To the editor:
On Nov. 5, Mifflin County voters will decide who will serve as our judge in the Court of Common Pleas for the next 10 years. The campaign slogans on one side suggest we need fresh eyes and that it is time for change. The other side emphasized 20 years of judicial experience.
One of many jobs the Judge must do is decide the custody arrangement or parenting plan for divorcing parents who cannot reach an agreement by themselves. Over the last four years - 2009 to 2012 - there was an average of 185 divorces filed in Mifflin County Court each year. During the same time period, there were 249 custody cases processed each year in the court.
As a psychologist, I have had the opportunity to testify in seven different counties in Pennsylvania on child custody issues. I interact with colleagues across our state as one of 42 psychologists who are members of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association Child Custody Study Committee. In looking across the state of Pennsylvania, Mifflin County has one of the most efficient and progressive systems for dealing with child custody; the majority of which was put into place by Judge Timothy Searer.
A four-hour course is mandated for all divorcing parents so that they learn the effects of divorce on children. At a minimum of twice a month, the court holds a group custody conference so that parents who have filed a custody petition are able to see a judge within a few weeks. My colleagues in some areas note that it can take close to a year before parents ever see a judge in other counties. Judges from several nearby counties have observed Mifflin County's group custody day and then instituted it in their own common pleas courts.
Judge Searer has instituted a Hybrid Mediation Program which has an 85 percent success rate for helping parents come to an agreement. On a few high conflict cases, he has requested psychological evaluations - a practice that was instituted by his predecessor, Judge Francis A. Searer. The goal of all of these programs is to help parents develop the appropriate parenting plan for their children.
The effect of a prolonged custody battle has a devastating effect on children. A judge needs the wisdom of Solomon. Deciding how to divide a child's time can have far reaching consequences. It is like doing surgery to the family. I had surgery four years ago. The first question I asked the surgeon was "How many surgeries have you done?" He told me over 500. Judge Searer has made thousands of decisions regarding custody. In my opinion, we don't need fresh eyes to decide the fate of our children. We need experience.
David G. Ray, Psychologist