Recently the Pennsylvania Superior Court reiterated its long standing policy in child custody cases that the ultimate decision making authority regarding child custody issues rests with the judge assigned to the case, not third parties such as psychologists, counselors, or in the most recent case, a parenting coordinator.
In the case of A.H.v.C.M., the parents of 7 year old child were assigned a Parenting Coordinator according to the Custody Order issued by the York County Court. A dispute between the parents occurred in February 2012, and the Father contacted the Parenting Coordinator. A month after the incident the Parenting Coordinator issued a finding that Mother disagreed with. Mother filed a petition requesting that the York County Court review the Parenting Coordinator’s decision.
Rather than conduct a hearing on Mother’s motion, as was provided for by the Order appointing the Parenting Coordinator, the custody judge heard argument from the parents’ lawyers, and then dismissed Mother’s petition. The judge also added that if Mother filed any future petitions the judge would dismiss them as well, without reviewing them.
Mother appealed the dismissal of the petition to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. On appeal the Superior Court reversed the York County judge’s decision, stating that the decision of the York County judge to deny Mother’s request for a hearing not only violated the York County Court’s own Order appointing the Parenting Coordinator, but also denied Mother her due process right to a hearing before the Court. The Superior Court discussed its long standing policy that the trial court cannot merely adopt the judgment of a parenting coordinator as being the final word in a custody matter, and that it was the duty of the court to conduct a hearing and thereafter to make a decision based upon the evidence produced at that hearing.
In child custody matters, it is often helpful to have professionals who assist children through difficult family problems. However, if the parents cannot agree on a course of action they should be cautious not to simply defer their decision making authority to a counselor, therapist or parenting coordinator. If parents cannot come to an agreement regarding decisions that affect their children, the ultimate authority is the Court and parents should not be hesitant to seek Court intervention if they seriously disagree with a professional’s opinion. The Court always retains the authority to review the decisions of a parenting coordinator, or other professional, and should not “merely substitute the parenting coordinator’s judgment for its own.”