The Hollywood gossip this week revolves around an Order issued in California in the custody dispute between actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. That Order outlined a summer custody schedule for the six children while maintaining primary custody with Jolie. But the Court issued stern warning to the Mother stating that: “If the minor children remain closed down to their Father….it may result in a reduction of the time they spend with {Mother} and may result in the Court ordering primary physical custody to {Father}.

The children range in age from 9-16. These can be tempestuous times for even the best of intact families as it is when children really develop their own expressed personalities. In a divorce setting it is also common for one or more to ally with one parent and reject the other as unworthy of any respect, love or attention.

Sometimes that enmity is earned. Growing children can be quick to “judge” a parent’s conduct and expose any inconsistency.  Not all parents are exemplary characters and people are not at their best when a marriage is dissolving. But then there are instances where dislike for another parent is given a little nudge if not a firm push by the “favored” parent of the day.  It often begins at separation with the gentle suggestion that “Mommy left us.” or “Daddy likes another family better.”

Parental Alienation Syndrome is a term coined by a New York psychiatrist, Richard Gardener in the early 1980’s.  He termed it a “disorder”  manifested by a campaign to denigrate the other parent. The action can be deliberate or unconscious.  It can range from subtle hints about the other parent’s inadequacies or rise to suggestions to a child that his/her parent may have physically abused the child.

The psychological community has never embraced this condition as a disorder although that subject is much debated.  In its mildest form, the child is resistant to talk on the phone or visit with the bad parent. The child will often freely opine on the bad parent’s character or conduct.  A tip off that the views are not independently formed by the child is that the language expressed by the affected child is not typical for someone that age  (“Mommy drinks too much alcohol”) or contains conclusions that young children cannot evaluate (“Daddy passed out” in contrast to “went to sleep”).

A common method of teasing out this kind of alienation is to interview the child about what he or she likes and dislikes about the parents.  An alienated child is often hard pressed to describe any meritorious conduct on the part of the parent from whom he is alienated.  Or, the child will dismiss it with a platitude (“I know he loves me” without more). An alienating parent often is described by the same child as faultless.

Although not an accepted disorder, anyone who has been in the presence of a child who is fully alienated from a parent knows how challenging those interactions can be. Typically, the child is sullen, argumentative or silent. They will recoil from physical contact, even when it is intended to express warmth and kindness. These children often will not permit anyone to try to persuade them that all parents have merits and deficits. One parent is good, the other is not.

The remedies for this condition are limited and extreme.  Most courts will order the child into therapy to make certain that the enmity is not fact based, but once that hurdle is passed the therapist has a daunting task.  The child does not want to view the alienated parent as having merit.  And, the therapist has but 45 minutes to work on correcting the matter while the parent promoting alienation has the rest of the week to reinforce negative thoughts.  Note again that some parents don’t even appreciate the toxicity of their conduct.  When confronted with the problems associated with using phrases like “Daddy left us” a mother may respond that the phrase is not one of judgment, but of fact.  We live in an age when people think it is appropriate to be “brutally honest” even though children don’t have coping mechanisms to address the brutality.  “My father is a bad man so the judge sent him to prison.”  “My mother likes to sleep around.”  A 16 year old child is old enough to understand infidelity.  Nine year olds would assume that mom must have a job that requires overnight travel.

In the Jolie-Pitt matter, the signals are clear. This judge is quite concerned that mother is over regulating conduct with father and insisting on unrestricted phone access. That, too, is easier said than done as parents can often send very strong ques that a call needs to end or be avoided.  In this case, the Court is also signaling that unless these children are able to form a more positive relationship with Mr. Pitt, the judge may go so far as to award primary custody of the children to their father. This is the nuclear option and Courts are chary to employ it because there is always concern that (a) the alienated parent is now in exclusive control should there be something bad going on, and, (b) the child might run away permanently.

There is no easy solution and this case is further complicated by the fact that the Children will be with one parent in California and another in England.  Physical distance makes it all the more difficult to break down or at least slowly dismantle studied antipathy toward a parent.

The late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is credited with saying that while obscenity could not be defined: “I know it when I see it.”  This is equally true for parental alienation. The scientific and medical communities have not accepted it because, unlike depression or bipolar disorder, it escapes definition.  But, almost any judicial person deciding custody cases will confess that they know it exists because they have heard it from the lips of parents and children.  When people separate, they want their children to like them “better”.   It is only natural.  But it is far less clear whether a child’s dislike of a parent is fact based or the product of undue influence.

Pennsylvania uses the standard “the best interests of the child” when determining custody issues. What happens if the best interest of the child breaks the law? Such is the case in Georgia where parents of a 15 year old boy suffering from epilepsy resorted to marijuana to treat his seizures. Their argument is compelling: their son suffers from debilitating seizures that have not responded to traditional treatment and medical help is forty-five minutes away from them. They feared his seizures would eventually kill him.

Having seemingly exhausted their medical options (including a legal form of marijuana oil in a capsule), they began having their son smoke marijuana. His seizures stopped. However, the state of Georgia’s child welfare agency, acting on a tip, investigated the family and removed the young man from his parents’ care in April. Having gone nearly 70 days without a seizure, on the day he was removed from his home he was hospitalized for a severe seizure. He is in a group home and reports did not mention whether he continued to have seizures, but presumably he has and those facts will emerge later this month when a hearing is held.

Pennsylvania passed medical marijuana legislation in 2016, including provisions that address the use by minors as administrated by designated caregivers. That said, marijuana is still a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act with state and federal criminal ramifications. The Georgia case highlights a possibility that still exists in Pennsylvania where conflicting state and federal laws can result in criminal charges.

How would the court react to the “legal use” of marijuana by a custodial parent or an objection by a parent to the use by a minor child? Pennsylvania updated their Health and Safety Statute (§10231.2013) to include a prohibition against including medical marijuana as a consideration in a custody proceeding, but nothing was done to amend the custody code to make a similar restriction under the custody factors.

Most likely, the courts of Pennsylvania will continue to apply the custody factors to medical marijuana in a manner comparable to prescribed pain medication with an emphasis as to whether it is being abused or affecting the custodial parent’s ability to care for the child. The use by a child would be dictated by legal custody considerations and medical necessity not unlike any other treatment. Despite evolving laws in this area, there will continue to be a tension between state application and federal law. While that may not change any time soon, addressing those disparities at the state level should improve as time passes.

More information on cannabis, especially the business side, can be found at Fox Rothschild’s blog “In the Weeds.”

My colleague, Mark Ashton, was recently quoted in Mr. Ken Belson’s New York Times article addressing a Pittsburgh custody case grappling with whether a child should play football after having had three concussions before his 16th birthday. As Mark points out in the article, custody officers are unwilling to touch an issue such as contact sport participation because no one wants to be the one who provides the opportunity for a child to be hurt. I think another reason why custody officers are unwilling to deal with such an issue is a little more esoteric: how does one gauge whether one sport is better for a child than another?

Mark also wrote a blog post last July raising the issue of football as the new battleground for legal custody issues. Parents seem to be increasingly concerned about the injury potential of concussions suffered in football and the “time value” of football compared to other sports. Having played over ten years of football, I disagree with using the time value analysis to consider the benefits of football. Football is notoriously known as only being “played” for a sliver of time relative to the game clock. The “conditioning affect” of football cannot be measured that way and it leaves out the intangible aspects the sport develops such as leadership, perseverance, physical and mental discipline, and playing a team sport which relies on each individual to perform their role to the best of their ability every single play. It is an amazing sport. It is an evolving sport. As this Pittsburgh case shows, even for those who love the sport, it is not for everyone.

Which brings us back to the Times article and what some might consider a “war” on football. The concerns and raised awareness about concussions in children is no more an attack on the sport than seat belts are an attack on driving. This issue is fundamentally a health issue, with concussions serving as the context, but which could easily replaced by concerns about a torn ACL or broken leg. Olympic downhill skier Lindsey Vonn has an injury history (including a concussion) that would make an NFL linebacker cringe, but I suspect if skiing replaced football as the activity in question no one would be paying attention to this case.

The quantitative difficulty is that a concussion does not show up the same way a broken bone or torn ligament does on an MRI. If a doctor clears a child to play any sport or activity after they clear a concussion protocol, then seemingly the child is fit to play. There is no evidence to the contrary, nor is there evidence to predict how the next concussion will occur, if at all. Left out of the article are details about the second and third concussions. I would be curious to know whether they were from direct hits or glancing blows. This child’s first concussion was from being hit in the head with an aluminum baseball bat. I wonder whether the second and third were routine plays which might not have otherwise injured him. Concussions affect everyone differently and they can be progressive such that it takes less of an impact to be concussed than it did the previous time(s).

This situation becomes a legal custody issue because it has a direct consequence to the health of the child. The mother’s argument is that football represents a “status quo,” but the father’s counsel argued that the status quo changed once the second and third concussion occurred from football. A temporary ban on the child paying football was overturned and he played his junior year without any injury. The father is now prepared to go to trial for a final order on the issue.

From a legal standpoint, this situation highlights the difficulty of developing bright-line rules for some legal custody issues and why there is little precedential case law on some of these unique issues. This situation is so fact specific that permitting (or barring) participation in football in this case will likely be irrelevant to another case. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what the trial court decides and their rationale behind their decision. Though perhaps not binding on other cases, it can be instructive as to whether the court considers the sport or the injury as the critical factor.

This is not a political outlet.  So, I will confine my “political” comment to a single set of facts.  17 people killed yesterday. 32 school days so far this year.  Time Magazine reports 18 school shootings.  So a school shooting every other day.

The interviews I heard last night on television provided a haunting reminder of a conversation I had earlier that day with a colleague who treats families going through divorce.  We spoke about a common case.  The child we were discussing was enduring an acrimonious divorce.  The child is caught in the middle and is traumatized by the experience.  The therapist related to me that part of his concern was that the child we were discussing seemed to have no friends; no social connection of any substance.  The kid is in a lot of pain and his parents are so absorbed by their own suffering, they have little empathy to give.  So, the child spends hours of time alone in his home immersed in social media.

Last night I listened to coverage of the 19 year old shooter.  I heard interviews with his classmates.  The child was a loner with no identifiable friends despite efforts on his part to connect with peers directly and via social media.  Children in the high school who knew the shooter before he was expelled described him as strange and his efforts to connect with his fellow students were rejected because he was odd.  So, this child posted some very troubling things online and exercised his right under Florida laws to acquire an AR-15 automatic weapon shortly after attaining 18.  That gun fires more than 700 rounds per minute.

Last year Parkland was named Florida’s safest city.  The mayor described the community as “close knit.”  Like Columbine, Colorado, Sandy Hook, Connecticut and Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, these are towns where mass shootings are not supposed to happen.  But, let us be plain, we are not a close knit society.  Our kids are more vulnerable to this kind of aberrant conduct than we would like to think.  If you watched the interviews with the affected children, you can tell they don’t even know what they have just lived through.  If anything, they are far too poised for people who have witnessed the death of mentors, classmates and come closer than they can consider, to being among those for whom there will never be another Valentine’s Day.

Eighty nine years ago yesterday, America learned of the brutal murder of seven men in a garage on North Clark Street in Chicago.  The killings became a part of American history.  Three months ago we watched 58 people killed and 851 wounded in Las Vegas.  Cellular phones and computers can make us more connected than we could have ever dreamed possible a generation ago.  But, we are less close knit and more disconnected than ever.  When will we realize that “connectivity” is not just a reality?  It is also a mirage.

President Trump has concluded that the nineteen year old shooter was mentally disturbed.  That should be self evident. But, a child like this lurks in just about every high school in America.  The question is, do we accept school shootings as part of the American way of life or are we going to do something to find these kids and give them help before more children die.

On August 7 of 2017, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided a case under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.  Since we don’t see much child custody litigation in federal courts nor do we see many Hague cases, this one merits a closer look.

J[ay] Blackledge was born in the Ukraine in 2008 but is a United States citizen.  At the time this litigation was before the courts Mother, a Ukranian citizen, resided in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Father, a U.S. citizen, resided in Germany.  After living in a variety of Eastern European nations, in 2011 Father secured his job in Munich, Germany and Mother became a graduate student in Pennsylvania.  The family continued to live on separate continents with the child being with Mother in Pennsylvania and Father in Germany.  Although Father indicated that the goal was reunification at some place that location was never really agreed upon.

In Summer, 2013 Jay needed surgery in Pittsburgh and Father returned to the U.S. for that event.  While here Father sought stateside employment.  He did not succeed and in August, 2013 Mother and child left for Germany based upon an understanding that she would join Father there unless a mutually beneficial opportunity arose.  This was the child’s first visit to Germany.

Having moved to Germany Mother enrolled the child in an international school and resumed her graduate program via electronic connection. By August, 2015 the marriage had soured and Mother wanted to return to Pennsylvania to complete her Ph. D.  There appears to have been agreement that a return to Pennsylvania until 2018 was the best for Jay.

The child returned to Pennsylvania, excelled at school during the 2015-16 academic year and otherwise integrated well into the community. This opinion from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States reads like a celebration of how seven year old J[ay] enjoyed everything from his love of Penguins hockey to the sylvan bliss of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece of architecture at Fallingwater.  While J[ay] was soaking up the culture and other benefits of life in Pennsylvania, his Father was writing from Germany that if he could not secure stateside employment, relocation of the family to another country might need to be considered.  Mother responded that she was not rejecting the idea but that J[ay] seemed well adjusted in Pittsburgh and that other homes might be disruptive or not consistent with what the seven year old “wanted.”  Father’s response is equally naive, suggesting that a child this young might benefit from a one year on/one year off arrangement on two different continents.  Father’s first proposal was that the next academic year be in Germany and he implied this was agreed in his pleadings.  Mother did not openly disagree with this “understanding.”  The couple seemed to clearly understand that living near each other and the child would be best.  But failing that, the proposed solutions ranged narrowly from alternating year to year or accepting Pittsburgh as the primary place of residence.

Mother filed a custody action in Allegheny County which was was granted and the Common Pleas Court held that summers and holidays would be with Father but the academic year would be in Allegheny County.  It is not clear what Father knew about that order a few days later when he proposed that J[ay] come to Germany for the summer and stay to attend school in Germany.  There is a suggestion in the Third Circuit opinion, presented without citation, that Father believed the Pennsylvania Court had no authority to make its interim order.  In early July, 2016 Father filed in the U.S. District Court asking for return of the child under the terms of the Hague Convention.  The Federal District Court held a two day trial in August.  This included an interview of the child and a variety of “best interest” witnesses.  The Trial Court concluded that Mother was the more credible witness.  It ruled against the Hague petition on August 19, 2016.  In so doing it decided that: (1) Pennsylvania was the habitual residence based upon the child’s testimony; and, (2) Mother’s retention was not wrongful.  Accordingly, Pennsylvania would continue to exercise jurisdiction.  Father’s appeal asked that he be awarded custody while proceedings take place in Germany, where he was residing.

The Circuit Court ruled that the issue of habitual residence was a mixed one of law and fact and that there are two sets of inquiries when addressing “habitual residence.” The first was shared parental intention and the second, the child’s acclimatization.  The Court noted that its role is to restore that status quo prior to any wrongful removal or retention.  The stated object is to prevent forum shopping.  Father, as Petitioner, had the burden of showing the child had been wrongfully taken or retained.  To secure relief, he had the burden to show each of these elements:

  • When the removal or retention took place
  • The child’s habitual residence immediately prior to retention/removal
  • Whether retention or removal breached petitioner’s custodial rights under the laws of The habitual residence
  • Whether the petitioner was exercising his custodial rights at time of removal or retention

Yang v. Tsui, 499 F.3d 259, 271 (3d Cir. 2007)  https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/1362349/tsai-yi-yang-v-fu-chiang-tsui/

The Petitioner was exercising rights that he had under German law.  But, the Court decided that the hearing date was the retention date and that Pittsburgh was the habitual residence prior to that date.

The appeal challenged both the retention date and the finding of habitual residence.  Father suggested that the date was June 9, 2016 when he informed Mother he wanted J[ay] to be with him.  Mother suggested the trial date was the correct one.  The Third Circuit rejected both stating the retention date is the date beyond which the noncustodial parent no longer consents to the primary custody of the custodial parent. The retention date was deemed to be the date when Father filed his Hague action because the prior verbal exchanges between the parties were equivocal.

Hard facts do make for bad law and it would appear from the opinion of the three judge panel that little Jay’s parents never really formed a definitive plan for the child.  The purpose of a Hague Convention is to arrest the scourge of trial abduction where it is employed to secure a jurisdictional advantage.  Before Mother filed in Common Pleas the parties never committed to any form of writing that would set forth a plan for where Jay would spend the year following his sojourn to Pittsburgh.  It seems that Father hoped to find a job in the United States but, failing that, it was his “expectation” that if the family could not reunite under a single roof, he would have custody for the year following that in Pittsburgh.  It also seems that when she first left for Pittsburgh, Mother was not adverse to Jay’s return to live with Father.  But, once here, she thought less and less of sending her son back to Germany and when it finally came to decision time, she filed in Pennsylvania asserting this was the home state.  That prompted Father to remove the case to Federal Court and rely upon the Hague Convention to support his position.  Abduction is a serious word and the disagreement between these two parents scarcely merits such a strong term.  The Circuit decision notes that both Germany and the United States could claim status as this child’s habitual residence.  So, there would have been justification for the District Court to have abstained from this conflict, although that may have necessitated a look at German laws regulating custody jurisdiction.

As noted above, what is lamentable about the federal opinions and procedures on display in Blackledge is the unflinching chauvinism displayed by the presiding jurists.  The goal of the Hague and its federal analogue, the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act “PKPA”, is to insure that local courts do not engage in “we are better” analyses in deciding custody jurisdiction.  Federal courts are supposed to leave family law matters to state courts.  PKPA and the Hague are there so that when state courts start to “homer” for the local parent, there is a forum intended to protect the parent who lives far away.

In Blackledge, the District Court conducted a two day trial. That, alone is no offense because issues of wrongful retention and habitual residence are certainly fact specific.  But when the evidence adduced includes teachers, coaches, neighbors and interview of the child, one questions whether the District Court had chosen to function as a best interests court instead as a jurisdictional court.  The Third Circuit discusses J.B.’s many friends, sleepovers and other outings as if these could not occur or in some way be equaled by residents of Germany.  J.B. “bonded” with Pittsburghers at dinners, attending university events and theater festivals. His coach opined as the quality of his breast stroke while swimming and his interest in diving.  All of us know just how much eight year olds enjoy dinner parties, theater festivals and “university events.”  The opinion also reminds us of the merits of Fallingwater and the Four Carnegie Museums.  You won’t find much said about the 36 museums, 61 theaters and four orchestras that are located in Munich.  Father had since moved on to Berlin, another city that could shame any cultural resources found in Pennsylvania.

The Hague Convention is testing habitual residence, not evaluating the cultural, economic or social merits of a community.  Had J.B.’s parents been living in Ghana before he moved with his Mother to Pittsburgh, the Convention would seem to imply that a child can be just as “habituated” to rural African villages that lack swimming coaches or a robotics club.

The Hague and PKPA are about an exercise to assure fairness and not an invitation for displays of chauvinism.  The Federal Courts missed that point.  The record was sufficient once it established that Jay lived in Pittsburgh and participated in local activities typical of a Pittsburgh resident during the time he was here.  Those are the jurisdictional facts.  To wax on about his excellent grades and the great fun he had visiting a local mattress factory denigrates what the Hague is about.  Once we ascertain that there was no wrongful retention, the question does not graduate to the merits of the residence but the reality of that residence.  Federal courts do not belong in the merits of a custody case and should not devote time to extolling the virtues of the Pittsburgh life, no matter how grand it may be.

Blackledge v. Blackledge, 16-3667 US. Third Circuit Court of Appeals (Aug. 3, 2017)  http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-3rd-circuit/1869777.html

The September 7 issue of TIME Magazine features our obsession with childhood sports.  The statistics tell the story.  In 2005, school age children played sports at a combined cost of about $8 billion per annum.  Today that number is about $15 billion, almost double. And, during this same period there was no increase in the population of American children.  About 73 million, then and now.  So, how about household income over the same period?  Nominally, it went from an average of $45,000 to $50,000, but if you adjust for inflation, it actually declined a little bit.

This writer’s conclusion?  Americans are spending money they don’t have on something they want and enjoy but do not need.  The cost of team sports for children is itself frightening.  Time reports these as average costs including enrollment, uniforms and lots of travel:

Lacrosse                $8,000

Ice Hockey            $7,000

Baseball/Softball  $4,000

Football                 $2,700

Soccer                    $1,500

Basketball              $1,150

This is not a sport economics blog but we see this every day in our divorce practices.  Parents fight over the logistics of these sport activities. They fight over who will pay.  They fight over whether the child belongs in the sport and, as we recently noted, whether the risk of injury exceeds the benefit.

As the cost of college rises, we also see many parents eyeing their children’s athletic skills as something they can capitalize upon in the form of athletic scholarships.  Putting money in a 529 plan is a tedious way to prepare for college.  But travel with the child’s team to Baltimore or Richmond to watch 72 hours of continuous soccer is now viewed as an “investment.”  Curiously, as time has passed, emphasis is now focusing on athletic performance at younger ages.  Time reports of colleges following “star” athletes at ages as young as 10.  Middle school is now where the talent is first evaluated.  This means, the sport and the child must be nurtured for seven years before the scholarship is awarded.  And, children are seeing repetitive motion injuries crop up more frequently because many of these sports are now scheduled “year round.”  A gifted basketball player cannot afford to risk his future by playing another sport where he could be injured, or worse-yet, his shooting and passing skills are allowed to wither.

In May, I testified before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives about some possible changes in support guidelines.  The witness before me was a Father who, together with his wife, invested heavily in a child’s future as a competitive snowboarder.  Much of this investment was borrowed using husband’s credit cards.  Shortly after it became clear that son’s snowboarding career did not have much promise, wife departed leaving husband with massive credit obligations.  Then she had the temerity to sue him for support.  He wanted relief from the support guidelines because a lot of his income was paying credit card debt associated with promoting their child’s sport.

I must confess, I did not have much sympathy for either parent.  But, as the Time article observes, modern day parents have difficulty saying “no” to their need driven kids.  What child would not want to go to Baltimore, stay in a hotel and hang with his friends while assembled to play back to back softball games on gorgeous college campuses?  Unfortunately, the psychological community is warning that in addition to premature serious sports injuries, many children and their families are starting to experience competitive sports burnout. Especially where scholarships are involved, many competitions and tournaments are mandatory because that’s where the college coaches and scouts are going to be found.  I spoke recently with a fellow lawyer whose child is still reeling from seeing that her son finished both college and his baseball driven career with nowhere to go.  His persona and all of his goals were erected around his athletic talent and now that talent no longer had value.

This is a bad cycle and one that often robs the children of their physical and emotional well-being while robbing their parents’ purse with little chance of return.  Each year about 400-500,000 high school kids play baseball, soccer and basketball.  Another 1.1 million play football.  The likelihood they will take this skill to the professional world is frighteningly small.  Baseball: 1 in 760; Football: 1 in 600; Soccer: 1 in 800; and, basketball: 1 in 1,860.  Sports have much merit. But all good things must come in moderation.

In most cases, there isn’t much to write on the subject of legal custody. In Pennsylvania, it is the right to make decisions affecting the child’s welfare; in contrast to physical custody which is where kids spend their time. It rarely comes up except when couples fight over school placements or foreign travel to “unsafe” places. Under a long-standing Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, Zummo v. Zummo, courts stay out  of questions concerning religious worship unless the worship involves venomous snakes or other scary things.

But, things are changing. Beginning in 2000 scientific literature began to question the effects of concussions on the human brain. Five years later a physician performed an autopsy of the brain of former Pittsburgh center Mike Webster and asserted that the contact he experienced caused his brain to atrophy at an alarming rate.

In November 2015, 60 Minutes presented its analysis of the magnitude of the problem. This was a kind of watershed moment because parents began appearing in custody courts questioning whether sports with a propensity to cause injury were in the children’s’ best interests. This presented a true dilemma. In almost all instances, the children want to play. Football is iconic. How could the courts rule against children and football? To do so was un-American.

A new page has turned. This week the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study of more than 200 brains belonging to deceased football players. These included players whose careers ended in high school and college. The results were fairly stunning. 110 of 111 former NFL players were found to have evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). 90% of those who played football in college were also found to have CTE. And, even 21% of students who played only in high school were found to have been damaged.

This follows a 2011 study by the Center for Disease Control that elementary and high school football players had a 60% increased risk of suffering a traumatic brain injury.

The researchers in the current study note that their sample consisted of people who were both deceased and for whom there was evidence that playing high contact sports had caused some form of brain injury. So one cannot reasonably assert that 21% of high school football players will suffer CTE.

Nevertheless, that is little consolation for parents. Especially when one considers the actual amount of physical “play” in these modern sports. Data on this subject comes from professional sports and may not precisely correlate to what goes on at the local high school but if you are perceiving sports for the quality of the physical experience, here is what we can report.

Actual time of play          

Baseball               17 minutes

Football               11 minutes

Soccer                  57 minutes

Basketball            48 minutes

Hockey               60 minutes

Some judicial officers have responded that this is not a legal custody question. I cannot fault that reasoning but the Boston University study published this week may tip the ball in another direction.

 

While Alex Jones was the most recent high-profile example of a controversial public persona creating very personal and private problems, he is certainly not alone. Similar in theme, but not in execution is the case of the Michael and Heather Martin who are described as “YouTube stars” and post to a channel with over 760,000 subscribers.

Their shtick is to torment their five children (three together; two are Michael’s kids from another relationship) by, “verbally [berating them], frequently to the point of tears, while performing stunts like appearing to destroy an Xbox video game system and accusing the children of making messes they had not made.” However, one of the aspects of fame is that when the number of people watching you increases, so to does the likelihood that someone may not share your idea of “fun” and, instead, question whether you are actually physically and emotionally abusing your children.  Such is the situation the Martins find themselves.

Recently, the Martins lost custody of Michael’s oldest two children after their biological mother petitioned in Fredrick County, Maryland for an emergency order for custody. Undoubtedly, the apparently 300 plus videos (since removed) they posted to their channel will be used in some form or fashion in a future custody case(s).

Not unlike the Alex Jones situation, the Martins refer to themselves as being “characters,” the videos are entertainment and scripted, and that the children were often in on the pranks and interested in how many hits the videos receive. Maybe the entire family fell into the wormhole of internet fame and the kids equated the validation of a popular video as the quid pro quo for being emotionally manipulated, screamed at, and exposed to violent situations.

Regardless of the motivations, it is indisputable that the videos are valuable evidence. They either depict physical and emotionally abuse by the parents, or they record a pair of amateur entertainers whose actors (their children) perform under unsafe working conditions and seemingly without the benefit of knowing what is real and what is “part of the show.”

The parents admit in their apology video to being seduced by the fame and upping the shock value for the sake of more attention and, presumably, financial benefit. They certainly imply that the success of the stunts lead to significant financial gain and their hiring of a reputable family law attorney and crisis management public relations firm certainly seems to corroborate that.

The Martins said that having “stepped away” from their “characters,” they now understand the criticism directed at them and that they made some bad decisions and let things get out of control. People lose their kids over one or two bad decisions. Imagine if someone publicly displayed hundreds of such examples.

This is the reality of today’s social media and non-traditional entertainment platforms. Essentially, anyone can produce and disseminate media on multiple platforms instead of the old system of television, radio, and movies. The line between actor or character and who you are in “real life” gets blurred. And as the Martin and Jones cases demonstrate, the more “authentic” you try to be for entertainment purposes, the more difficult it can be to separate yourself from the actions of your “character.”

Child custody cases turn on the court’s determination of the child’s best interests.  As defined in Pennsylvania, this means having the judge apply evidence to Pennsylvania’s sixteen (16) custody factors and render a decision.  Evidence for a trial can come in a variety of ways and, with increasing frequency, the role of social media and public statements are among them.  Periodically, a case involving a public figure forces the courts to consider when an individual’s “public persona” or public statements are germane to the underlying family law issue.

In the case of Austin, Texas based “Infowars” radio host Alex Jones, his public persona and commentary are being relied upon by his ex-wife, Kelly Jones, to justify her pursuit of sole or joint custody of their three children.  The children have resided with Mr. Jones since the couple’s 2015 divorce.  Ms. Jones cites statements Mr. Jones has made on Infowars and a variety of associated public behavior, as well as some of the associated backlash to those comments and actions to demonstrate his unfitness as a parent. Based on published news reports, Ms. Jones claims that Mr. Jones’ home, which also serves as his broadcast studio, is inherently unsafe due to the attention his public persona draws and that the statements made by Mr. Jones demonstrate mental and emotional instability which demand the removal of the children from his care.

Mr. Jones’s counsel, in response, is arguing that his “persona” is akin to being an actor. He is playing a role that caters to a particular audience.  Consequently, you cannot hold his employment against him any more than you would an actor who portrays a particularly violent or controversial character. His lawyer makes the (dated) analogy that to use Mr. Jones on-air persona as evidence towards fitness as a parent would be like assuming Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. This is a troublesome analogy, however, since no one would confuse “Batman” for a documentary about a wealthy man’s obsession with bats and the clown that hates him. There is a clear delineation between the actor and the character; reality and fiction.

Contrast that to another radio performer like Howard Stern.  Unlike Stern, there does not appear to have been any “fourth walls” broken in Mr. Jones’ radio or public performances.  Throughout Stern’s career, he frequently references the dichotomy between his on-air persona and his real life. He even produced a book and movie (“Private Parts”) showing this disconnect between his two worlds. Mr. Jones, on the other hand, does not appear to have ever revealed another side of himself besides the “Alex Jones of Infowars.” In fact, his ex-wife argues that they are one-in-the-same and argues that Mr. Jones is “not a stable person” who makes threats of physical violence towards celebrities and politicians.

Aside from trying to show an instability of the mind or lifestyle, are Mr. Jones on-air statements relevant evidence in a custody trial? As the trial heads into its third day, it appears that despite his defense on the grounds of art, they likely are. Another high profile case which used public statements to the detriment of the party was the Sherri Shepherd parentage case.  Ms. Shepherd and her ex-husband had a child by egg donation and gestational carrier. Leading up to the child’s birth, Ms. Shepherd was publically vocal in her excitement and anticipation of being a mother up until she and her ex-husband separated and eventually divorced. She lost her attempt at the trial level (a decision affirmed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court) to invalid the gestational carrier contract and be removed as the child’s legal mother. At trial in the Montgomery County Orphan’s Court, her ex-husband presented a compelling montage of Shepherd’s public statements.

Mr. Jones’ commentary is certainly protected political speech, but whether Mr. Jones has the right to that speech is a separate issue as to whether his actions and behavior – of which his public statements are a significant part – make for a stable living environment or one which serves the children’s best interests.  Ultimately, the jury will parse out the “real” Alex Jones from his in-court demeanor, direct testimony, video and audio clips.

The leading case from last year in family law was the Supreme Court’s decision in D.P. v. G.J.P. 146 A.3d 204, holding that Pennsylvania’s grandparent custody statute offended principles of privacy and was partially if not wholly unconstitutional.

This was an odd turn, in an age when it seemed as if more and more people were eligible to claim custodial time or rights related to children. But the decision earlier this month from the Superior Court in K.W. v. S.L. & M.L. v. G.G. indicates that the matter of who has standing to assert custody rights is being further limited.

K.W. and G.G. had a child out of wedlock in August, 2015. Their relationship had ended long before and it appears that K.W. was not informed of his status as a parent to be. Rather Mother contacted Bethany Christian Services in March, 2015 regarding placing the child for adoption.

When the child was born in August, G.G. relinquished the child to Bethany who placed the child with M.L. and S.L. Knowing that it would need Father’s consent for an adoption to be consummated quickly, the agency, with Mother’s cooperation attempted to contact Father. After a couple of months of reaching out to the Father through social media, Father responded in mid-September to attend a meeting. A month later, he stated clearly that he would oppose adoption.

Father’s next step was to file a custody complaint on October 30, 2015 in Centre County naming Mother alone as defendant. He also filed a demand that Bethany indicate where his child was and that produced a temporary order from Centre County giving the adoptive parents primary custody and partial to Father. Legal custody was joint. Centre County also transferred the case to Father’s home county, Lycoming, for further proceedings.

A month later the adoptive parents, S.L. & M.L. filed a custody case in their home county, York, where the child had been present since two days after birth. At the same time they filed an appeal to the Order from Centre County transferring venue to Lycoming County. This prompted Centre County to revoke its order of transfer and move the case from Lycoming to York County.

Father filed preliminary objections to the York County case asserting that the adoptive parents lacked standing. The adoptive parents asserted that they stood in loco parentis. At roughly the same time Father filed his own case in York County. The Court entered a temporary order maintaining the status quo of the Centre County order. Meanwhile Father asked for argument on his standing objections to the adoptive parents. It was held in August, 2016. The Court held a hearing and on August 8, 2016 found that the adoptive parents did have in loco parentis standing. Father promptly appealed.

The Superior Court found that the order conferring standing was an appealable collateral order under Pa. R.A.P. 313(a) citing the Supreme Court opinion in K.C. v. L.A., 128 A.2d 3d 774 (2015). That decision held that an order denying intervention in a custody case was appealable as standing in this kind of case assume a constitutional aspect.

The published panel decision of March 6 holds that orders allowing third parties to assert custodial rights “burdens the constitutional rights” of parents. Citing the Supreme Court of the United States ruling in Troxell v. Granville, the Superior Court noted that custody litigation itself disrupts family life, language echoed in Justice Baer’s opinion in D.P. v. G.J.P. The majority finds that failure to end the litigation and afford Father his custodial rights created both a financial and human burden in terms of facing continuing litigation with non-parents. Under these principles, the appellate court confirms that it must act on the collateral order appealed.

Turning to the merits of adoptive parent standing, the court notes that this is addressed on a de novo basis as it is a threshold issue. It notes that aside from parents and grandparent’s only persons in loco parentis have standing. Under T.B. v. L.R.M., the Supreme Court held that one cannot have in loco parentis statute without parental consent. In this case, Father never provided any consent to the placement antecedent to adoption proceedings. A third party cannot place himself in loco parentis without consent of the parents. Gradwell v. Strausser, 610 A.2d 999,1003 (Pa.S. 1992). In re C.M.S. was distinguished on the basis that the natural father in that case had allowed the placement to continue for more than a year before asserting his rights. 832 A.2d 457 (Pa. Super. 2003).

Parents are presumed to be fit. Hiller v. Fausey, 904 A.2d 885. The lack of fitness has its own mechanism for adjudication but those require all the elements of due process absent in what seems to be an aborted adoption proceeding. The adoption agency is taken to task for its labile approach to finding Father and pursuing his cooperation in the months before the child was born. The adoptive parents are to be dismissed from the case and it will proceed with Mother and Father as the parties in interest.

The takeaway here is that where a natural parent moves quickly to assert parental rights, third parties are going to have to stand down unless action is taken to show that the natural parent is somehow unfit. The problem in this instance is a practical one of longstanding. Adoption agencies have a child delivered. They need to make a placement and they do. Now we have an expectant family that risks loss of a child they have long awaited. If we are serious about the constitutional rights of parents, the adoptive placement should have ended after eight weeks and not more than a year. One can understand the reticence of giving a Father who has just appeared on the scene primary custody of an infant. But, it is the only intellectually honest choice given the constitutional issue involved.

K.W. v. S.L. & M.L. v. G.G   2017 Pa. Super. 56 (March 6. 2017)