Articles Posted in Pennsylvania Supreme Court

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This case involved petitions for the termination of parental rights to five siblings. The Supreme Court took the opportunity to discuss how trial courts should weigh the existence of "pathological" emotional bonds between parents and children. The Court concluded that trial courts must determine whether the trauma caused by breaking those bonds are outweighed by the benefit of moving the children to a permanent home. After exhaustive review and consideration, the Court concluded in this case that severing the parental bond served the best interests of the children at issue here, and reversed the lower courts' decisions denying petitions for termination of parental rights. View "In Re: T.S.M, T.R.M., T.J.M., T.A.M., and N.D.M." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court granted allocatur in this case to consider the Superior Court's application of the standard of review and to evaluate the relevance of a parent's incarceration to a trial court's decision to terminate a father's parental rights. G.P. (Father), then nineteen, and B.D. (Mother), then approximately seventeen, were involved in an intimate relationship prior to Father's incarceration in December 2004 for the shooting death of his stepfather. While Father was incarcerated, S.P. (Child) was born in May 2005. After Child’s birth, Mother took her to visit Father several times while he was incarcerated at the county prison awaiting trial. In December 2005, Child was declared dependent, when Mother tested positive for THC, a chemical found in marijuana, and was involved in a domestic assault in the presence of Child. Following the declaration of Child’s dependency, Mother and Child apparently moved between several foster homes and Child’s grandmother’s home. In 2007, Child and Youth Services (CYS) filed an emergency shelter petition on behalf of Child when it could not ensure Child's safety. In 2008, Mother voluntarily relinquished her parental rights to Child. At a hearing, testimony was presented that revealed Child suffered from developmental delays and was possibly autistic. A year later at another hearing, CYS moved to terminate Father's parental rights. As applied to this case, the Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court erred in reversing the trial court’s decision to terminate Father’s parental rights: "the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it concluded that “the conditions and causes of the incapacity . . . [could not] or [would] not be remedied” by Father."

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In this discretionary appeal, the Supreme Court considered whether 18 Pa.C.S.A. 4914, which prohibits a person from furnishing false identification to law enforcement authorities, requires proof that those law enforcement authorities first identify themselves to the person and advise the person that he was the subject of an official investigation for a violation of law. The record revealed that in 2009, Pittsburgh City Police officers were investigating an armed robbery. According to the victim, a young boy pointed a gun at him as he was standing at an intersection and robbed him of $10. The victim gave police a description of his assailant, and the police developed a list of individuals they knew matched the description. D.S. was one of those individuals. Plain clothes detectives then "went out actively looking for [D.S.] in essence to field contact him." The officers did not identify themselves as police officers, nor did they state their purpose for stopping D.S. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that the evidence was insufficient to support D.S.'s adjudication of delinquency. The Court reversed the Superior Court's order that affirmed D.S.'s adjudication of delinquency.

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Appellant, the mother of G.L.M., filed a complaint seeking support from Appellee, whom she believed to be G.L.M.'s biological father. Appellee responded with a motion to dismiss, relying upon Mother's intact marriage to H.M.M. at the time of G.L.M.'s birth as establishing a presumption of paternity and on H.M.M.'s assumption of parental responsibilities as implicating paternity by estoppel. The common pleas court granted Appellee's motion to dismiss the support action against Appellee, finding that the presumption of paternity was controlling and, alternatively, that H.M.M. should be regarded as G.L.M.’s father via paternity by estoppel. The court elaborated that under the presumption, a party who denied paternity of a child born during an intact marriage had the burden to show by clear and convincing evidence that the presumptive father lacked access to the mother or was incapable of procreation. Based on the hearing record, the common pleas court determined that H.M.M. had held himself out as G.L.M.'s father. The Supreme Court allowed this appeal to consider the application of the doctrine of paternity by estoppel in this case and more broadly, its continuing application as a common law principle. The Court held that paternity by estoppel continues to pertain in Pennsylvania, but it will apply only where it can be shown, on a developed record, that it is in the best interests of the involved child. The Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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This case was remanded from the federal Supreme Court who vacated the Pennsylvania court's prior decision in light of "Michigan v. Bryant" (131 S.Ct. 1143 (2011)). In 2004, Appellant Ricky Lee Allshouse and "M.R." were arguing in the home they shared with their three children. The argument ended with rushing their seven-month old son to the hospital for a spiral fracture to his right humerus caused by a sharp and severe twisting of his arm. The infant's four-year-old sister implicated Appellant in the incident, and he was later arrested and charged with aggravated assault, simple assault, endangering the welfare of a child, reckless endangerment and harassment. Ultimately Appellant was sentenced to one to two years in prison. On appeal, Appellant argued that the trial court's admission of the daughter's statement to a psychologist violated his constitutional rights. Thereafter, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The threshold question in this case was whether the daughter's statements were "testimonial;" if they were nontestimonial, "the confrontation clause places no restriction on their introduction except for 'the traditional limitations upon hearsay evidence.'" The Superior Court concluded that the dauther's statement to the psychologist was nontestimonial under because (a) the doctor's intent during his interview with the daughter was not to obtain testimony for the purpose of a criminal proceeding, but to ensure the safety of the infant and his siblings, and (b) the environment and circumstances surrounding her statement were informal and not suggestive of an investigatory interview. The Court affirmed the Superior Court's decision to admit the daughter's statements.

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The issue before the Supreme Court was a court order that directed Appellant the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) to select and pay for the services of a qualified professional to provide counseling to an incarcerated parent who sough visitation with his child. Resolution of the case was dependent upon the intended scope of section 5303 of Chapter 53 of the Domestic Relations Code relating to custody. "D.R.C, Sr." was serving time for first-degree murder. "J.A.Z.," the mother and custodial guardian "steadfastly opposed" prison visits for her son. Instead, she requested that visits be postponed until the son reached a sufficiently mature age and could make his own informed decision about visiting his father. A trial court denied D.R.C.'s request for visitation, which was timely appealed. On remand, the trial court ordered D.R.C. to present evidence that he was no longer a "grave threat of harm" to his son. This hearing was followed with a telephonic hearing in which the mother, D.R.C. and a licensed psychologist from the DOC testified. The court dismissed D.R.C.'s petition premised on language of the applicable legal standard precluded it from awarding visitation because D.R.C. never received the statutory-mandated counseling. On appeal, the Superior Court found that the trial court erred by not appointing a qualified professional to perform the counseling. The DOC intervened to challenge the trial court's directive to appoint the counselor. The court ultimately denied D.R.C.'s and the DOC's motions. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the legal authority relied on by the trial court was misplaced: "we find the counseling required by [statute] is not a prerequisite to a court's engaging in its evaluation of a child's best interest in the context of a request for prison visits." Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court to conduct a hearing on D.R.C.'s request for prison visitation in an "expeditious manner" without resort to the application of the statute.

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Father "C.S." is the biological father of two minor children, R.I.S. and A.I.S. He was incarcerated in a state correctional facility with a minimum release date of June 2012. He appealed a superior court's reversal of a trial court order that ordered the involuntary termination of his parental rights and for changes in the placement goals for the children from reunification to adoption. Upon review of the facts presented at trial, the court reversed the superior court and took the opportunity to reiterate the principle that: "a parent’s incarceration, standing alone, cannot constitute proper grounds for the termination of his or her parental rights."

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In this appeal, the Supreme Court consolidated four cases to decide whether adopted children whose adoptions were procured through a state-licensed private agency in the 1990s were eligible to receive adoption assistance subsidies retroactive to the dates of the childrenâs adoptions and prospectively through their eighteenth birthdays. The childrenâs attorneys successfully argued to the Commonwealth Court that the adopted children were eligible for subsidies pursuant to the Pennsylvania Adoption Opportunities Act (AOA). The Department of Public Welfare (DPW) appealed the Commonwealth Courtâs decision. Upon review of the underlying cases, the Supreme Court held that "adoption subsidies were never intended to be windfalls for adoptive parents." The Court reversed the lower courtâs decision and reinstated the DPW's ruling with respect to the appellants in the consolidated cases.

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L.J.B. was born to C.L.F. (Mother) and S.M.B. (Father) in August, 2001. The parents had been living together at the time she was born, but separated when L.J.B. was eleven months old. The Father got married the next year, and filed a complaint with the court seeking increased custody of L.J.B. The relationship between Father and Mother deteriorated once the custody proceedings got started. The Father became threatening and abusive towards the Mother. On approximately eight separate occasions over a three year span, the Father took L.J.B. to the emergency room claiming that she had been sexually abused by the Mother. In each visit to the hospital, the child was subjected to intrusive pelvic exams and pelvic cleaning. None of the exams revealed any evidence of sexual or physical abuse. After a January, 2006 exam, a state caseworker sent a memorandum to the judge overseeing the parentsâ custody case threatening to open an abuse investigation if the Father continued to have L.J.B. âunnecessarilyâ examined or cleaned. Notwithstanding the caseworkerâs concerns over the Fatherâs conduct, the custody court held a hearing concerning the Fatherâs petition for primary physical custody over L.J.B. While psychological evaluations of the parents and child and the custody hearing were still pending, the Mother abruptly dropped off L.J.B. with their Father and moved to Tennessee. She would later explain that she felt she had no choice but to give up on the custody battle to protect L.J.B. from being subjected to additional pelvic exams. Upon the Motherâs relocation, the custody court viewed the litigation over primary physical custody as moot, and granted the Father sole physical custody of L.J.B. The custody judge voiced his disgust over what he viewed as the Motherâs abandonment of L.J.B., and went so far as to suggest that the Father seek to have motherâs parental rights terminated. At the termination hearing, the Mother testified about the pelvic exams and that the custody court refused to put a stop to them. She testified why she left the state as the only way to save L.J.B. from the exams. The Father and his wife denied any wrongdoing. The court terminated the Motherâs parental rights. The Mother appealed to the Superior Court, contending that the termination court erred in finding the Father proved by clear and convincing evidence that her parental rights should have been terminated. The Superior Court affirmed the termination. The Mother petitioned the Supreme Court for an allowance of appeal. The Supreme Court granted the Mother an appeal, finding that the judges in the lower courtsâ âclear antagonism towards Mother [was] evident from the record.â The Court held that the petition to terminate Motherâs parental rights should be dismissed, and that the judges that tried the custody and termination hearings should be recused from further proceedings.