KNOW YOUR LEGAL CUSTODY RIGHTS

Parents whose children do not reside primarily with them retain, nonetheless, an equal say in major decisions affecting the children.

Pennsylvania has two forms of child custody: legal custody and physical custody. Physical custody is defined as the actual physical possession and control of the child. Legal custody is defined as the right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, including, but not limited to, medical, religious and educational decisions. Physical custody can be divided between parents in any number of ways. But legal custody is typically shared equally between parents.

While it is often harder for parents whose children do not reside primarily with them to exercise their legal custody rights, effective strategies are available that would aid these parents in securing an active role in major decisions affecting the children .

Doctors, teachers, mental health professionals and other individuals who are in contact with your children often lack a clear understanding of the legal rights of divorced or separated parents. Divorced or separated parents need, in effect, to educate these third parties by informing them that both parents have the same rights and are entitled to the same information.

For example, if a parent is having difficulty obtaining information from a child‘s school, the school should be given a copy of the custody order which sets forth the legal custody rights of both parents. School officials may not be sure to whom to release information, but a custody order will conclusively resolve any such confusion.

Next, parents should not rely upon the other parent to provide them with school information. Both parents should obtain the information directly from the school. Similarly, parents should not rely upon the other parent to provide them with medical or mental health treatment information. Parents should be proactive in obtaining this information directly from the provider. Advising the school or medical provider of the parent’s interest and involvement with the children will likely facilitate the school or medical provider’s effort to ensure that both parents are kept informed of any developments involving their children.

It is not uncommon for a therapist or a counselor to treat a child without the permission or knowledge of both parents, even though such unilateral treatment violates the treating professional’s code of professional responsibility. If parents learn that their children are in treatment by mental health professionals, they should immediately inform the therapist or counselor to suspend the treatment or, alternatively, if they have no objections, that the provider share treatment and progress information with both parents, not just with the parent whom initiated the treatment.

Finally, regular communication between parents regarding medical, educational and religious decisions will also increase both parents’ abilities to exercise their legal custody rights. Parents often avoid communication with one another out of mutual animosity, which only serves to impede one, or both parents participation in major decisions affecting their children. It is also advisable that parents not wait until the other parent reaches a major decision before raising an objection. . Both parents should take an active role in discussing and reaching major decisions for their children from the outset.

Parents often complain that the other parent interferes with, or prevents them, from exercising their legal custody rights. Courts are sensitive to this issue. If there is a demonstrated pattern of one parent obstructing the legal custody rights of the other parent, or if one parent uses his or her legal custody rights to prevent a child from receiving necessary treatment or educational assistance, a court can take away or limit one parent’s legal custody rights.

For example, if a parent refuses to place a child in counseling despite a demonstrated need, the court could limit or suspend altogether the legal custody of that parent regarding mental health issues, and give the other parent sole or primary legal custody in that area.

Being mindful of your rights as parents and being proactive in the above ways will assist divorced or separated parents in playing an active role in the major decisions affecting their children.