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 7 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.
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 are also available now at www.palawhelp.org.
What To Expect
In most cases, the first contact with the Court is mediation where the parties meet with a neutral third person who has been appointed by the Court to facilitate an agreement between the parties. Lawyers do not participate in mediation. Agreements reached in mediation become Orders of Court.
Some cases are not suitable for mediation. Cases where domestic violence is alleged, cases where one party lives more than 50 miles from the courthouse, or where a non-parent seeks custody, are not scheduled for mediation. These cases are scheduled with a custody master.
If the parties cannot reach an agreement in mediation, the case is scheduled for conference before a custody hearing officer, also called a master. The parties and their attorneys meet with the master to discuss possible agreements. Agreements reached in conference become Orders of Court.
If the parties cannot agree, the master will schedule a hearing, either with a master or a judge. When the parties disagree over legal custody (decisions about the child's life) or over primary custody (where the child will live on a day to day basis) the case will be heard by a judge. All other cases are heard by the master.
Whether before a judge or master, 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 to hearings and pro se litigants must follow the same rules as attorneys follow.
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. 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