The Custody Office is part of the Family Court Division of Lehigh County Court. Other offices in this division are the Protection from Abuse Office and the Master in Divorce. Domestic Relations, which handles support for children and spouses, is also part of the Family Court Division, but is located at 14 North Sixth Street, Allentown.
The Child Custody Office provides court forms and intake assistance to persons seeking a court order involving custody or visitation of minor children. The staff of the Custody Office does not provide legal advice. Forms and instructions for filing for Child Custody are available at the Self Help Section.
Who May Seek Custody?
Generally, a custody case involves a mother and a father who are separated. Grandparents may also be involved in a case when the parents live separately, or when one parent has died. Others may file for custody if they meet strict legal requirements.
How To File For Custody
If you have an attorney, he or she will file the necessary papers and obtain a date for your court appearance. If you do not have an attorney, you may file pro se (on your own) either using forms available at the courthouse or on line. The Custody Office provides assistance to fill out the forms Monday through Friday from 12:15 pm until 3:00 pm. Forms and instructions for filing for Child Custody are available at the Self Help Section.
What To Expect
Mediation can be the first step in obtaining a custody order. It is a service offered on a voluntary basis to people who want to try to reach their own agreement, but need some help. An agreements reached in mediation becomes a court order.
All other cases are scheduled for conference before a custody hearing officer. The parties and their attorneys meet with a hearing officer to discuss possible agreements. Agreements reached with a hearing officer become a court order.
If the parties cannot agree, the hearing officer schedules a hearing. Disputes over legal custody (decisions about the child's life) or over primary physical custody (where the child lives on a day to day basis) are heard by a judge. All other cases are hearing by a hearing officer.
A hearing is a formal court proceeding where witnesses present testimony, a decision is made, and an order is entered. Rules of Court and Rules of Evidence apply and must be followed by attorneys and self-represented parties.
Changes to a Custody Order
The Court may change an order for custody when necessary to protect the best interests of the child. A party may petition the court to modify an order when he or she believes circumstances require a change. If a court order is not being followed, a party may file a petition for contempt. If the person with whom the child lives wants to move away from Lehigh County, he or she must file a petition for modification/relocation. In all of these cases, the parties will meet with a mediator or master in an effort to reach a settlement. If settlement efforts are unsuccessful, a hearing will be scheduled before a master or judge.
COPE (Co-Parenting Education Program)
All parties to a custody action must attend a class on the importance of cooperative parenting between separated parents. This four-hour class is offered twice a month in the courthouse, once on Saturday morning and once on Wednesday evening. Parents are not required to attend the same class. The program is presented by Divorce/Mediation Services. Failure to comply with an Order to attend COPE may result in a finding of contempt, and sanctions imposed by the Court. To view the schedule and download the registration form, click here.
For More Information
The Custody Office can answer questions on court procedures. The staff cannot provide legal advice. Forms and instructions for filing for Child Custody are available at the Self Help Section. For help finding an attorney contact the Bar Association of Lehigh County, Lawyer Referral Service, (610) 433-7094. Low income persons may qualify for the Custody Workshop, offered by North Penn Legal Services (610) 317-8757.
Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas, 455 West Hamilton Street, Allentown, PA 18101-1614 • (610) 782-3000