As I indicated in my last blog post, Pennsylvania’s Superior Court gave us family lawyers a nice list of issues in Rogowski v. Kirven, 2023 Pa. Super. Lexis 75 (March 1, 2023). In that blog I addressed what I call “frustration contempt”. You can read it here. Another issue in that same opinion is something I am frequently asked, but until Rogowski, never saw the issue addressed by any appellate court. That is, a child calling a stepparent “daddy” or “mommy”.
In the Rogowski case the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County entered a Custody Order that, among other things, restricted the parties’ eight-year-old child’s use of the term’s “mommy” and “daddy” to the child’s biological parents. This provision was aimed at the child’s mother who allowed the child to refer to mother’s husband as “daddy” to the ire of the child’s biological father.
The trial court’s reasoning was that the parent’s ill will and lack of trust was cultivating unhealthy bonds between each parent and the child and that ill will was not in the child’s best interest and, detrimental to the child. The mother’s response was that the child was eight years old and had half-siblings that were 18 months and a newborn and, the eight-year-old would logically use the same terminology for her stepfather as did her half-siblings. In restricting the child’s use of the term “dad” the trial court was infringing on the child’s First Amendment right to free speech.
The Superior Court vacated that portion of the order but did not specifically follow the mother’s reasoning. Superior Court agreed that there was ill will and a lack of trust between the parents but did not feel that the trial court found that there was a causal link between calling stepfather “dad” and some risk of harm to the child. The opinion goes on to state that a child’s relationship with his or her father is an important and vital part of a child’s development; however, any parent/child relationship should be defined by, and developed according to the personalities and character of the child and each parent, unhampered by any restrictions imposed by any court. In other words, “…, how, and by what term a child refers to a specific person in his or her life should be set by the personalities and character of the child and that person, and the term should not be used as a weapon by others to deter the child’s relationship with that person.”
So, the bottom line is this, if a child wants to call her stepfather “daddy” and mother did not try to cultivate this to eliminate or somehow infringe on the child’s relationship with her father, there is nothing wrong with it and a court will not intervene.
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