Child Custody, Visitation & Relocation



In the family law, child custody case of Scharf v. Pham, PICS Case No. 17-0765, (C.P. Allegheny Dec. 5, 2016) the court modified custody of a four year old child to give primary custody to father once the child started kindergarten. This change was in the child’s best interests due to mother’s ongoing disruptive behaviors and father’s more stable home and supportive environment.

The parties were the unmarried parents of a four year old girl. They shared legal and physical custody of the child. On father’s motion to modify, the court awarded him primary custody of the child once she started kindergarten, with mother to have three weekends a month during the school year and half the summer. Mother appealed, arguing that the court erred in changing custody in the future, in punishing mother for harmless past behaviors, and in ordering a custody change that was not supported by evidence.

The court noted that ordering a change in custody to take place when the child started school was not in error because all custody orders were prospective in nature. Testimony at trial indicated a volatile relationship between the parties. Mother set fire to father’s porch, resulting in her pleading guilty to a charge of reckless burning. Father also testified that mother engaged in other destructive behavior. Mother failed to pursue counseling for her anger issues. The evidence also indicated mother made parenting exchanges difficult. The court found father’s testimony to be more credible. The court concluded the child’s best interest was to be in father’s primary care once she started school. He had a stable home and job, and he was more likely to attend the child’s needs during her education.

Mother claimed the court punished her for past behaviors, but the court made the determination based on mother’s current behavior. Mother continued to make exchanges difficult, openly expressed disdain for father, and cohabited with her current paramour almost immediately upon meeting him. The court also found mother’s testimony to be less than candid in some respects, and not credible at all on other issues. Mother suggested the court erred in changing the custody arrangement because it did not find her in contempt and there was no finding the child had been harmed. The court held a contempt finding was not necessary to find mother’s conduct was disruptive and harmful to the child. Mother exhibited no indication she had learned to control her anger and vitriolic statements about father, which would increasingly affect the child as she got older.

The court concluded there was ample evidence in the record to support a change in custody. The parties were unable to communicate and co-parent effectively. The psychological evaluator made recommendations which the court adopted. Once school started, the child’s best interest was to be in father’s primary care. The court based its decision on a consideration of the statutory factors and was supported by competent evidence in the record.

Reference: Digests of Recent Opinions, Pennsylvania Law Weekly, 40 PLW 502 (May 30, 2017)child custody

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