Can a child pick their guardian?

Q: We know a 14-year-old child who has been living with her mother and grandmother, but the mother lost custody and it was given to the grandmother. However, the mother still stays in the home when she is not allowed to and is still on drugs, but the child is treated poorly for reporting her mother and is too afraid to do it again. Can she choose to go to a non-relative that has been helping her? Her grandmother is telling her if she reports them, she will go to a family she doesn’t know, and she can’t choose the person who has been helping her. (Brookline, PA)

A: There is a general rule in PA that at age 14 a child can decide where they wish to live (if reasonable and safe). Also, if the family friend is willing to take her, and would meet a background check and home assessment from Children Youth and Families of Allegheny County, and if no other appropriate placement person came forward, CYF may very well place the child with that person. CYF will not place the child with her 18-year-old boyfriend or someone with a deplorable home or lengthy criminal history. I would speak with an attorney in your area versed in child custody and juvenile dependency.

Can CYF hold a mother responsible for the actions of the father?

Q: My sister in recently had her children taken from her custody and placed with her mother-in-law for a failed drug test and a somewhat recent drug related charge. My sister’s husband is a heavy drug user and hasn’t even contacted the children since they have been placed with his mother. My sister claims that CYF told her that they will be holding her accountable for his actions even though they are separated and not even living together. Is this legal? (West Mifflin, PA)

A: It helps if the heavy drug user father is out of the home. However, if mother has a positive screen and drug related arrest, it can result in children being removed from her home. More facts would need to be known. I suggest the mother speak with a lawyer who handles custody and cases involving CYF. If she cannot afford a lawyer, I suggest she contact the Allegheny County Bar Foundation Juvenile Court Project to see if she qualifies for a free attorney. In situations like this, mother may have a better chance of reunification and getting custody back if she splits from father altogether and enters and completes a serious drug and alcohol program.

Can I refuse a drug test?

Q: I got child-lined by children’s hospital. Our 18-month-old fractured her collar bone running in house. They suspected child abuse, but it was unfounded. When the CYF lady came to close case she did but she said she had another report that I had a birthday party for my husband and that there were reports of drug usage. That is a lie and she now she wants me to do a drug and alcohol evaluation at Power. What should I do? I feel like I’m being harassed. What are my rights? Can I refuse? (Pittsburgh, PA)

A: An attorney would need much more information to advise. Based on what you say, it is possible that CYF is considering removing your children due to suspected abuse or neglect. You can refuse a drug test and to even speak with CYF. Be aware that if you do, they may not go away. If you can afford a lawyer, you should get one. If your children are in fact removed from your care, or a petition for dependency is filed and you cannot afford a private lawyer, contact the Allegheny County Bar Foundation Conflict Counsel Office and ask to have a Parent Advocate appointed.

How can I get custody of my 14-month-old brother?

Q: Me and my fiancé have been taking care of my baby brother. My mom really doesn’t help. He has been at my house most of his life. For three months going on four months he hasn’t been at her house at all. She lost my two siblings to CYF. I have another brother who is with an uncle. She is supposed to go to drug classes and doesn’t because she feels she shouldn’t have to (that’s the only way she can see him). She comes over here and leaves and doesn’t take him, but when she gets mad she says give me my son or I’m filing kidnapping charges. I text her and ask her if she has food and diapers for him and she says no, she must go to the store (which she has been to plenty of times). She texts me and tells me she wants to die. I tried to 302 her but it was denied (I have no idea why) I need to keep my brother safe. What should I do? (Pittsburgh, PA)

A: I am wondering how she has custody of your brother with her CYF history, based on what you are saying about her condition and history. Perhaps you should try to reach out to CYF to see if they have an active case, or perhaps talk to the caseworker for the other children who apparently were dependent and in CYF care. If you can get their interest, and you want to put yourself forward as a potential placement resource, you need to have a suitable home and situation for a child. If CYF will not get involved for whatever reason, you might be able to file a petition for dependency and request that the child be placed with you. You can also seek the advice of a lawyer. If you cannot afford one, call the Allegheny County Bar Association. They may be able to advise you or refer you to an appropriate agency. If an emergency ever arises, you can also go to motions court through the pro se (self-representation) process and file an emergency motion for custody.