Monday, September 11, 2006

PFA and custody

Lawrence v. Bordner - Superior Court - September 6, 2006

A court can review and override an existing custody order in a separate PFA case, under 23 Pa. C.S. 6108(a)(4).

In this case, the trial court dismissed a PFA case, without prejudice, even though there was considerable evidence that the defendant-father had abused his teenage daughter (choking, throwing against wall, encouraging her to drink vodka, etc.). The trial court considered it "improper" to try to modify an existing custody order in a separate PFA case and refused an oral petition to modify the custody order. It "abruptly determined that [plaintiff] was not entitled to a final protection from abuse order for [her child] and limited appellant to a custody action as her exclusive remedy for the alleged abuse [that father] inflicted" on the daughter.

The Superior Court recognized that it has "not uniformly construed" the custody section of the PFA law, comparing its decisions in Rosenberg v. Rosenberg, 504 A.2d 350, 351 n.1 (1986), and Dye v. McCoy, 621 A.2d 144, 145 (1993). The court came down finally in the Dye v. McCoy camp, in which case it had held that a PFA court can modify an existing custody order. "To hold otherwise would have the effect of emasculating the central and extraordinary feature of the PFA which is to prospectively control and prevent domestic violence."

However, the court warned (in n. 4) that "it is not our intention to set a precedent under which it will be deemed proper in future matters to utilize the PFA rather than a Petition for Special Relief in Custody, as the proper avenue for a party to pursue in a circumstance similar to that herein. While a counseled party should be instructed to file a Petition for Special Relief in Custody, we are providing a party who initially files a PFA with a means of obtaining protection and lower courts with the ability to amend an existing Custody Order to effect the same."

Editorial note: I found this opinion very confusing and poorly written.