James W. Cushing, Faye Riva Cohen James W. Cushing, Faye Riva Cohen

Pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. Section 5324, grandparents and great-grandparents, if they meet the statutory criteria, may be awarded legal and physical custody of their grandchild(ren) (or great-grandchildren). Typically, grandparents assert their potential custodial rights in opposition to the rights of the parents of the children. In some situations, however, more than one set of grandparents may seek to exercise their custodial rights at the same time. How is that conflict resolved? The recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case of G.A.P. v. J.M.W. v. S.J. and R.J., 2018 Pa.Super. 229 sheds some light on how such a matter could be handled.

In G.A.P., the father of the child has a history of substance abuse and also a criminal history, and was alleged to have committed sexual abuse against the child. Similarly, the mother of the child also has a history of substance abuse. The child has lived, from time to time, with the maternal great-grandparents over the course of his entire life, and has lived continuously with them since 2015.

In the summer of 2016 the great-grandparents filed for custody of the child on the basis that he had been living with them continuously since October 2015 and asserted that he was unsafe when in the custody of the father. The trial court, on an emergency basis, awarded the great-grandparents sole physical custody of the child and suspended the father’s partial physical custody, and an agreement was reached with the mother awarding her supervised physical custody of the child. At the end of 2016 the trial court awarded the great-grandparents and the father shared legal custody, the great-grandparents primary physical custody, and the father supervised physical custody. The mother was not awarded anything as she failed to appear for the hearing.

In the spring of 2017 the great-grandparents filed a petition for special relief requesting the father be drug tested and have his custody modified to supervised visits only, on the basis that he allegedly had relapsed into drug use. As a result, the trial court suspended the father’s unsupervised partial physical custody and replaced it with supervised physical custody.

Not long after the father’s custody was reduced, the paternal grandparents filed a petition to Intervene and requested physical custody of the child. The grandparents asserted that their petition was filed pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 5324(3)(iii)(B) which permits grandparents to file for custody of their grandchildren if “the child is substantially at risk due to parental abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol abuse or incapacity.”

In response, the great-grandparents filed preliminary objections against the grandparents’ petition to Intervene, asserting that the grandparents did not have standing as, allegedly, the child was not “currently” at substantial risk. The trial court agreed and dismissed the grandparents’ petition to Intervene for lack of standing, leading them to file an appeal to Pennsylvania Superior Court.

During the litigation of the petition to Intervene, the great-grandparents conceded that the grandparents had a relationship with the child that began with the consent of a parent, and were willing to assume parental responsibility over the child. In other words, the great-grandparents admitted that the grandparents essentially met the other requirements of Section 5324 except, in their view, the requirement that the child be currently substantially at risk.

The grandparents argued that the risk to the child, by the plain language of the statute cited above, is due to “parental abuse” specifically and, therefore, the claim that the great-grandparents are not a source of risk is irrelevant. Furthermore, the “grandparents also argued that the purpose of the statute is to grant grandparents standing in custody matters, not ‘to create a situation where grandparents are essentially in a race to file to receive standing’ because the grandparent who files first is the only one able to obtain standing in a custody matter.”

The Superior Court agreed that Section 5324 confers standing upon grandparents when the child is substantially at risk “due to parental abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol abuse or incapacity.” In its view, these words are clear and unambiguous and make no exception for a child’s potential custodial situation at a given time. In the court’s words “the plain language of the statute confers standing to grandparents when a child is substantially at risk due to ongoing parental behaviors.”

Upon review of the trial court record, Superior Court noted that the conditions required by Section 5325—including the risk factors—were present to grant the great-grandparents standing. Superior Court determined that there was nothing to suggest that the risk created by the parents had changed or somehow subsided. Significantly, the court observed, as the parental rights of father and mother have not been terminated or relinquished, either or both father and mother could seek (additional) custody of the child at any time. As a result, the ongoing risk from the parents is still ongoing.

Finally, it is in Superior Court’s opinion that the General Assembly did not intend, by its adoption of the specific language in the statute, to create a so-called race-to-the-courthouse standard by which the (great) grandparent who files first gets awarded custody at the expense of the others. Instead, the Superior Court reasoned, the court should have the opportunity to consider all possible or viable options in order to decide how to allot custodial rights according to the best interests of the child at issue. As a result, Superior Court reversed the trial court’s sustaining of the great-grandparents’ preliminary objections and remanded the case back to the trial court.

This case should provide practitioners the justification, and potential custodial grandparents hope, that they can pursue potential custodial rights over their grandchildren even if others who are in a similar state of life or situation (e.g., another set of grandparents) seemingly have done so already.

James W. Cushing is an associate at the law office of Faye Riva Cohen, research attorney for Legal Research Inc. and sits on the board of directors of the Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia.