Pennsylvania Domestic Violence Public Policy Action

Children

CHILDREN: SERVICE TO TEENS

PROBLEM

Domestic violence among teenage dating partners has grown in both prevalence and awareness, yet the resources to serve these victims have not. Domestic violence prevention programs in school settings have resulted in an increase in disclosures of dating violence by teenage victims. At the same time, domestic violence programs face uncertainty around serving victims under age 18. Programs need clear guidance as to what services they can offer to teen victims particularly in the absence of parental consent.

PROGRESS

  • Legislation establishing an optional teen dating violence education program in schools was enacted in late 2010. The bill became law when the House and Senate voted to override the Governor’s veto; the decision to veto the bill was unrelated to the dating violence parts. The bill became Act 104 of 2010. This Act encourages (but does not require) schools to have a policy on dating violence; train school personnel about dating violence; and incorporate dating violence education into the health curriculum for grades 7 through 12. The Act also requires the Board of Education to conduct a study of the benefits and detriments of mandatory dating violence education in schools, to be completed within three years.
  • In 2004, PCADV’s Contracts Committee modified the program standards to allow programs to report services they provide to teenage victims of violence. Previously, only adult parents constituted “clients” and children received services under the parent/guardian’s case file. With this change, victims under age 18 may receive their own case file and services.
  • PCADV developed technical assistance materials regarding amended child protective service mandatory reporting law as applied to victims under age 18 and completed a series of trainings on the CPSL as applied to teens.

2012 ACTION STEPS ON TEEN DATING VIOLENCE

  • PCADV will continue to prioritize services to teens in terms of service delivery and outreach.
  • PCADV staff will work with the Board of Education on the study of whether mandatory dating violence education is needed.
  • PCADV staff will work with the Department of Education to develop a model policy and curriculum for schools.

CHILDREN: CUSTODY

PROBLEM

Battered parents often lose custody of their children to the abusive parent, or are forced to endure ongoing abuse through court-ordered shared custody or visitation orders. Research shows that abusive parents are twice as likely to seek sole custody of their children than are abused parents--and they are successful about 70% of the time. Nonetheless, various groups of “fathers’ rights” activists have zealously lobbied for enactment of a presumptive joint custody bill that would give equal custody rights even to abusers.

Victims of domestic violence attempting to maneuver Pennsylvania’s custody process face an array of problems. There is an overall lack of consistency and uniformity in child custody proceedings across the Commonwealth, and the process is expensive and unnecessarily long, with many parents waiting years to be heard by a judge. Battered women frequently lack adequate legal counsel. Few supervised visitation centers exist in Pennsylvania and even fewer are safe for battered women and their children.

While custody reform legislation passed in 2010, the efficacy of Pennsylvania’s new custody law depends
on judges, custody evaluators, and others involved with custody proceedings effectively implementing the law. Informed decisions that that reflect the full range of children’s best interests, including protection from abusive parents, depend on judges’ knowledge of the harms to children caused by abuse, and the high risk of continued abuse via continued contact with abusive parents. And that knowledge depends on whether judges have been educated about domestic violence. However, Pennsylvania has no law requiring judges or other stakeholders in the custody process to receive education about domestic violence.

PROGRESS

After many years of work researching, drafting model custody legislation, educating stakeholders about the obstacles battered parents face in custody proceedings, and defending against harmful custody bills, in 2009 the PA legislature introduced HB 1639, a bill to completely overhaul PA’s faulty child custody statute. PCADV participated in the development of the bill throughout the process. The bill passed in late 2010 and became Act 112; it conclusively and deliberately omitted any presumption of joint custody, defeating the dangerous “fathers’ rights” groups efforts.

Act 112 includes many improvements designed to protect the safety of children put at risk by abusive parents, including requirements that courts:

  • Give “weighted consideration to those factors which affect the safety of the child” (23 Pa. C.S. § 5328(a));
  • Consider “[t]he present and past abuse committed by a party’s household, whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child or an abused party and which party can better provide adequate physical safeguards and supervision of the child” (23 Pa. C.S. § 5328(a)(2)); and
  • Include safety conditions to protect the child wherever the court finds an ongoing risk of harm to the child and awards any form of custody to the parent who poses that risk (23 Pa. C.S. § 5323(e)).

2012 ACTION STEPS ON CUSTODY
  • Provide training and technical assistance on implementation of the new custody law;
  • Continue work to identify and implement other systemic improvements to the custody process and various systems involved;
  • In particular, PCADV will focus on both the process and the substance of ensuring adequate training and standards for Guardians Ad Litem, parenting coordinators, and other extra-judicial professionals involved in the child custody process.
  • Continue to monitor proposed custody legislation, to support positive proposals, and to oppose legislation that does not prioritize the needs of domestic violence victims and their children.

CHILDREN: CHILDREN AND YOUTH SYSTEMS

PROBLEM

Many battered women and advocates lack a complete understanding of the Children and Youth System (CYS) and how it works, a problem confounded by the varying practices of each county. In addition, communication between CYS and domestic violence programs is often non-existent or ineffective. Battered parents are often not given clear direction as to the procedures of CYS or how they may seek alternatives within the system. Consequently, they are losing custody of their children due to charges of “failure to protect” and “child endangerment” because the children have witnessed domestic violence, and/or are being mandated to seek domestic violence “treatment” in order to regain custody of their children. In sum, battered women are being held accountable for the violence they have experienced rather than being given support and services to restore their lives and the lives of their children.

At the same time, grant funding for most of PCADV’s projects focusing on children has ended, and new challenges have emerged. Additionally, local programs’ capacity to do systems advocacy work within their local CYS offices has been curtailed by decreasing funding and its consequent staff layoffs of many children's advocates. Increasing funding for programs is critical to restoring and building programs' capacity to provide services and advocacy related to children.

PROGRESS

  • PCADV has achieved many significant successes in our work on the children and youth systems.
  • We convened focus groups for battered women involved with CYS, researched promising practices in other states, and published a Blueprint entitled “Domestic Violence Service and the Child Welfare System: A Plan for Coordination," detailing our goals and work with CYS.
  • PCADV and the Office of Children, Youth and Families (OCYF) co-convened the PA Collaborative on Children and Families Affected by Domestic and Sexual Violence (a.k.a. “The Collaborative”) to improve mutual understanding. The Collaborative’s work included drafting a Protocol to Address Domestic Violence in Families with Child Welfare Involvement which was distributed by DPW in 2007 as a Special Transmittal to all CYS offices.
  • PCADV also developed curricula and conducted trainings on a range of issues related to CYS, including mandatory reporting of child abuse; navigating the child welfare system; Competency Based Training for Children and Youth workers, focusing on the use of the domestic violence screening questions and safety assessments; and Family Group Decision Making (FGDM).

2012 ACTION STEPS ON CHILDREN AND YOUTH SYSTEMS

  • Continue training advocates and CYS personnel, including ongoing work on Family Group Decision Making and further training on PCADV's “Navigating the Child Welfare System” curriculum and DPW’s Protocol to Address Domestic Violence in Families with Child Welfare Involvement.
  • Continue to advocate for battered mothers involved in CYS due to their victimization by a batterer, and to oppose efforts to hold battered parents responsible for “failure to protect” children from a batterer.
  • Continue building relationships within CYS and allied professionals.
  • Increase advocacy for increased funding to enable programs to have adequate staff to meet children’s needs.
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