Dan Giffin, father, speaks to the county commissioners.
Like many fathers, Dan Giffin has been looking forward to enjoying a relaxing Father’s Day today — in his case, spending it at his Palmyra home playing with his 4-year-old son, Alex.

To Giffin’s delight, the pair are spending a lot more time together now that he has a joint-custody arrangement with the boy’s mother, who lives in Lancaster County. She refused to comment for this article and asked that her name not be included.

The custody agreement gives Alex to each of his parents on an every-other-week basis. It took three years of court hearings and cost both of them tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills to achieve the arrangement, said Giffin, a 32-year-old telecommunications technician.

Before the equal split, Giffin explained, he saw his son about 10 days a month. That was an improvement from the start of their separation in 2006, he said, when he was limited by a court order to seeing him three weekends a month.

Giffin said he is hoping the state Legislature will pass a new custody law that will spare other sparring parents from going through the same stressful and expensive experience.

House Bill 463

House Bill 463, the Presumptive Joint-Custody law, would, at the outset of a couple’s separation or divorce, automatically give each parent equal custody of their children. It would require parents to submit a parenting plan and give the judge the authority to order counseling for them, but it would still leave the door open for appeals by both parents for a different custody arrangement.

Presumptive joint custody is a change from the current statute, which requires that custody decisions be made on a case-by-case basis by judges who are to rule “in the best interest of the child,” after hearing testimony from both parents.

The proposed law is supported by father’s right’s groups, like Fathers4Justice, a national organization with chapters in Pennsylvania. Its members feel that the current custody system is unfair and biased in favor of the mother. They criticize family-law professionals, claiming attorneys want to maintain the status quo because it lines their pockets with legal fees.

“Not everybody is a deadbeat dad,” said Mark Carrol, spokesman for the central Pennsylvania chapter of Fathers4Justice. “I work with a lot of fathers who just want to help raise their children. ... The bottom line is, children need both parents but, for whatever reasons, the courts are biased. Eighty-five percent of the time when dad goes into court asking for more time with his kids, the judge says no.”


Not everyone, however, is in favor of changing the best-interest standard to one requiring presumptive joint custody.

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence has released a position paper stating that automatic joint custody could increase a child’s exposure to an abusive parent and destabilize children’s lives by ignoring the pre-divorce living arrangement.

Many family-law attorneys also oppose the presumptive joint-custody provision because it puts the interest of the parents above that of the children and will do nothing to minimize custody disputes.

That’s the sentiment of Mary Burchik, an attorney for Buzgon Davis Law Offices and chairwoman of the Lebanon County Bar Association’s Family Law Committee.

“I don’t disagree that both parents need to get involved in the child’s life, but if those two parents don’t get along that does not bode well for a (50/50) shared-custody arrangement,” she said. “My concern is any type of presumption of joint custody will decimate the best interest of the child standard. I believe starting from that presumption takes away all the discretion of the court and the judge, who is the fact finder and who hears from both sides what is going on and makes the final determination of what is in best interest of the child.”

The amended law was written by Rep. Robert E. Belfanti Jr. (D-Montour) who has sponsored similar legislation twice before that did not pass into law. It was introduced in February and referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it currently awaits review by the Subcommittee on Family Law, chaired by Rep. Kathy Manderino (D-Philadelphia). Belfanti is recovering from health problems and was unavailable for comment.

Finding support

Giffin is a member of the Pennsylvania Families Association, a Lancaster-based support group for parents involved in custody battles. The association, which has both men and women as members, meets regularly and has a Web site,http://www.pfa.me. It has been working hard to change custody laws and supports passage of Belfanti’s bill.

Twice in recent weeks, Giffin and other members of the PFA have lobbied the Lebanon County commissioners, urging them to join their counterparts in Lancaster, York and a handful of other counties by writing a letter to Manderino calling for her to convene hearings on the joint-custody bill.

“There’s no good reason why my son had to be deprived of spending equal time with me while the courts took nearly three years and $25,000 in lawyer fees to come to an equal-custody arrangement,” Giffin told the commissioners. “A parent shouldn’t be made to feel that spending time with and raising their child is a privilege. In a higher sense, and in a blessed sense, I feel privileged to watch my son learn, grow and laugh. But when my son’s future is left in the hands of one mortal man (the judge), I just can’t understand that.”

The commissioners decided to stay out of the political fray and did not write a letter to Manderino calling for hearings on HB 463.

“I don’t think any of us felt we should get involved at this time,” Commissioner Larry Stohler said.

Other options

The matter of joint-custody will be taken up in the fall, according to Manderino’s legal counsel. But Belfanti’s bill will not be the only one under consideration.

“We are looking to address this (joint custody) in the fall,” said Mary McDaniels, Manderino’s counsel. “House Bill 463 is just one idea. But we are hoping to take a broader look at the custody issue and maybe give it a total rewrite. Representative Manderino has introduced a bill to do that.”

That more comprehensive bill is HB 1639, similar to Senate Bill 74 submitted by Sen. Stewart Greanleaf (R-Montgomery) in 2007, which died without a vote before the session expired.

Manderino’s bill addresses the joint-custody issue but does not change the “best interest of the child” standard. It does, however, make provisions for jail punishment and fines for parents who violate terms of a court-ordered custody arrangement and spells out the rights of grandparents.

Many of HB 1639’s amendments are based on recommendations included in a report produced by a Joint State Government Commission’s Advisory Committee on Domestic Relations Law that has been reviewing the state’s custody law for more than a decade, said Camp Hill attorney Maria Cognetti, a member of the committee.

Cognetti, who chairs the commission’s subcommittee on custody law, opposes Belfanti’s presumptive joint-custody bill, calling it poorly written and extremely dangerous because it does not protect the child’s best interest. Manderino’s bill is more promising, she said, and picks up where Greanleaf’s bill left off.

“House Bill 1639 goes farther than old Senate Bill 74 in that it re-emphasizes the goal of really making sure that both parents get as much time as possible with their children without it being a presumption,” she said.

Rep. Mauree Gingrich of Palmyra is one of more than 50 co-sponsors of Belfanti’s presumptive joint-custody bill. But she said she has an open mind regarding changes to custody law and will keep close watch as the issue moves through the legislative process.

“This is a sensitive and complex issue,” she wrote in an e-mail response to a request for comment. “The only way to determine if the current process should be re-defined, is to bring the issue forward for comprehensive debate, understanding that decisions regarding custody have a profound impact upon both parents and most of all upon the children who are subject to the order.”

Stressing the positive

With his fight behind him, Giffin said he will continue to work to change the state’s custody law, but most of all he will enjoy parenting his son, who will enter kindergarten in the fall. To make the shared raising of their son easier, he is planning moving closer to his ex-wife.

“I know she loves our son. And she knows I love him, too. I think the system made us adversarial,” Giffin said. “At this point, since we’ve had equal custody, our conversation has been more civil, and our stress levels have all gone down — even Alex’s.”



fromMike Murphy
sender timeSent at 23:03 (GMT-04:00). Current time there: 23:23.
ccGlennSacks@nospamfathersandfamilies.org, jeremy swanson <nospamswanson@storm.ca>, Kris Titus nospamgmail.com>
date27 June 2009 23:03
subjectYour column "Proposal gives divorced dads reason for hope" June 20/09



Thanks for your coverage of the shared parenting bill. Although I do not live in PA, indeed I don’t even live in your country, the goal to get presumptive 50-50 shared parenting is one that is ongoing in many countries including mine.

I’ve made the following observations in my blogs.

This is good news for Pennsylvania dads if it goes through. The objections are typical. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence sees an increase in abuse. Of course they would but given DV is pretty much equal and its mothers who are the main killers and abusers of children their argument is like sand dunes in a strong wind and collapses under its own weight. In fact we will likely see a reduction in child abuse if dads are equals in their children's lives. The judge can still listen to evidence and make an informed decision. The only caveat is we may see an increase in false allegations in a desperate move to maintain the current biased status quo.

The bar associations stance is typical as well. They will lose revenue if they cannot continue to foster an adversarial system pitting parent against parent. Why someone with such a vested pecuniary interest in outcomes should be taken seriously is beyond me. It's like asking the makers of heavy duty winter clothing if global warming will affect their income. Duh! They tout the best interest of the child will be compromised. It shows how little they know and understand the studies that conclude more positive outcomes for children when two parents stay in their lives.

Thank you.

Michael Murphy