On occasion, our Pittsburgh law firm is contacted by a potential client dealing with a child custody matter and that client wants "full" custody because, up until this point, the other parent has been absent from the child's life. Now the former absentee parent is pursuing custody and the client wants the other parent to have nothing to do with the child.
The first thing I tell the potential client in a situation like this is that there is very little chance that the Court would completely exclude any parent from his or her child's life without a very good reason such as drug dependency, criminal history, or previous child abuse. Barring a situation like this, the Court is likely to allow for some form of custody or visitation as it likes to encourage and foster relationships between parents and children, even if that parent has been absent for some time.
When it comes to actually deciding how much custody the absentee parent is permitted to have, the court often errs on the side of caution. I frequently see the Court first permit the absentee parent to have supervised visitation with the child. This typically involves the parent meeting the child at a public place (or local agency that provides such services) and spending an hour or two while an approved supervisor monitors the visit. If those sessions go well, the Court will then increase the length and/or frequency of the visits. Provided there are no issues with the increase, the Court may then permit the parent to have periods of unsupervised visitation often lasting a few hours at a time. This progressive "ramping up" of custody will continue as long as the parent continues to be committed to his or her role in the life of the child and experiences no setbacks.
In then end, I often tell a client in a situation such as this that the court will likely begin with supervised custody if the other parent has not been a part of the child's life. It will then be up to the absentee parent to determine whether or not he or she is serious about being a parent. If not, that parent will likely disappear again and the custodial parent will not have to deal with him or her very often. In addition, the Court will be more reluctant in the future to award custody because the parent failed to follow through previously. If, on the other hand, the absentee parent does step up become responsible, then it's good for the child and will ease the burden on the client.
Should you need help with a child custody or visitation matter, contact our law firm to consult an experienced family law attorney.