In April the Pennsylvania legislature enacted an amendment to the Child Custody Law that was passed last year. The amendment is numbered SB 1167 and went into effect on June 11. SB 1167 helps explain a confusing provision of the Custody Law that addresses how courts should consider criminal convictions in custody cases.

The section of the Custody Law pertaining to criminal convictions is Section 5329. This section lists a series of criminal offenses that courts must consider when determining whether a parent or member of their household poses a threat of harm to a child in a custody case. The court must determine this issue prior to issuing a custody order. And prior to enactment of Amendment SB 1167, Section 5329 required the court to “provide for an evaluation to determine whether: (1) the party or household member who committed an offense…poses a threat to the child; and (2) counseling is necessary for that party or household member.”

Two areas of confusion followed enactment of Section 5239. First, does the evaluation have to be done before the court issues a custody order, and second, who should conduct the evaluation and what type of evaluation is required?

Amendment SB 1167 provided some answers. The amendment rewrote the section of the law concerning evaluations. That section now provides that “at the initial in-person contact with the court, the judge, conference officer, or other appointed individual shall perform an initial evaluation to determine whether the party or household member who committed [one of the enumerated offenses] poses a threat to the child and whether counseling is necessary. The initial evaluation shall not be conducted by a mental health professional.” The section further provides that after the initial evaluation, the court can order further evaluation by a mental health professional.

Amendment SB 1167 thus makes it clear that the court is the one who should perform the initial evaluation, and it should be done early in the case. There is still some confusion over what “the initial in-person contact with the court” means and who might be an “other appointed individual.” But lawyers and clients now know that their cases won’t be delayed by having to schedule initial evaluations with mental health professionals. It is also likely that the courts will work out the procedures of these evaluations in practice.

Please contact the attorneys at Petrelli Previtera if you have any questions about your custody case. We are here to navigate the technical areas of custody law in order to get you the best result possible.