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Victims of domestic abuse may need help from others to get a divorce. It can also help to create an escape plan and seek a protective order.

For countless people in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, marriage is a nightmare that they may feel they can never escape. Tragically, domestic violence affects millions of men, women and children every year. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women and one in four men will be abused by an intimate partner at some point during their lives. The problem is so serious, in fact, that 15 percent of all violent crimes are committed by abusers against their partners. The following questions address some that abuse victims are likely to ask when preparing to end a marriage.

IS DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ALWAYS PHYSICAL?
In many cases, an abuser physically strikes or otherwise causes bodily harm to his or her victim. However, domestic abuse may be emotional, psychological, sexual or financial. Abusers often resort to threats and manipulation to maintain control over their victims. They may restrict their partners from seeing their family members or friends; prevent them from having access to the phone, Internet or the car; and not allow them to work or have any money. Non-violent abusive relationships do not always escalate to physical violence, but often they do.

HOW CAN I ESCAPE AN ABUSIVE MARRIAGE?
It is rarely easy to escape an abusive relationship; this is why it is important to create an escape plan. The National Domestic Violence Hotline suggests implementing the following type of plan:

• Enlisting the help of trusted loved ones

• Keeping emergency cash, clothing and documents in a safe place that the abuser does not know about

• Documenting evidence of physical injuries and keeping a journal of the abuser’s behavior

• Memorizing the phone numbers and addresses of abuse shelters and law enforcement offices

It may also be a good idea at this point to seek a protection order.

WHAT IS A PROTECTIVE ORDER AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
A family law court can issue a protective order to abuse victims that extends certain legal protections. While the order is in effect, the abuser will not be allowed to approach or contact the victims. This may give the victim time to get to a safe place and to begin divorce proceedings. Protective orders are not initially permanent. Both sides will be given the chance to tell their side in court, and a judge can then decide if additional protection is necessary.

You are likely to need professional assistance to leave an abusive marriage. This may include help from law enforcement and abuse counselors. A Pennsylvania family law attorney with experience in domestic violence cases can also be an invaluable ally. Your attorney may be able to help you obtain a protective order, as well as start you on the road to freedom from abuse.

Divorce and remarriage is fairly common and can include new children in your life. Adoption may be an option to make those children your own legally. An adoption by a stepparent qualifies as a kinship adoption such that some of the statutory requirements for adoption are waived. As the prospective adopting parent, you will need to have three background checks completed prior to filing an adoption petition. Presently, the required background checks for Pennsylvania include (1) Child Abuse History Clearance; (2) PA State Police Criminal Record Check; and (3) FBI Criminal Background Check through the Department of Welfare. Your spouse and natural parent of the children would join as a petitioner in the adoption matter.

The rights of the other biological parent will need to be terminated in connection with the adoption. Their parental rights can be terminated voluntarily or involuntarily. With voluntary termination the other natural parent will sign a consent to the adoption which is subsequently attached to the Petition for Adoption. There must be at least thirty (30) days between when the consent is signed and when adoption petition is filed with the court since there is a thirty (30) day revocation period. With involuntary termination, you will plead the applicable grounds for involuntary termination within your adoption petition. A filing fee is payable to the county at the time you file your petition for adoption. After filing the Petition, you will receive notice of when you are scheduled for your hearing. You will need to notify any party that is required to receive notice of the hearing per the adoption statutes in advance of the hearing.

An adoption by a grandparent qualifies as a kinship adoption. Some of the statutory requirements for adoption are waived in the case of a family member adopting a child. A standard adoption will require a home study to be completed by the local Children & Youth services agency. This process is expensive and takes a number of months. This requirement is waived in the event of an adoption of a grandchild. Background checks will be required for the adopting parent(s). Presently, there are three background checks required: (1) Child Abuse History Clearance; (2) PA State Police Criminal Record Check; and (3) FBI Criminal Background Check through the Department of Welfare.

If the natural parents are consenting to the adoption, their consents can be attached to the Petition for Adoption. There must be at least thirty (30) days between when the consents are signed and when they are attached to the Petition for filing since there is a thirty (30) day revocation period. Alternatively, if the natural parents do not consent, you can plead grounds for involuntary termination within your adoption petition. A filing fee is payable to the county at the time you file your petition for adoption. After filing the Petition, you will receive notice of when you are scheduled for your hearing. You will need to notify any party that is required to receive notice of the hearing per the adoption statutes in advance of the hearing.

Same-sex adoptions can take place in the form of a second-parent adoption. A second-parent adoption allows a person to adopt the child of their “unmarried” partner. In 2002, the Supreme Court held that the parental rights of the first parent need not be terminated for the adoption by the second parent to take place. Since that time, PA has remained in the minority of states that allow second-parent adoptions on a statewide basis. If a same-sex couple is married, they follow the same procedures as a kinship or step-parent adoption.

Both types of adoption will require background checks be completed as it relates to the adopting parents. Presently, there are three background checks required: (1) Child Abuse History Clearance; (2) PA State Police Criminal Record Check; and (3) FBI Criminal Background Check through the Department of Welfare. There are nominal fees associated with requesting these background checks. Second parent adoptions will also require a home study whereas a step-parent adoption does not. The home study consists of several visits to the home over a span of time to observe the living arrangements and relationship with the proposed adopting parent. In Bucks County, home studies are conducted by the Children & Youth Social Services Agency. Following successful completion of all the pre-requisites and filing of the Petition for Adoption, the final step is the adoption hearing in either scenario.

Adoptions among certain family members are streamlined and circumvent some of the requirements for a non-kinship adoption. For example, a standard adoption will require a home study to be completed by the local Children & Youth services agency. This process is expensive and takes a number of months. This requirement is waived in the event of an adoption of a stepchild, grandchild, brother, sister, niece or nephew by blood, marriage, or prior adoption. Now that Pennsylvania recognizes same-sex marriages, same-sex partners can also benefit from this provision.

In a family adoption background checks must still be completed as it relates to the adopting parent(s). Presently, there are three background checks required: (1) Child Abuse History Clearance; (2) PA State Police Criminal Record Check; and (3) FBI Criminal Background Check through the Department of Welfare. If the natural parents are consenting to the adoption, their consents can be attached to the Petition for Adoption. This should be at least thirty (30) days after the consents are signed since there is a thirty (30) day revocation period. Alternatively, if lacking written consents, grounds for involuntary termination can be addressed with the petition. Following successful completion of all the pre-requisites and filing of the Petition for Adoption, the final step is the adoption hearing. Generally, the hearing is just a matter of ceremony and a happy occasion for the adopting parents. Other family and friends are usually welcomed to attend as well and celebrate with the new parent(s).

It is not uncommon for grandparents to take on a more active role in the lives of their grandchildren and serve as their primary guardian. Adoption is an option for cases where all interested parties desire to make this arrangement permanent. Some of the statutory requirements for adoption are waived in the case of a grandparent adopting a grandchild. A standard adoption requires a home study to be completed by the local Children & Youth services agency. This process is somewhat expensive and takes a number of months to complete. A home study is not required for a grandparent adoption. Grandparents do need to complete the requisite background checks. Presently, there are three background checks required: (1) Child Abuse History Clearance; (2) PA State Police Criminal Record Check; and (3) FBI Criminal Background Check through the Department of Welfare.

Lastly, the rights of the natural parents must be terminated in conjunction with the adoption. The termination can be voluntary if the natural parents are consenting to the adoption and their consents would then be attached to the Petition for Adoption for submission to the court. Alternatively, if lacking written consents, grounds for involuntary termination can be addressed with the petition. Common grounds for involuntary termination include conduct by the parent(s) continuing for a period of at least six months evidencing their refusal or failure to perform parental duties or repeated and continued incapacity, abuse, neglect by a parent that has caused the child to be without essential care, control or subsistence necessary for his physical or mental well‑being. Following successful completion of all the pre-requisites and filing of the Petition for Adoption, the final step is the adoption hearing. Generally, the hearing is just a matter of ceremony and a happy occasion for the adopting parents.

It can be a simple process for a step-parent to adopt their step-child. Some of the statutory requirements for adoption are waived in the case of a family member adopting a child. Specifically, a home study, which is expensive and can take several months to complete, is not required. Instead, the step-parent need only complete the necessary background checks.

Presently, there are three background checks required: (1) Child Abuse History Clearance; (2) PA State Police Criminal Record Check; and (3) FBI Criminal Background Check through the Department of Welfare.

As with any adoption matter, the rights of the natural parent(s) must be terminated. If the natural parents are consenting to the adoption, their consents can be attached to the Petition for Adoption. You need to wait at least thirty (30) days after the consents are signed prior to filing them with the court since there is a thirty (30) day revocation period. Alternatively, if lacking written consents, grounds for involuntary termination can be addressed within the adoption petition. There is a filing fee due to the county at the time you file the Petition for Adoption. The filed petition and notice of the hearing must be served on all interested parties. Following successful completion of all the pre-requisites and filing and service of the Petition for Adoption and hearing notice, the final step is the adoption hearing. Generally, the hearing is just a matter of ceremony and a happy occasion for the adopting parents and child.

A streamlined adoption process is available depending on the relationship of the prospective adoptive parents and the adoptee. Specifically, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and step-parents qualify as a kinship adoption. A home study is not required in a kinship adoption, however background checks must still be completed as it relates to the adopting parent(s). There are three background checks required: (1) Child Abuse History Clearance; (2) PA State Police Criminal Record Check; and (3) FBI Criminal Background Check through the Department of Welfare.

If the natural parents are consenting to the adoption, their consents can be attached to the Petition for Adoption such that two separate petitions are not required. Pursuant to 23 Pa. C.S. Section 2711, a consent must be signed by the following individuals where applicable: (1) the child(ren) being adopted if over 12 years of age; (2) the spouse of the adopting parent if that spouse is not also a petitioner; (3) the natural parent(s) of any minor child(ren) being adopted; (4) the guardian of an incapacitated child up for adoption; and (5) the guardian of a minor child or persons having custody when the adoptee has no parent whose consent is required. The consent cannot be signed by a natural mother within 72 hours, or three days, after the birth of a child. A consent can be signed by a natural father at any time after he has been notified the child is expected to be born or has been born. Executed consents become irrevocable after 30 days. The can be revoked on the basis of fraud or duress within 60 days. Without either proper consent or termination of parental rights, a kinship adoption cannot proceed.

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Parental rights can generally only be dissolved in conjunction with an adoption matter. A biological parent can consent to an adoption, voluntarily relinquish their rights or be subject to involuntary termination. Pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. § 2511, there are nine (9) grounds for involuntary termination of parental rights:

(1) The parent by conduct continuing for a period of at least six months immediately preceding the filing of the petition either has evidenced a settled purpose of relinquishing parental claim to a child or has refused or failed to perform parental duties.

(2) The repeated and continued incapacity, abuse, neglect or refusal of the parent as caused the child to be without essential parental care, control or subsistence necessary for his physical or mental well-being and the conditions and causes of the incapacity, abuse, neglect or refusal cannot or will not be remedied by the parent.

(3) The parent is the presumptive but not the natural father of the child.

(4) The child is in the custody of an agency, having been found under such circumstances that the identity or whereabouts of the parent is unknown and cannot be ascertained by diligent search and the parent does not claim the child within three months after the child is found.

(5) The child has been removed from the care of the parent by the court or under a voluntary agreement with an agency for a period of at least six months, the conditions which led to the removal or placement of the child continue to exist, the parent cannot or will not remedy those conditions within a reasonable period of time, the services or assistance reasonably available to the parent are not likely to remedy the conditions which led to the removal or placement of the child within a reasonable period of time and termination of the parental rights would best serve the needs and welfare of the child.

(6) In the case of a newborn child, the parent knows or has reason to know of the child’s birth, does not reside with the child, has not married the child’s other parent, has failed for a period of four months immediately preceding the filing of the petition to make reasonable efforts to maintain substantial and continuing contact with the child and has failed during the same four-month period to provide substantial financial support for the child.

(7) The parent is the father of a child conceived as a result of a rape or incest.

(8) The child has been removed from the care of the parent by the court or under a voluntary agreement with an agency, 12 months or more have elapsed from the date of removal or placement, the conditions which led to the removal or placement of the child continue to exist and termination of parental rights would best serve the needs and welfare of the child.

(9) The parent has been convicted of one of the following in which the victim was a child of the parent: criminal homicide, aggravated assault, a comparable crime in a different jurisdiction, or any attempt/conspiracy to commit the above.

Grounds for termination can be cited as part of an adoption petition if the adoption is kinship. In a non-kinship matter, the petitions for adoption and termination should be separate. The termination will be scheduled first. If successful, no notice must be given to the former biological parents as far as the subsequent adoption proceedings.

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Some of the statutory requirements for adoption are waived in the case of a family member adopting a child. A standard adoption will require a home study to be completed by the local Children & Youth services agency. This process is expensive and takes a number of months. This requirement is waived in the event of an adoption of a stepchild, grandchild, brother, sister, niece or nephew by blood, marriage, or prior adoption. Now that Pennsylvania recognizes same-sex marriages, same-sex partners can also benefit from this provision.

In a kinship adoption background checks must still be completed as it relates to the adopting parent(s). Presently, there are three background checks required: (1) Child Abuse History Clearance; (2) PA State Police Criminal Record Check; and (3) FBI Criminal Background Check through the Department of Welfare. If the natural parents are consenting to the adoption, their consents can be attached to the Petition for Adoption. This should be at least thirty (30) days after the consents are signed since there is a thirty (30) day revocation period. Alternatively, if lacking written consents, grounds for involuntary termination can be addressed with the petition. Following successful completion of all the pre-requisites and filing of the Petition for Adoption, the final step is the adoption hearing. Generally, the hearing is just a matter of ceremony and a happy occasion for the adopting parents.

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