In order to begin a custody action, a complaint must be filed with the Court of Common Pleas. A custody complaint can be filed by a private attorney or Laurel Legal Services, Inc. As a general rule, Laurel Legal Services only represents clients who are defendants in the case or if the situation qualifies as an emergency case.
The custody procedure can be up to three formal steps or procedures:
- Initial Custody Conference (ICC)
- Custody Mediation Conference
- Custody Trial
- Step 1, the Initial Custody Conference,
- is a meeting between the parents and their attorneys. It is generally held in one of the jury rooms at the courthouse. Its purpose is to try to work out a strictly voluntary agreement. There are no penalties for not being able to work out an agreement. You just move on to Step 2.
- Step 2, Custody Mediation Conference,
- is an attempt to work some type of a consentual custody agreement. The custody mediator is an attorney. Prior to the scheduled Mediation Conference, each parent is required to submit a completed custody questionnaire to the Custody Mediator. At the Mediation Conference, the mediator meets first with the parties' attorneys-assuming both sides have counsel. Then the mediator meets with the parent and his/her attorney who requested the mediation. Next she talks with the other parent and his/her attorney. Following that she meets and talks with any and all of the children who are seven (7) years old or older. After that, depending on what she has learned, she will meet again with the attorneys, the parents and/or both the parents and their attorneys. The goal of the mediation conference is for the mediator to be able to draft a custody order for the family court judge to sign. Along with the draft of the order, the mediator prepares a report for the judge which describes her observations of how the Mediation Conference, itself, had proceeded.
- Step 3, Custody Trial,
- is an evidentiary hearing in front of the family court judge and she will decide specific unresolved issues or possibly the entire custody/visitation matter. The family law judge may ask for a psychological evaluation of the family members. If a psychological evaluation is required, it will be the parents' responsibility to pay the cost of the evaluation.
Prior to Step 1, each parent is required to attend a program entitled "Children in the Middle" which is sponsored by the Community Guidance Center. The program is about considerations the parents should have when their children are being brought up in separate households.
Once a custody complaint is filed, if the two parents can work out their own mutually agreeable terms for custody/visitation, an attorney can draft a Custody Consent Order which is signed by both parents, filed with the Court, and signed by a judge. This becomes the governing custody order.
- A word about fees.
- There is a $50.00 fee per parent for the "Children in the Middle" class. There is a $125.00 fee per parent for Step 2, Custody Mediation. For any client that Laurel Legal Services, Inc. is representing, a Petition for Proceeding In Forma Pauperis (IFP) can be filed on behalf of the client which will waive (so you will not have to pay) the above-referenced fees. The IFP Petition will not waive the cost of a psychological evaluation. That is the parent's responsibility.