August is National Child Support Awareness Month. President Clinton began the month of recognition in 1995 as part of his welfare reform agenda. The goal was to improve the collection of child support payments by widening the use of sanctions including wage garnishment and suspending driver's licenses and passports for parents with child support arrears. As of today in Pennsylvania, wage garnishment is virtually always utilized to ensure child support payments can be collected. Garnishments apply not only to the typical income which would be received from an employer, but also to social security and/or veterans benefits. Other methods of securing support payments include intercept of tax return refunds and even lottery winnings. Imprisonment is also a widely available sanction in the context of enforcement of child support obligations.
When an unmarried woman has a child, paternity will need to be established before a father can be listed on the birth certificate, before the mother can seek support from the father and/or before standing for custody can be established. Establishing paternity can be as simple as the father executing an acknowledgment of paternity. The acknowledgment indicates the father is waiving his rights to any genetic testing or trial on the issue of paternity. If a father is unwilling to execute an acknowledgment or is simply unsure of the paternity of the child, genetic testing can be conducted so that the DNA results can be examined. Both parents will be ordered to participate in genetic testing. Failure to appear by the father can result in a court order declaring him as the father by default. Failure to appear by the mother can result in the court dismissing an action for support. Tests results alone are not sufficient to establish paternity. Instead, the parties must stipulate in writing that the test results prove paternity or the court must make an order on paternity after reviewing the test results.
Be it divorce, custody or support, once a court order is put in place, any violation of that court order can be considered contempt. For example, if a custody order provides that the parents are to exchange custody every Wednesday and the exchange never occurs to the fault of one party, the faulting party is in contempt. The consequences of being held in contempt can vary. 23 Pa. C.S. 5323 (g) regarding contempt of custody provides for any one of the following as punishment: imprisonment for a period not to exceed six months, a fine not to exceed $500, probation for a period not to exceed six months; and/or counsel fees and costs. In practice, based on the severity of the case, the Judge may just give a verbal warning or may suspend custody until the court order is complied with.
A party may file a Protection from Abuse petition in the event of abuse, meaning physical violence or the threat thereof as well as stalking or any other course of conduct which would place a person in fear of bodily injury. A Protection from Abuse (PFA) petition requires the petitioner to identify the defendant, state the incidents constituting the "abuse" as well as any prior history of similar incidents, provide notice of any weapons involved, and set out the relief requested. Depending on the nature and severity of the allegations, a temporary PFA order may be put in place almost immediately to prohibit contact between the parties until a full hearing can be held. Often a hearing will be held in approx. 7-10 days if not sooner. The petitioner must ensure the Defendant is served with the Petition, Notice of Hearing and temporary order, if applicable, prior to the hearing. The local sheriff can be contacted to effectuate the service.