I saw on my calendar that the first week in March is World Orphan Week. The subject of orphans leads to the topic of children in need, which leads to dependent children, which leads, ultimately, to the discussion of adoption. This month’s blog post, therefore, will touch on adoption, but first, back to World Orphan Week (WOW).
WOW was established in 2005 by a British children’s charity called SOS Children’s Villages UK. This organization works in 134 countries and territories around the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States. The United States’ first WOW was in 2008.
WOW’s purpose is to draw attention to the suffering of the tens of millions orphaned and abandoned children in the world today and raise money for programs benefitting these children. To learn more information about WOW specifically, please visit their website at www.sos-childrensvillages.org. Interested individuals can follow the US, Canadian or UK affiliates on social media, sponsor a child, or sponsor an entire village of children through the website.
Closer to home, there are hundreds of children in the Philadelphia area looking for forever homes. People traditionally associate adoption with healthy but unplanned babies, but that is only a small percentage of adoptable children. There are many dependent children in the foster care system ready for adoption, “orphans” in the most traditional sense. They need families who are ready and willing to adopt. Age plays a huge factor in many of the difficult to place children because they are considered too old. Other reasons these children aren’t adopted are because they are of a minority group, a group of siblings or the children is facing physical or mental challenges. They need forever homes just as much as those healthy babies we usually think of in the adoption context.
For people interested in finding out more about children in the local foster care system, call your county Department of Children, Youth and Families. In Philadelphia, it is the Department of Human Services or DHS. In New Jersey, it is the Department of Children and Families. Another excellent source is Philadelphia’s Adoption Center, www.adopt.org, or 1-800-TO-ADOPT.
There are many different types of adoptions, and most involve children other than infants. There can be international adoptions, interstate adoptions, step-parent adoptions and even adoptions of adult children. However, if you are thinking about adoption, consider a child currently in the foster care system. Best of all, for family law attorneys, all of these adoptions have happy endings.
The United States Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in a case of both local and national importance. The case is Fulton v. Philadelphia, Pa., 922 F.3d (3rd Cir., April 22, 2019), cert. granted ___U.S.___, 2020 U.S. Lexis 961 (February 24, 2020). A Writ of Certiorari is a request for a review of a decision of one of the United States Circuit Courts of Appeal; basically, an appeal to the Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court is a court that grants appeals only at its discretion, not as of right, so the mere fact that the Supreme Court granted the appeal is significant.
There are four Appellants in the case, those being the plaintiffs in the lower Court. Three of the four plaintiffs are individuals who have acted as foster parents through the fourth and most noteworthy plaintiff, Catholic Social Services. The more popular name for this case is Catholic Social Services v. Philadelphia.
Factually, the case goes back to an article that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer in March 2018. In that article, the Inquirer pointed out that two religious-based social service providers under contract with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services were discriminating against same-sex couples. Those two organizations were Bethany Christian Services (Bethany) and Catholic Social Services (CSS). While the City has negotiated a resolution with Bethany, it failed to do so with CSS. Ultimately CSS sought a preliminary injunction in Federal Court against the City.
The United States District Court denied the injunction request, and CSS appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court has granted CSS’s appeal from the Third Circuit decision. By way of background, CSS has been providing care to vulnerable children in Philadelphia since its formation in 1917, but the tradition of the Catholic Church’s involvement with the less fortunate goes back to the yellow fever outbreak of 1797.
Up through 2018, CSS entered into a series of one-year contracts with the City. At the same time, the City maintained a Fair Practices Ordinance, which the City incorporates into all contracts. That Ordinance prohibited sexual orientation discrimination in public accommodations; however, for some time, the City overlooked that prohibition in its dealings with Bethany and CSS.
Two days after the Inquirer article, Philadelphia’s City Council passed a resolution directing the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations to investigate the City’s Department of Human Services (DHS). They also were directed to investigate any contractor with the City that was discriminating against prospective LGBTQ foster parents. If discrimination was found, DHS needed to terminate the contracts with deliberate speed. The City did not immediately terminate CSS’s contract, but it initiated an intake freeze. This intake freeze stipulated that unless a child was part of a sibling group already in CSS care, DHS would place no new children in a CSS foster home. On June 30, 2018, the City did not renew CSS’s one-year contract, and CSS was no longer provided with either referrals or foster care reimbursements. CSS, however, was permitted to continue to provide Philadelphia with group homes and in-home services for families involved with DHS in Philadelphia.
In the case, CSS asserts that it is mandated by Pennsylvania law to assess the suitability of prospective foster parents. This includes examining “existing family relationships, attitudes and expectations regarding the applicant’s children and parent/child relationship, especially as they might affect a foster child.” 23 Pa. C.S.A. §6344(d)(2)(iv); 55 Pa. Code §3700.64(b)(1).
Based on that language, CSS refused to certify not only unmarried same-sex couples but also heterosexual unmarried couples. Concerning married same-sex couples, CSS cited the teachings of the Catholic Church that marriage can only happen between a man and a woman. According to CSS, married same-sex couples fell into the same category of all unmarried couples and were not approved as such.
CSS’s legal argument is that in terminating and not renewing its foster care contract with the City, the City is violating the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment. In other words, CSS argues that part of its function is to provide services to vulnerable children in Philadelphia. These services include foster care placements. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania requires CSS to assess potential foster parents based on moral and parental attitude criteria. CSS, a religious institution, does these based on the religious teachings of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church opposes two people living together outside of a marital relationship, be they a heterosexual or a same-sex couple. In discontinuing its relationship with CSS, the City of Philadelphia is forcing CSS to choose between contradicting its religious teachings or abandoning the core function of providing foster care services for vulnerable children. By making CSS chose, the City is, therefore, violating CSS’s First Amendment rights to practice its religion. On appeal, CSS presents three questions to the Supreme Court:
- Whether Free Exercise plaintiffs can only succeed by proving a particular type of discrimination claim, this would be that the government would allow the same conduct by someone who held different religious views – as two circuits have held, or whether courts must consider other evidence that a law is not neutral and generally applicable, as six circuit courts have held?
- Whether Employment Division v. Smith, should be revisited?
- Whether a government violates the First Amendment by conditioning a religious agency’s ability to participate in the foster care system on taking actions and making statements that directly contradict the agency’s religious beliefs?
CSS’s first and third issues are somewhat self-explanatory. The second, the one based on Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990); and its more famous related cases, Masterpiece Bakeshop Ltd v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, ___ U.S.___, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018); and Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993), deserves more explanation. Masterpiece Bakeshop is a case involving a bakery in Colorado that refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding and then cited and fined by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Bakery ultimately prevailed. Lukumi involves a church of the Caribbean Santeria religion, which uses animal sacrifice in certain rituals. The City of Hialeah, Florida, passed an ordinance prohibiting animal sacrifice specifically aimed at the church. The church ultimately prevailed as well.
The decision to be reviewed by the Supreme Court is that the Third Circuit sided with the City in denying CSS’s request for an injunction. The Court’s rationale behind the injunction is that providing foster care services is not an intrinsically religious activity. While CSS’s religious beliefs are certainly legitimately held, the First Amendment does not “relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a ‘valid and natural law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes conduct that his religion proscribes’…” Employment Division v. Smith, 494 US 872, 879 (1990).
In simple terms, religious beliefs cannot justify discrimination. The Third Circuit also raises the point that while the original contract expired, CSS is now asking that the City enter into a foster care contract with CSS on CSS’s terms. That is certainly a high bar to reach either legally or logically.
Which side will prevail? Who knows? While the Supreme Court has been trending toward the more conservative in recent years if the issue comes down to religious freedom, which is a subset of individual rights, doesn’t the City of Philadelphia have the individual right to contract with whomever it so chooses?
Family Law Attorney John Zurzola discusses all the steps involved in a child custody case in family court. He starts off explaining child custody and the definitions of what physical, primary, shared, sole and partial custody all mean. Then, John touches on the complexities of “standing” and “in loco parentis.” Next, he goes into detail about the actual filing of a custody complaint through mediation and then court. John explains what can happen in time-sensitive cases when your actual court date may be months away. Finally, he takes you through a typical custody trial, covers the 16 factors a judge must use to decide your case, and what you must do to modify your custody order or relocate to another state.
By: Carolyn Mirabile
Parents often use 529 Plans to save money for college. It is a great tool that provides a tax deduction in Pennsylvania and provides tax-free withdrawals so long as the funds are used for college-related expenses as defined in the Code. Under the new provisions which became effective January 1, 2020, 529 Plans may also be used to pay up to $10,000 towards student loans. This makes the 529 Plan an even better option for families saving for college. When parties are in a divorce, there are often disputes on how 529 Plans should be divided since a parent may withdraw money from the plan at any time, for any purpose. Due to this factor, the Court treats 529 Plans as a marital asset. The family law practitioner should make sure the Plan’s statements are exchanged between the parties on annual bases with one party providing an accounting of any monies used towards college expenses. If the funds are not depleted, the remaining money in the 529 account should be divided between the parties in the same percentage as the other divorce assets.
The fifth episode in our “Let’s Talk Family Law” series features our Attorney, Carolyn R. Mirabile and her special guest, Mark H. Bradford, CPA, CFE, as they discuss complex support issues in family law cases. Mark is an expert in forensic accounting at Asterion Consulting in Philadelphia. He specializes in assisting clients in family law matters and has been qualified as an expert throughout the Commonwealth. In this episode, Carolyn and Mark discuss several topics about how income is calculated in support proceedings. Carolyn reviews what the Pennsylvania Statute and Rules define as income, and Mark explains which documents are used by forensic accountants to determine net income available for support. Carolyn and Mark discuss an analysis of cash flow, including income from rental and commercial properties, compensation packages, lifestyle, retained earnings, trusts, and retirement plans.
Over the recent holiday break, my family and I went on vacation, which involved travel by plane. On the one hand, plane travel allows us to see things and do things our grandparents never dreamed of; but on the other hand, traveling at a reasonable price involves being confined in a metal tube and seated in an uncomfortable and claustrophobic position for hours on end.
For better or for worse, airlines put a small video screen in the back of the seat as “in-flight entertainment.” These screens and the accompanying audio never seem to work 100% correctly, but there is only so much reading you can do on a long flight.
On my recent trip, I decided to watch a few episodes of an HBO series called “Divorce.” I have since learned HBO canceled the series after three seasons. I’m certainly not a television critic, but I found the episodes fascinating because, at least the few I watched, focused on the effects of divorce on the people going through a divorce, not on the lawyers and their decisions and tactics; basically, my world from the other side of the street.
HBO describes “Divorce” as a comedy-drama focusing on one family’s rollercoaster ride through a divorce, which includes two of the wife’s also divorcing friends. The wife, Frances, is played by Sarah Jessica Parker; the husband, Robert, is played by Thomas Haden Church. In the episode I found most poignant, Robert is about to marry his pregnant girlfriend, who is about 25 years his junior. To avoid the whole situation, Frances decides to go to Miami with her hunky Dominican boyfriend. The plan hits a roadblock when Robert and Frances’s teenaged daughter disappears just before the wedding. Dad getting married is more than the daughter can handle. Frances tracks down their daughter, talks her into going to dad’s wedding and everything ends well.
Other themes running through the show are Frances’s under-employment, Robert’s new relationship taking a turn he never expected, both Frances and Robert continue to have feelings for each other, her one friend’s college-aged son who refuses to come home over break because he is sick of being caught in the middle of his parents’ disagreements, and the other friend being forced to live with her over-protective mother because her white-collar criminal husband is in jail and all of the family’s money is gone.
My point in all of this is not deciding if this show is good or not, but these themes and emotions of the characters are things I hear every day from clients. Realized if someone has gone so far as to create a television show about all of this, those concepts, emotions and themes are common for people facing divorce. You’re not alone.
Click here to listen.
Family Law Attorneys Lawrence J. “Skip” Persick and John Zurzola delved into specifics about how to navigate family law cases in Pennsylvania as a man/father. In this episode, they discuss protection from abuse orders, divorce, child custody and child support. Skip and John also examine the financial side of things by reviewing earning capacity, tax credits and equitable distribution. They cover each of these topics in detail while explaining why it’s essential to always keep in mind the child’s or children’s best interest.
More often then not, clients are contacting us about loans they never secured, credit cards they never used, and even tax returns they never reviewed or filed for companies they never knew they owned. Sometimes, clients won’t learn about a loan or credit card their spouse secured in the client’s name until a debt collector contacted them or they received a letter in the mail for nonpayment. This can be damaging to a spouse’s credit and sometimes frustrating to correct.
The first action item a spouse should do when filing for divorce is to secure a credit report. There are credit agencies that will provide one free report a year. Ordering reports every six months from each of the reporting agencies allows a spouse to obtain valuable information and assistance in correcting financial issues. Additionally, clients should be proactive in getting documents for loans or mortgages to see if those documents list their names as the guarantor. Finally, a client should be proactive in filing tax returns and timely paying taxes. The complete tax return with all attachments should be thoroughly reviewed to gather all information about any outstanding tax liens or late filings. Always bring any financial concerns to the attention of your family law attorney who can provide resources and assist the client in correcting their financial record.