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Alcohol Abuse and Custody: What Safeguards are Available?

A straightforward custody case can be made extremely complex and contentious when accusations are raised regarding alcohol use and abuse. Regardless of whether the concerns are legitimate or not, alcohol use that may have been problematic, but tolerated while a relationship was intact, becomes magnified many times over when the parties separate and custody has to be shared between the parties. Even when the imbibing party has committed to sobriety, the other parent may remain deeply skeptical and concerned about sharing custody of young children. This is particularly true if there is an existing pattern of sobriety and relapse into heavy consumption patterns. There are a variety of alcohol detection devices and methodologies available in Pennsylvania that can provide more insight into the level of alcohol use that is occurring. Utilizing these resources can have dual benefits: the concerned parent will either have their fears assuaged or validated and the other parent, if wrongfully accused of alcohol abuse, will have hard proof that the accusations lack merit.

Biological Testing

There are both immediate and long term biological alcohol testing options available. The immediate testing options, including breathalyzer testing, blood testing and urine testing, give a snapshot of the party’s blood alcohol level (“BAC”) at any given moment in time. Over the last several years, as cellphone technology has advanced, personalized breathalyzer devices and cellphone apps have been developed which allow the user to test their BAC at any given time and share the results with third parties, like the other parent. There are apps available for almost every major phone manufacturer. These devices can go a long way in providing instantaneous assurance that excessive alcohol consumption is not occurring during custodial time.

A common long term biological alcohol test is hair follicle analysis which must be done at a laboratory. This test looks at the average alcohol consumption over a set period of time, typically 90 days, and provides insight into whether the individual’s drinking habits are indeed excessive. The test results can often be translated into an estimate of the average number of drinks consumed by that party on a daily basis and where the party falls on the spectrum of adults who drink alcohol. This testing can provide valid insight into the individuals’ pattern of drinking.

Vehicle Safeguards

There are several vendors approved by PennDot that provide ignition interlock devices. These devices provide two-fold protection. First, they prevent the vehicle from being started if the driver utilizing the device has an elevated blood alcohol level. It has been my professional observation that these devices are extremely sensitive and will not allow the start of the vehicle even when the BAC level is below the legal limit to drive. Second, these devices store a log of the attempts to start the vehicle which can, over a period of time, provide insight into uncontrolled drinking patterns, if they exist. These devices are not perfect: the driver could have a third party blow into the device or could simply use another vehicle, but they do provide an extra layer of protection on top of the other biological testing available.

If one or both parties struggle with addiction to alcohol and/or other substances, these devices will not solve the underlying issues. Individual and family counseling is essential to address addictions of all kinds and encourage continued sobriety. However, these devices can be a start in the right direction to advance custody discussions by providing an extra level of protection for the concerned parent.

If you have any questions about child custody, please contact Elizabeth C. Early at (610) 275-0700 or eearly@highswartz.com. Elizabeth C. Early is an attorney at High Swartz, LLP. Her practice is 100% family law based and includes divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, pre- and post- nuptial agreements and abuse matters. Ms. Early has been named as Pennsylvania Super Lawyer “Rising Star” by Philadelphia Magazine. She is an active member of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and the Montgomery Bar Association and is a frequent speaker on family law issues. She is admitted to practice in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and is currently accepting cases in Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County and Philadelphia County.

The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances.  The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.

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