All custody actions start with the preparation and filing of a custody complaint; Dauphin County is no exception. In addition to preparing and filing the custody complaint, the plaintiff to the action must also prepare and file his/her Criminal Record/Abuse History Verification form and a Prior Court Involvement Statement. These documents are filed simultaneously with the custody complaint. Currently Dauphin County does not require its custody participants to fill out and file a Proposed Parenting Plan prior to participating in a custody conciliation conference.
Upon the filing of the above documents, the court will appoint a custody conciliation conference officer to the case. In Dauphin County, the custody conciliation conference officers are practicing attorneys familiar with custody law and procedure, who have received extensive training in mediation and conciliatory techniques. The appointment will occur through a court order, which will be served upon the parties or their respective attorneys. The order will not only advise the parties of the date, time and place of the custody conciliation conference, but will also direct the defendant to prepare and file his/her own Criminal Record/Abuse History Verification form. The last day to timely file this document is seven days prior to the scheduled date of the custody conciliation conference. The order will also direct the parties not to relocate with the child/ren pending their attendance at the custody conciliation conference, if such a move will significantly impair the other party’s right to exercise his/her custodial rights.
In addition to the attending the custody conciliation conference, the parties will also be directed to attend the Seminar for Families in Change and Conflict, which is a four hour educational parenting seminar taught either for four hours on a Saturday or two hours, for two evenings, on weekdays. The parties are not scheduled to attend the same seminar and are expected to attend the seminar prior to their scheduled custody conciliation conference. Attendance compliance for this seminar remains effective for a period of twelve months.
Children are not expected, nor encouraged to attend the custody conciliation conference unless specifically requested by the custody conciliation conference officer to do so. The average conference lasts approximately one hour and is very informal in procedure.
On the day of the custody conciliation conference, if represented by an attorney, the custody conciliation conference officer will initially ask to meet with the attorneys, separate from the parties. The purpose of this is to permit the custody conciliation conference officer to obtain factual and background information on the case, each party’s proposed custody schedule, and any concerns one party may be harboring about the other party. Once this occurs, the custody conciliation conference officer will invite the parties to join their attorneys in the conciliation process.
During the custody conciliation conference, the custody conciliation conference officer will attempt, with the assistance of the parties’ respective attorneys, to reach a mutual agreement on the legal and physical custody issues of the case. If this can be done, the custody conciliation conference officer will reduce the parties’ agreement to writing and request the entrance of a custody order. If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the case will be forwarded to the judge for the scheduling of a trial. There is no mandatory requirement in Dauphin County that parties first participate in mediation sessions before participating in a custody trial.
It is important to note that custody conciliation conference officers are not provided with court authority to enter custody orders without the mutual agreement of the parties. Therefore, if no agreement can be reached between the parties, it is quite possible that the parties may leave the custody conciliation conference, after fully participating in the same, without a legal or physical custody schedule.
Cara A. Boyanowski concentrates her practice in the field of domestic law and wills and estates. As a domestic law practitioner, she represents clients in simple and complex divorce, support, custody, alimony, step-parent adoptions, name change and same-sex divorce and custody matters. She works out of Obermayer’s Harrisburg, PA office and can be reached at 717-234-5315 or at Cara.Boyanowski@obermayer.com.