Custody Laws for Underage Parents in Pennsylvania

by Beverly Bird

In an effort to provide family court judges with clearer guidelines when making custody decisions, Pennsylvania made a few changes to its child care laws in January 2011. These changes were aimed at ensuring both parents had equal rights to custody, regardless of gender. However, in reality, when a baby is born to teen parents, a custodial precedent is created that might be hard for the father to overcome.

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Custody at Birth

A teenage mother has full parental rights when her baby is born. However, this does not always translate to custody in Pennsylvania. If the father acknowledged paternity, he also has full parental rights, but not necessarily custody. Only a court order, or the fact that the parents were married at the time of birth, can establish custody. Unless at least one of those two circumstances exists, custody of a baby born to teen parents is usually “de facto.” This is a legal way of saying, "It is what it is." The custody arrangement is informal and, in practice, not backed by a court order. If the baby goes home from the hospital with mom, mom has de facto custody. If mom lives with the baby’s father, he also has de facto custody. If they’re married, they each have legal and physical custody of the baby by virtue of their marriage.

Court-Ordered Custody

Either parent can file a motion with the court to establish custody and have it memorialized in a court order. However, when a parent is younger than 18, Pennsylvania law requires she do so with the help of an adult. The adult acts as her guardian and signs all documents with her. The law doesn’t require the guardian to be the teen’s parent. This person can be any interested adult over the age of 18. A teen mother has an automatic right to petition for custody, but a father does not. He must first establish his paternity if the parents were not married when the baby was born. He can sign an acknowledgment of paternity at the time of the birth and Pennsylvania’s Department of Vital Records will issue a birth certificate naming him as the father. Alternatively, he can file a petition with the court, asking the judge to order a genetic test to prove his paternity. After paternity is established, he can file for custody, but he must also use a guardian.

Custody Criteria

Although Pennsylvania’s 2011 legislation establishes that neither parent is preferred for custody because of gender, it also contains a provision that judges should consider which parent has historically been responsible for “parental duties.” In the case of a newborn, this is almost always the mother. A young father must overcome this to achieve custody and it could be an uphill battle. However, another aspect of Pennsylvania’s 2011 legislative change can sometimes tip the scales in his favor. Judges are obligated to consider the criminal backgrounds of every individual residing in a parent’s household when awarding custody. Therefore, if a teenage mother lives with her parents and if her siblings, step-siblings or parents have had any serious brushes with the law, a judge must transfer custody to the baby's father. Parents petitioning for custody have the right to request a criminal background check on every person residing in the baby’s household, regardless of their ages.

Grandparents’ Rights

In Pennsylvania, grandparents have virtually no legal say in matters when their children become parents. Custody of their teenagers does not extend to custody of their teenagers’ children as well. Their children can place their babies for adoption without parental permission. Additionally, parents cannot force their pregnant teenagers into abortions and they do not have to approve abortions.