This case involves three very common issues in custody cases:
- Can a party baptize the minor child without the other party’s consent?
- Can a party allow the minor child to call someone other than a parent “Mom” or “Dad”?
- Can the Court order co-parenting counseling?
In this case, Mother testified that she had the parties’ child baptized without notification and contrary to Father’s wishes. Furthermore, Mother testified that she did not discourage the child from calling the child’s stepfather “dad” or “daddy.” The Trial Court held the Mother in contempt for her behavior and ordered that the Mother could purge her contempt of having the child baptized with co-parenting counseling for one year.
The Superior Court first addressed the issue of Mother baptizing the child against Father’s wishes. The Superior Court agreed with the Trial Court that one party cannot unilaterally make legal custody decisions (decisions relevant to the child’s education, religion and medical care) if the parties share legal custody. If the parties cannot agree on these issues, the parties must take the issue to the Court to decide. A disagreement on legal custody issues does not mean that one parent can do whatever he or she wishes. In this case, Mother was found in contempt for having the minor child baptized without Father’s consent.
The Superior Court then addressed the issue of co-parenting counseling. The Superior Court found that while the Court has the authority to order that the parties undergo co-parenting counseling under 23 Pa.C.S.A. 5333(a), the Court does not have the authority to order co-parenting counseling as a remedy to a contempt issue. Contempt remedies are limited under Section 5325(g) of the Child Custody Act to any one of the following:
(i) Imprisonment for a period of not more than six months.
(ii) A fine of not more than $500.00.
(iii) Probation for a period of not more than six months.
(iv) An order for nonrenewal, suspension, or denial of operating privilege under 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 4355 (relating to denial or suspension of licenses).
(v) Counsel fees and costs.
The final issue addressed by the Superior Court was whether the Court can enter an order restricting the child to referring only to her biological parents as “Dad” or “Mom” or derivatives thereof. The Superior Court found that the Trial Court did not have the authority to prevent Mother from permitting the child to call stepfather “Dad”. It appears this determination would be on a case-by-case analysis, as the Superior court stated:
In other words, how, and by what term, a child refers to a significant person in his or her life should be set by the personalities and characters of the child and that person, and the term should not be used as a weapon by others to deter the child’s relationship with that person. Id. at 63.
Thus, the Court provided very clear direction on three very common issues in custody matters. An individual who is dealing with custody issues should consult with an experienced local attorney to ensure that his or her rights are being protected.