Troubled Kids

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the November 25, 2008 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live Show.

Given the recent publicity about Nebraska’s controversial Safe Haven statute, many are wondering how Pennsylvania handles such situations. In addition, many parents are asking what their options are if they have a child who is out of control.

Below are some common questions and some helpful tips:

Does Pennsylvania have a safe haven statute and if so, how does it work?

Pennsylvania does have a Safe Haven statute called the Newborn Protection Act which went into effect in February of 2003. It states that a parent of a newborn may leave the child in the care of a hospital without being criminally liable providing that the following criteria are met:

  1. The parent expresses orally or through conduct that they intend for the hospital to accept the child, and;
  2. The newborn is not a victim of child abuse or criminal conduct.

A newborn is defined by this Act as a child less than 28 days of age as reasonably determined by a physician.

The Act requires that the hospital staff take custody of a newborn and perform a medical evaluation and any act necessary to care for and protect the physical health and safety of the child. The hospital is also required to notify the county Children and Youth agency and local law enforcement. The county Children and Youth agency is to make diligent efforts to notify a parent, guardian, or other family member of the whereabouts of the newborn (unless prohibited by court order) and the reasons for the need for protective custody. The county Children and Youth agency will find a safe and permanent home for the baby.

For more information the state does sponsor a website, as well as a helpline at 1-866-921-SAFE.

Since the law only applies to infants what do I do if I am having difficulty with my older child? I don’t know where to turn.

First and foremost, try non-legal alternatives such as family counseling with either a member of the clergy or a professional counselor. If that does not work, while they are not pleasant, parents do have certain legal options.

Their first option is to file a dependency petition with the juvenile court. In this petition, they may allege that the child is either habitually truant or is habitually disobedient and ungovernable and request that the court take appropriate action whether it be to attempt to keep the family together or to put the child in placement.

The second option is to either request that a police petition be filed or file criminal charges if the child has committed a crime.

Keep in mind that once you file a dependency petition or otherwise have law enforcement involved, your child will enter into the Children and Youth system which can be very long and involved—definitely not something to enter into lightly.

My child is 17 and very independent. He has asked about emancipation. Is this an option?

There is no statute in Pennsylvania for emancipation, it is determined by each county.

A minor may ask a court to declare him/her emancipated but, you must first determine why the individual is seeking emancipation. If the minor is seeking emancipation in order to receive any public benefit such as medical or cash assistance, the agency will make their own determination and the proceeding isn’t necessary. More often than not however, a minor is having difficulty at home and assumes that he/she can petition for emancipation in order to get out from under their parents’ control. In this instance, emancipation is not likely.

A hearing will be held on any request for emancipation, so the court can get the information necessary to decide if the minor should be declared emancipated. Information given to the court at the hearing should include facts showing: whether the minor is living with his/her parents or guardians; whether the minor is dependent on his/her parents for financial support; whether the parents and the minor intend for the minor to be independent; whether the parents are actually exercising control and authority over the minor; and whether the minor can financially support him/herself. For example, a 13-year-old who wants to leave home is not likely to be declared emancipated because he/she cannot support him/herself. In effect, the minor child must already be living independently for a court to determine that the child is emancipated.

Parents or guardians of a minor emancipated by court order are no longer required to give the minor any financial support. This means they do not have to provide food, housing, clothing or any other assistance to the minor.

My child was in placement at one point and now I’m receiving paperwork from the court which is requesting reimbursement. Can they do this?

They can. When a child becomes part of the Children and Family system and is placed in some type of alternative housing or placement the state will seek reimbursement for the time period they are in the facility. This is done regardless of whether the placement is voluntary or not. Usually the reimbursement sought is for a daily dollar amount for each day the child is in the facility.

For any other questions regarding difficulty with a child or involvement with Children and Family Services, please contact the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555 for a referral to an attorney who practices in that field.