Caregiving Grandparents Need Guardianship

(This article was published in the Senior Spectrum and authored by Carol Wallace)

There are few things more precious than a grandchild. Not only are they an extension of ourselves through our children, but they are someone we can love and enjoy and then send back home until the next time they come to visit. For some grandparents their grandchildren never go home.
Whether due to drugs, alcohol, jail time or mental/physical problems there are many parents who no longer want to care for their children or are unable to be responsible parents. Sometimes death leaves a child without a custodial parent. Rather than have them placed in foster care, grandparents are taking them in and taking on the parenting role.
According to AARP more than six million children - approximately 1 in 12 - are living in households headed by grandparents (4.5 million children) or other relatives (1.5 million children). U.S. Census 2000 data tells us that 2.4 million grandparents are taking on the primary responsibility for the basic needs of their grandchildren. Many of these grandparents have assumed this responsibility without the parent of the child being in the home.
Frequently grandparents are assured by their adult children, as they wave goodbye, that this will be a temporary arrangement. Sadly, this is not always the case and often parents rarely contact or see their children, frequently for years. When babies and toddlers are involved, many grow up never having the chance to bond or know their biological parents.
So what happens when all of a sudden Mom or Dad decides to come and get the kids? We have all read about battles over children whose parents show up suddenly and remove the children from the only place they have felt loved and secure.
In some cases, dysfunctional parents do get their act together and want their children back and are willing to work with the grandparents to slowly transition the children. But in too many cases the dysfunctional parents, out of guilt or anger towards the grandparents, will just remove the children without regard for what's best for the children. Unfortunately, without having made prior arrangements for guardianship the grandparents, at that point, have no rights and usually have a very difficult and costly fight to try to get their grandchildren back.
"Grandparents need to file for guardianship as soon as the children are "dropped off" to stay with grandma and grandpa." according to Diane Wasznicky, Certified Family Law Specialist, in Sacramento. Ms. Wasznicky further explains: "There are four reasons grandparents are often reluctant to file for guardianship; fear of upsetting their children, concerns about the cost or not having money to initiate the process, concerns it won't do any good if they try to gain guardianship, and fear of the legal system."
If fear of angering an adult child is the concern, it is better to resolve this issue up front when the children move in with the grandparent. Rather than worrying about angering the parents filing guardianship papers when the children are left with the grandparents may help the parents recognize they can't just "dump" the kids on grandma. Perhaps the parents will think twice about the seriousness of what they are doing. For some parents, it won't make any difference...others may consider getting help to resolve their issues.
What about the child's right to choose? In a guardianship proceeding a child of 14 or older can nominate a guardian. Children over 5-years-old will usually be interviewed by a neutral mediator who is required, in Sacramento County, to make a recommendation to the court that the guardianship should be granted. The court will listen to any stated preference, but the decision as to who will be the guardian is left to the judicial system.
Due to all the legal technicalities on this subject, if you are a grandparent caring for grandchildren and you have not established guardianship, it is critical that you learn more about your rights and ability to protect your grandchildren. You can consult a family law attorney who has significant experience in the area of custody and family law. When seeking professional advice be sure you feel comfortable with the attorney and that they have the best interest of your grandchild as their goal. If not, continue to interview until you find a qualified attorney you like.
Although it may be very difficult for you to initiate guardianship proceedings now, think of how you will feel down the line, loosing your grandchildren to unfit parents. If you do nothing else, at least make a consultation appointment with an attorney to find out about the process and what rights you have now and down the line if the children are removed from your care. Our grandchildren deserve the best life we can give them and providing a loving, safe, and secure living environment is the best gift we can give them.

Carol Wallace, MS, CRC is a Geriatric Care Manager in Roseville, CA www.seniordownsizingsolutions.com 1-800-930-9969

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© 2007