You’re About to Go to an Emergency Custody Hearing: What to Expect

Family court moves slowly; however, the court process may move faster if there’s an emergency that could cause irreparable harm to your minor child. Emergency custody situations are taken seriously by the court.

How Do You Schedule an Emergency Custody Hearing?

Each state has laws that protect children from abuse and if this is happening, you may need to file an emergency petition or you may have one filed against you.

If you’re facing an emergency custody hearing, it is unwise to do so without legal representation. Many of our clients are from Dauphin, Derry Township, East Hanover Township, Elizabethville, Enhaut, Halifax, Highspire, Hummelstown, Londonberry Township, Lower Paxton Township, Lower Swatara Township, Lykens, Middle Paxton Township, and other towns near our office on North Third Street in Harrisburg.

Emergency custody hearings can occur when a child, who is 18 years or younger, is being harmed through intentional physical or mental abuse, sexual abuse or neglect by the child’s parent, guardian or adoptive parent. An emergency means that the child is in danger of irreparable harm or death, however it is up to the judge to decide what’s an emergency and what isn’t.

What Types of Situations Warrant an Emergency Custody Hearing?

It’s not easy to prove abuse and often one’s perception of abuse or neglect might differ from another’s. Speculation won’t hold up in an emergency custody hearing. It is critical to have ongoing documentation to prove your case.  Claiming “the other parent won’t let me see my child” is typically not enough.

As a petitioner or plaintiff, you’ll have to provide names, dates and times of past or current abuse, show police reports, orders of protection, emergency room visits, restraining orders, criminal convictions, Child Protective Services or Department of Child Safety reports and more against the defendant. You’ll likely provide photos, videos, email and texts.  If there’s a pattern of neglecting the child, you’ll be required to prove it.

If your situation involves illegal or prescription drug or alcohol abuse, you’ll need to prove that the defendant has ongoing serious issues.  That said, substance abuse might not be enough to grant an emergency petition. The petitioner may find instead that the defendant will be required to undergo regular drug screenings and if the screenings come back back positive, diluted or the defendant misses his or her drug screenings the petitioner may find the defendant is ordered to attend outpatient therapy. The judge may determine that just because the other parent has a drug or alcohol problem doesn’t mean he or she is an unfit parent.

There are 16 factors examined to determine the child’s best interest.  The petitioner may discover that instead of being granted an emergency petition the judge limits time the defendant spends with the child or the judge may enforce supervised visits, limit legal custody or limit parenting time.

What Are the Steps Involved in an Emergency Custody Hearing?

If you’re the petitioner, and the judge determines your child is in immediate danger you may be granted an emergency petition temporarily before you’re able to go to a full hearing. The emergency order may not be the final order but it would go into effect immediately. The other parent or defendant doesn’t need to attend. If this happens, it’s called an ex-parte hearing.

What Happens During the Emergency Custody Hearing?

Once you’re in an emergency custody hearing, as with any litigation, the person who files the action, is called the plaintiff or petitioner. The person who is served is the defendant or respondent.

The plaintiff speaks first, and then the defendant speaks second.  The plaintiff will present their case and will call any witnesses to testify.

Then the other side gets to ask questions of the plaintiff.  This is called cross examination. Most likely the other side will ask leading questions which are questions are phrased in such a way that it prompts the other side to give the desired answer with little room for clarification. The other side’s goal is to get you to answer yes or no with little context.

After cross examination, the plaintiff will have the chance to speak again. This is called a redirect examination where you will get to clarify your point.

This process happens for both sides during the case.

Can I Attend an Emergency Custody Hearing Without an Attorney Present?

Yes. That said, you may not be the best person to represent yourself in court. Most likely you’ll be experiencing anger and resentment toward the other party. You’re most likely feeling distant and bitter. You may even be in a situation where the relationship is so strained that you’re not even able to sit in a parent-teacher conference together, let alone court.  It’s advisable to seek legal counsel.

If you’re facing an emergency custody situation, and you’re in the Harrisburg area, contact us for a free 30-minute consultation with an experienced family law attorney.