Another hearing was held, and in October, 2014 (17 months after the shooting) Girlfriend was awarded sole physical custody of both children. Mother was to have legal custody on a “cause shown” basis if she disagreed with Girlfriend’s legal decisions. All communication between Mother and daughter were to be reviewed and edited by the child advocate.
Grandfather did not appeal but filed another petition to modify which appears to complain about his absence of access. He was afforded another hearing where he expressed concern that the son was physically dangerous to the daughter in Girlfriend’s care. Mother also filed a request for phone contact with her daughter from prison. In August 2015, both requests were denied following another hearing. Postal contact was permitted by Mother subject to control by the child advocate.
Mother and Grandfather appealed. Mother asserted there were constitutional issues at stake as she had a fundamental right to parent. While the Superior Court found her constitutional argument to be fragmented, it did find that Mother’s claims of innocence in the shooting incident should not, alone, prevent contact between parent and child. The standard found in the statute is one of whether there is a “threat” from contact. 23 Pa.C.S. 5329(a) and (d). The Superior Court found that the Trial Court had not devoted enough energy to analysis of what it terms “prison visits” under Etter v.Rose 684 A.2d 1092,1093 (Pa.Super. 1996) and D.R.C. v. J.A.Z., 31 A.3d 677 (Pa. 2011).
A second source of controversy was the level of authority afforded the child advocate. The Appellate Court characterized the advocates regulation of contact between Mother and daughter as “overreach[ing]” and “micromanaged.” The Court concludes that this level of delegation, including the management of all communication between parent and child as improper. The Court notes that the title of “advocate” is not defined and cannot be equated with that of guardian ad litem. The term advocate is found in 42 Pa.C.S. 5983 and relates to involvement of children in the criminal law system as either victims or material witnesses. The advocate is described by the opinion as a holistic approach in contrast to the specific missions of guardian ad litem under 23 Pa.C.S. 5334 or attorney for the child under 23 Pa.C.S. 5335. The Court notes that from the record it appeared that the advocate acted at times as legal counsel and, at other times more akin to guardian ad litem. She appeared as both counsel and witness in these proceedings and was cross examined while testifying. The Supreme Court had decided in an order issued in September, 2013 that the guardian ad litem statute would be suspended to the extent that it required the G.A.L. to be an attorney or permitted “best” interests analysis to be conflated with “legal interests” or permitted the G.A.L. to present witnesses and participate in the trial in any role other than as a witness. The message this rule seemed to telegraph was that if you want to participate in a trial as a lawyer, you proceed under Section 5335. Section 5334 means you will sit, listen to the trial and take the stand to express what you consider to be the best interests of your subject child. On remand, the Trial Court was directed to carefully craft its order defining the scope of the attorney-advocates role.
As for the appeal of Grandfather, it shared many of the waiver problems found in Mother’s appeal. Both were presented pro se and the Court opined that the Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) statements were not well articulated.
Here the reasoning gets somewhat muddled. Bear in mind that the majority has affirmed the Trial Court ruling that Grandfather did not attain the standard of showing that the children lacked sufficient parental authority and control. So it was motoring under the partial custody standard and doing so because Girlfriend had not asserted lack of standing to seek partial custody in response to Grandfather’s filing. The Trial Court denied partial custody because his desire to have contact with his granddaughter was not in the child’s interest because of Grandfather’s (a) animosity toward Girlfriend (b) his steadfast belief that his daughter was not guilty of a crime when she shot Girlfriend and (c) his efforts to control his granddaughter’s testimony. The Trial Court also felt that Grandfather was inclined to try to sow discontent between Girlfriend and the eleven-year-old daughter (by adoption). The Superior Court finds that there was scant evidence to support these conclusions and while it defers to Trial Courts in these types of analysis, the analysis must be borne of evidence presented rather than supposition. It also held that under Section 5328(c)(1)(iii) the Trial Court must perform the 16 factor analysis that has become a part of all custody determinations.
Specifically, while condemning Grandfather’s use of the term “Adoptive Mother” in the case, the Court did not find this so egregious as to merit suspension of contact. The Court found no record that Grandfather had attempted to discuss or persuade his granddaughter to take a side in the criminal proceeding against her natural mother. This was ascribed to a “supposition” on the part of the child advocate rather than any evidence of record. The Grandfather had attempted to arrange for the child to meet with Mother’s criminal counsel for purposes of an interview but that interview was blocked by a subsequent court order.
In the end, the appellate court expresses concern that Girlfriend is not exercising sufficient control over her son to the possible risk of her daughter. The Superior Court described some of the incidents and believed the conduct between the sibling children involved more than innocent horseplay. Thus, it reversed not only to have a full evaluation of Mother’s rights while incarcerated but Grandfather’s rights under Section 5328(a). This makes for an interesting rehearing, as the law of standing is different than it was at the last hearing.
For better or for worse, this is what “new age” custody proceedings are going to entail; an unmarried couple, who adopt and then split badly, even violently. The children involved present their own issues related to physical conflict. A grandfather tries to intervene and an advocate is criticized both for the nature of her role and for overzealousness in the protection of an 11 year old child. Bear in mind, the circumstance of an adoption is the only thing that bars to two natural fathers from appearing on the scene to add to the mele. Note as well that this action began in November, 2011. It was temporarily settled in August, 2012 but within eight months gunfire erupted, setting in motion a piece of litigation that has subsisted for more than 3.5 years and is headed back to trial. The one child affected is described as “now 12”. That would mean that she was perhaps 7 when her world fell apart.
Note Bene: We have been longstanding critics of the business of identifying custody litigants and children by initials. The author has been told this is a losing battle. But this opinion, for those willing to endure its 45 page analysis, was a special form of suffering. For 45 pages, here is what one read:
M.G. v. L.D.; Appeal of C.B.D. 2017 Pa. Super 29 (2/8/2017)
L.D. Mother of M.G.D.. Adoptive parent of E.G.D.
M.G. Mother of E.G.D. Adoptive parent of M.G.D.
C.B.D. Father of L.D.; Grandfather to E.G.D. and (by adoption) E.G.D.
As I have explained plaintively to any appellate judge who grants me audience, the children in this case are the soldiers in the trenches of modern day custody wars. They are gassed with parental acrimony nearly every day. They don’t read the Atlantic Reporter and their friends don’t either. In this case, two children have lived a life of newspaper headlines and criminal trials culminating in a long-term prison sentence. The least of their concerns is whether their identity is revealed in appellate paper books and resulting opinions. Meanwhile, if called upon to explain the precedential effect of this reported case in a pending case, this lawyer would be required to emit enough letters to daze even a lifetime “bingo addict.” The addict at least has a chance at a prize.