Montgomery County is making major revisions to its custody procedure, including an overhaul of the “Our Children First” parenting seminar. This seminar is a requirement under Local Rule of Civil Procedure 1915.3* and mandatory for parties in custody cases. Effective today, the Court has temporarily suspended that Local Rule and the Court Administrator’s Office will refund registrations fees to anyone who is currently registered for the program and will not be accept registrations pending further Order of Court reinstating the rule.

Montgomery County’s new procedure becomes effective January 1, 2019, so I anticipate this month being used to enact the changes to the Seminar envisioned by the Court, including the installation of Krystiane (Krys) Cooper (MSW, LCSW, RPT-S) as the new director of the program, and that the Local Rule will be reinstated at some point in January.

After a five-year hiatus due to a ruling that effectively undercut the viability of custody coordination, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has reintroduced custody coordination by Rule effective March 1, 2019. In the intervening five years, the Supreme Court (who promulgates the rules) in conjunction with the Domestic Relations Procedural Rules Committee (of which Judge Daniel Clifford from Montgomery County is a member) have painstakingly reconstituted the custody coordination rules to rectify the fatal due process flaws found in the system by the Superior Court in A.H. v. C.M., (Pa. Super. 2012).

Since the announcement in August, counties across the Commonwealth should have their local rules underway and beginning to certify – or at least identify their certification processes – attorneys and, under the new rule, mental health professionals, as custody coordinators.

Last September, I laid out the new rules in detail for The Legal Intelligencer and identified how this new system stands to benefit families in Pennsylvania by rerouting some issues out of the court system and into the coordination system. When coordination was abolished, it is fair to generalize that it was not because attorneys or parties did not see value in it. Under the new rule, the utility of custody coordination returns, but with a procedural support system that should allow it to be sustainable as an alternative dispute resolution tool.

You can also find my analysis here.

 

 

Two years ago the Pennsylvania Supreme Court weighed in on the matter of how third party standing was consistent with the fundamental right of parents to raise their children. That case moved the ball in a new direction as we had seen a trend favoring third party involvement in child custody litigation where “interest” was shown. On September 21, the Supreme Court issued a decision underscoring the definition of a parent and further articulating who can qualify as in loco parentis.

C.G. was in a same sex relationship with J.H. in Florida when J.H. decided to have a child using intrauterine insemination via anonymous male. The child was born in Florida in 2006. In 2012 J.H. took the child and established a separate residence first in Florida and a few months later in Pennsylvania.

Four years later, C.G. filed an action in Pennsylvania seeking partial custody. This was met with preliminary objections asserting lack of standing. The adult couple never formalized their relationship and no adoption had been begun even though Florida legalized same sex adoption in 2010.

The evidence about the relationship between C.G. and the child born to J.H. was unusual. As one might expect C.G. presented herself and supporting witnesses to promote the idea that she was part of the choice to have the child and a hands-on caregiver from the day delivery. But, once the adult relationship cooled, contact between C.G. and the child was once per week. After J.H. moved with the child to Pennsylvania C.G. saw the child only once in March, 2014 and didn’t phone her too often. C.G.’s financial contributions to the child seemed to be limited to occasional gifts and some camp tuition. C.G. did name the child as a beneficiary of an insurance policy on her life.

The opinion of Justice Sallie Mundy notes that the resolution of the preliminary objections involved testimony from sixteen witnesses and exhibits ranging from school parent forms to thank you notes following J.H.’s baby shower. This evidence was heavy in hope and expectation and remarkably light in terms of actual goods and services associated with parenting. Nonetheless, C.G. asserted that she was a parent under Section 5324(1) or “at the very least” a person in loco parentis. 23 Pa.C.S. 5324(2).

The Trial Court ruled that C.G. lacked standing. The disputed testimony aside, the Court noted no reference to C.G. on the birth certificate; no reference to C.G. in the child’s name and no action to begin a second parent adoption once Florida permitted such proceedings. The life insurance policy and the presence of the child on C.G.’s health insurance until the J.H. relationship ended was all of the documentary evidence the Court could find, and it credited J.H.’s testimony that she was responsible for almost every child-related decision concerning things like medical care, day care and other needs. C.G. did pay her share of household expenses while the two resided together but that appears to have been the extent of contribution aside from health coverage. The court stayed away from “bonding” issues noting that standing is an objective standard where bonding is not. See K.C. v. L.A. 128 A.3d 774,779 (Pa. 2015).

The Superior Court affirmed based on the absence that C.G. showed no law was advanced establishing that a non-biological, non-adoptive former partner can be a parent. C.G. v. J.H. 172 A.3d 43, 51-52 (2017). As for the in loco parentis claim the Superior Court deferred to the trial court findings of fact.

Justice Mundy’s opinion properly begins with the requirement of standing in all cases; “a substantial, direct and immediate interest” in the subject matter. It also noted that in custody matters, the goal is to protect families from intrusions by even well-meaning strangers.

C.G. advanced what is called an “intent based” approach to the role of parent. This Court notes that law does not yet define who is a parent but that the accepted definition is a status conferred by either biology or adoption. It also noted that the recent In re Baby S case also suggests that the status of parent can be expressed or implied by agreement. 128 A.3d 296 (Pa.S. 2015); See also J.F. v. D.B.  897 A.2d  1261 (Pa.Super. 2006). But here, the Plaintiff had none of these requisites. If C.G. was not a party to a parenting agreement or otherwise identified as an intended parent during the conception and birth process, she is not a parent under Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania does not adopt the Massachusetts approach that allows parentage to be established by professing to be a parent. Interestingly, Justices Wecht, Dougherty and Donohue appear to be more open to this concept although they did not find that C.G. met the “professed parent” standard. The interplay between that view and conduct that is in loco parentis is an interesting topic.

On the claim of standing in loco parentis, the Court noted the twin requirements of “assumption of parental status” and “discharge of parental duties.” C.G. advanced a case, T.B. v. L.R.M. 786 A.2d 916 arising from an agreement to have a child together with one parent choosing the sperm donor and subsequent sharing of all physical responsibilities. The Supremes found T.B. to show a much higher level of involvement with the child than what the trial court observed in this case. It also distinguished C.G.’s claims from those in J.A.L. v. E.P.H. another same sex case with facts similar to T.B. 682 A.2d 1314 (Pa. Super. 1996). In both of those cases there was a documentary trail of medical authorizations, standby guardian documents and the like evincing a desire to raise a child together. This desire was borne out by what occurred in terms of consistent contact after the adult relationship dissolved. The critical issue is what occurs before a separation occurs, but while the Supreme Court notes that post separation conduct should not control a claim to be in loco parentis, that conduct may shed light upon claims of a person to have assumed rights and discharged duties while the relationship was intact. Here the post separation conduct seems reflective of what occurred when C.G. and J. H. were living together but C.G.’s asserted parenting role seemed passive at best.

As I read the analysis in C.G. v. J.H. it became clear that this is an area where we need clear standards, either by statute or rule. The Centre County judge who heard this case listened to 16 witnesses while deciding not a custody placement but “preliminary objections”. One has to wonder why it took C.G. almost four years to assert parental rights. But, she waited almost as long to see whether she was even a real party in interest.

We live in a world where the birth or adoption of every child is documented. When a person claims the role of parent, whether by biology or contract, that person must register such a claim if he or she is not named on the vital statistics form as a condition to assertion of “parentage.” And, shouldn’t someone claiming to be acting in loco parentis be statutorily required to show that their assumptions of duty and discharge of obligations has been continuous and recent as part of a pleading to intervene? We devote lots of ink to the subject of child best interests. Yet, one of those interests should be avoidance of protracted and acrimonious custody litigation. In many instances that cannot be avoided. But, where a child left one state and was relocated to another, only to see the loco parente once in four years, should that child be subjected to the kind of litigation this case involve. He/she was five when C.G. exited from daily existence. That child is now twelve and probably wondering whether custody litigation with a person they can scarcely recall will remain a part of daily life. C.G. v. J.H., 2 M.A.P. 2018 (Sept. 21. 2018)

As June and the front half of the year grind to a close, it is the perfect time to do a couple things which could save you a LOT of legal fees in the next 12 months.  Perhaps not, but it is worth the effort and is an effective piece of evidence in court even if you fail.

  1. Download the school calendar for 2018-2019. They are done now.
  2. On a blank calendar record the school holidays and “breaks”.
  3. On the same calendar put in the custody schedule now in effect including holidays.

While you are doing that, note when the conflicts arise.  School breaks and holidays can wreak havoc with otherwise sensible custody schedules.  Where you see havoc, think about if weekend switches or other alternatives can lessen the pain and then send over those solutions to the other parent.

I would not recommend the second step be merged with the first.  But, once you launch the calendar dispute missive, it is time to start a discussion with your kids about the activities coming up.  The available menu of kid activities today is pretty much limitless.  In addition to what they want to do (everything), we have the matter of what parents think they should be doing.  This is an especial set of problems where fathers intersect with sports.  Dads seem to assume that their offspring just naturally want to play the same sports they did. That works for a while as kids see this as a great way to connect with a parent. But kids have a tough time telling a parent that their love of baseball or curling has subsided and that they would like to try golf or less competitive things like rock climbing. Summer affords vacation and other times when a parent can have a lengthy heart to heart talk with a child about what he/she wants to do or be. The key then is to help the child communicate any change of heart to the parent who assumes that he will play baseball until the first pro contract is signed.  Not easy, especially when a child senses that he or she will disappoint a parent.  Still, much easier to address now rather than after the sign ups have been completed, Dad buys the new Marucci bat for $300 and has signed up as assistant coach.

Yes, July is all about fireworks.  But, perhaps best to have them now rather than a month from now when most of the fall activities start in full gear.

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.