Is there a promising future in “street law”?


What should a parent do when the other parent abuses a child in Pennsylvania? 

According to the following video from North Pennsylvania Legal Services, you don’t call the police. You file a custody lawsuit – but only if you can’t tolerate your child being abused.   

Sitting to watch this video is a lesson in patience. The piano music playing in the background and the respectable looking judges and court employees offering information from book-lined offices are little comfort when one considers the implications of the words that are spoken. 

At the beginning of the “workshop”,  a court employee or legal case worker of some kind is speaking with an actress playing a mother who is concerned for her family’s safety. The mother says her husband “started threatening to keep the kids” and is “beginning to scare” her. The worker responds in earnest, “You may need to file a custody lawsuit.”

Notice the worker doesn’t recommend calling a women’s shelter or the police.  Instead, she tells the mother she should file a custody lawsuit. The narrator then recommends a lawsuit too and adds – only if you can’t tolerate what’s happening. She says:

 “Only you can decide if the current custody arrangements involving your child are tolerable. Here are a number of questions to help you decide:

  • Has the other parent threatened to snatch the child and disappear or kept the child from you?
  • Refused to permit reasonable visitation or refused to return the child after a visit?
  • Made unreasonable visitation demands or placed unreasonable restrictions on your visits?  
  • Refused to answer reasonable questions about his or her care of the child or provide information about the child’s health, education or other activities?
  • Refused to provide a current address and phone number?
  • Physically, sexually or emotionally abused the child?
  • Put the child in an unsafe or unhealthy environment?
  • Failed to provide minimal adequate supervision and care?
  • Refused to discuss a workable custody plan?
  • Refused to cooperate for the child’s sake?

 “If you can truthfully say that you and the child’s needs are not being met, then a custody or visitation lawsuit may be your best remedy.”

First of  all, who wrote that list and decided to put “physical, sexual and emotional abuse” in the middle of a list of relatively innocuous circumstances such as “refused to discuss a workable custody plan”?

Why isn’t “physical, sexual and emotional abuse” in a separate list, along with “threatening to snatch a child and disappear”, “putting the child in an unsafe or unhealthy environment” and “failure to provide minimal adequate supervision and care”?  

Why aren’t the four more dangerous circumstances listed with a Child Abuse Hotline number to call? And since when do we define “physical, sexual and emotional abuse” as “child’s needs not being met”?

At least the narrator shows some concern for the well-being of the viewers and children – who might or might not be in danger of physical, sexual or emotional abuse – by offering a word of caution for the viewer who is tempted to ask friends, neighbors, family members and others for advice. She calls such advice”street law”, and urges parents to take all child abuse and custody cases to the County Courts in Pennsylvania instead. 

You might be asking at this point, “So what’s wrong with child abuse cases being heard in Pennsylvania’s County Courts?”

 For starters, the title of this video workshop could just as well have been: 


Your Child’s Abuse Case In Pennsylvania: Anything Goes! 


The workshop video continues and Judge Louise Knight from Union County says, “There are many reasons why you should try very hard to avoid what is called a ‘custody battle’ and try to reach an agreement with the other parent on matters of custody.”

She says the custody cases are very emotionally damaging to children and parents. She says in a custody “dispute”, you give up control of the outcome of your case. She says it’s a risky situation because you don’t have any input over what the outcome of the case will be. 

Not bothered yet by all of this? Imagine you’re a mother of a four-year old boy in Pennsylvania. You’ve seen your son’s father abuse him in unspeakable ways. You’re watching the video below and what do you learn? 

– There’s no uniform procedure for dealing with your child’s case in the state of Pennsylvania. 

– All ” family matters” are handled differently, depending on the preferences of each county.   

– Judge William H. Wiest warns, “Of course, no two custody cases are exactly alike and the law can change. There’s no certain way to predict how your case might be handled.”     

– Judge Louise Knight talks on and on about why you should avoid going to court altogether. She says you never know what will happen, you won’t have any say in what happens to your child(ren) and paying for a lawyer and a custody evaluator will probably cost more than you can afford.

– If your spouse has an attorney and you don’t, you’re out of luck. If you don’t have the funds for an attorney, the law provides no special exceptions for those representing themselves. The same rules of evidence apply to skilled attorneys and frazzled single mothers trying desperately to protect their children from abuse. The judge can’t help you defend your children in court and no one else can either.

Anyone considering a career in family law in Pennsylvania? It looks like street law has a more promising future. 


     North Penn Legal Services Custody and Visitation Video Workshop

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