What happens when criminal law intersects with family law? The most common time criminal law issues come up in the context of family law is with the failure to pay child support. When the non-custodial parent refuses to uphold their obligation to provide financial support to their children as ordered by the court, then courts can step in and hold them in contempt, which can mean a stint in jail, criminal fines, and interest added to whatever is already owed.
But sometimes, criminal law gets involved when it comes to custody of the children. One interesting case out of Philadelphia illustrates this intersection when a man was held in jail for interference of a custody order. A mother of a young girl died, and so a custody hearing was held. The man did not attend the hearing, and so custody was granted by default to the child’s maternal grandmother. After this, the man decided to take the law into his own hands, removed the child from the county and refused to bring her back – even after being contacted by law enforcement. Interestingly enough, however, the man had never been served with the amended custody order. He saw it for the first time when his appointed attorney handed it to him in jail. This certainly helped his case – if you are not served and not aware of your obligations, then you may not be held in contempt.
The issue, however, is that many non-custodial parents in the middle of custody disputes engage in illegal activities such as kidnapping, sometimes without even realizing that they are not entitled to possession of their children. In family law cases, a lot of families allow possession of their children upon agreement. Perhaps the mother has a friend’s wedding to attend on her weekend – could the father switch weekends with her? Usually, this works – but sometimes, parents who have been operating as agreed outside the black and white language of the order can get confused if the other parent, all of a sudden (perhaps out of spite) decides to stick to the order as written. Custody orders can be confusing, especially if they are being newly followed. Taking a child when you are not allowed to will almost always be considered kidnapping. It is even worse if you take the child across state lines – then it becomes a federal matter.
The other common time criminal law intersects with family law is when allegations of abuse occur. Sometimes, it can be domestic abuse, where violence is inflicted upon someone who is, or has been in an intimate or dating relationship with their abuser. It can also be a matter of child abuse. In the former, very often a protective order or no contact order can be issued by the court, which will prevent the accused from having any contact with the victim. There is typically even a radius in which the accused cannot enter around places the victim typically frequents – school, home, and work. As you can imagine, a no contact order can complicate family matters, particularly if the parties share a child and a home together. The accused will have to find a place to live in the meantime, and find ways to see their children, if the court allows it.
In the latter times, when child abuse is at issue, then the district attorney’s office will usually get involved through their child protective services arm. This branch has special prosecutors who work on not just prosecuting and holding abusers responsible, but providing means for the parent to ultimately be reunited with the child, if possible. If not possible, then the office will work on finding a good secondary home for the child, including placement with other family members. However, in the event that the abuse is serious, then they will be criminally charged, and very often serve time in jail. At this point, reunification with the child is questionable, and many parents will have their rights involuntarily terminated.
When family law and criminal law intersect, parties will usually need to find multiple attorneys to help represent them. If criminal defense lawyers get involved in family law cases, they must balance the interests of their client in maintaining innocence, but also work with the state and family courts in resolving the case in the best interest of the child. The moral here is that, if ever in doubt about your rights as a parent, it is important to seek out the advice of a family law attorney before it gets to the point where you are consulting with a criminal defense attorney.