If you have questions regarding child custody, or are having a difficult time working out a custody schedule with the other parent of your child(ren), you can seek help from a private attorney. Laurel Legal Services, Inc. can provide advice or formal representation in limited cases. In Jefferson County a pro se (do-it-yourself) custody packet is available for purchase at the Court Administrator's Office for a small fee. Additional fees are incurred for filing the custody complaint and the mediation.
Custody cases are determined by examining what is in the child(ren)'s best interests. A custody case is initiated by the filing of a Complaint, a formal document which identifies the parties and asks the court for relief. The custody complaint will be filed through the Court of Common Pleas in the Prothonotary's Office. After the complaint is filed, the court will schedule a Pre-Hearing Conference and order the parties to attend a class for divorcing and separating parents. The Pre-Hearing Conference is a meeting where the parties and their attorneys must put forth a good faith effort to settle the case. If the parties fail to reach an agreement, then the court will schedule the matter for mediation.
The parties and the minor child(ren) must appear at the Mediation, and all are interviewed by the court appointed mediator. The mediator is usually a psychologist. After listening to the parties, the mediator will make a recommendation for resolving the case. The parties will have more time to negotiate a settlement, and if an agreement is reached it will be drafted and presented to the Judge for his signature. After the Judge signs the agreement, it becomes an official Court Order. A party who fails to follow a court order can be held in contempt of court--which can mean harsh punishments, including fines and/or incarceration.
If the parties are unable to reach an agreement at mediation, the court schedules a Trial before the Judge. Most custody cases are resolved prior to the trial stage.