Restrictive Custody Order Does Not Terminate Child Support Obligation
Kimock v. Jones (2012 PA Super 128, 6/19/2012) – Last month the Superior Court considered the plea of a father whose custody rights were severely restricted due to his alienation from his teenage daughter. Mother and Father were divorced when the child was 10 years old, after a decade of physical and emotional abuse perpetrated by Father. Father had no contact with his daughter for a year, until he initiated a custody action. The court ordered reunification counseling with a goal of establishing regular visitation and partial custody. The counseling ceased after only five sessions, but it is not clear whether Father or the child refused to continue.
A year later, Father requested a custody conciliation, which resulted in a consent order requiring Father to submit to psychiatric evaluation. The evaluation revealed that Father suffered from bipolar disorder and recommended therapy before resuming the reunification counseling. Father denied that he had bipolar disorder and refused treatment or further evaluation.
Father had no contact with the child until she was sixteen years old. He presented a petition to resume reunification therapy, which was granted. After six weeks of individual therapy with Father and child, the therapist reported that the child threatened to harm herself if forced to participate in reunification therapy. The trial court conducted a hearing, in which the child described her adverse reaction to seeing Father five years earlier and threatened to run away or harm herself if forced to see him. The child’s individual therapist described several stress-related disorders suffered by the child, and recommended that the court deny Father’s request for custody and/or reunification counseling.
The trial court entered an order denying Father any contact with the child except as permitted by Mother. The order also terminated Father’s legal custody rights and access to school and medical records. Father reacted by filing a petition to terminate child support, reasoning that his parental rights had been effectively terminated. The trial court denied his petition, holding that an involuntary termination of parental rights involves a different set of criteria and higher standard of proof that had not been applied in this case. The Superior Court affirmed, adding that Father was not precluded from future contact with his daughter if he would address his own mental health issues. The Court also held that the custody order did not constitute a material change in circumstances under Rule 1910.19, as it did not affect the incomes of the parents or needs of the child. Importantly, the Court observed that Father’s own misconduct was the primary source of the estrangement, which could not be rewarded by a termination of the support obligation.