Emily Baxter*, age 56, is a grandmother raising her grandchildren. Not because the children’s parents are no longer living but because one parent is incarcerated and the other, their mother, abandoned them at an early age to pursue a relationship with a man who lived three states away.
“Initially,” says Baxter, my husband and I applied for foster parent status. “But, while that was in the works, we decided to petition the court for full guardianship status and the court awarded it.” Mostly because her daughter and former son-in-law did not protest. “We probably would have gotten them anyway,” she sighs. “One parent was jailed and the other would go missing much of the time.”
Grandparents obtaining legal guardianship is a phenomenon on the rise in the United States due to a variety of factors related to the parents of these children. These factors include the state of the economy, military duty, incarceration, mental health issues and drug use. For the Baxters, who are raising Alyssa, age 5, and Ryan, age 7, the decision to pursue guardianship was an easy one. “I’ve had them since Alyssa was a few months old and Ryan was 2. They call me mom. Just knowing that I am making their lives better keeps me going.”
As the trend of multigenerational households rises, attorneys are becoming more adept at counseling and working to serve the best interests of the children and their caregivers. Howard Collens and Randi Glanz, attorneys in the metro Detroit area, have served as facilitators for guardianship for many years.
“There are basically two types of legal guardianship,” says Collens, a partner with the firm of Galloway & Collens. “Limited and full. Limited guardianship usually occurs when the grandparent is seeking custody for a time period, perhaps while a parent is in the military or during a time of incarceration.” Often, in the case of incarceration, rehab or drug problems, there is a timeline wherein a parent must meet certain criteria imposed by the court in order to regain custody of the children.
“With limited guardianship, parental consent is obtained,” says Collens. “There is a court hearing, and the guardian also agrees to his or her appointment at that time. True to its title, limited guardianship is just that: limited. The guardian (in this case, grandparent) cannot consent to marriage of a minor child, adoption or release for adoption. “With full guardianship, these are all possible,” adds Collens. “It is a true suspension of biological parental powers.”
Both types of guardianship require regular visits to the court to report on the status of the child or children, which includes health reports and school status reports, although court visits usually occur less in the case of full guardianship.
When a grandparent obtains full guardianship, the court is petitioned and the parent, or parents, are served with copies of the legal papers and are notified of a hearing date. The purpose of the hearing is to establish a willing and able guardian for the children and to allow a parent the opportunity to object.
Randi Glanz, a partner with ClarkHill, PLC [http://www.clarkhill.com/], of Birmingham, Michigan, says that she has been working with families and the courts on this very issue for almost 20 years. “Many attorneys get out of this type of law eventually,” she says, “because it is so emotionally draining. They’ll tell you not to get so personally and emotionally involved. But you can’t help it when you have a passion for children and the desire to fight for them.”
Glanz helps to facilitate a variety of outcomes, working with families to counsel and advise on the best avenue for the child. She says that the benefits of legal guardianship are obvious when a grandparent tries to get medical care for that child or engage in school activities. “Without it,” she says, “it is often difficult, if not impossible, to schedule regular health checkups, teacher conferences or even enroll the child in school.” With regard to healthcare, full guardianship also offers the ability to add grandchildren to a grandparent’s healthcare plan as dependents.
For Baxter, she decided that guardianship was more beneficial than foster parenting. “As legal guardian to my grandchildren, I have the ability to add them to my healthcare plan, make decisions for them that are usually only afforded a parent, and I don’t have the state stepping in, sending caseworkers to my house to check up on me. I know I’m a good “parent” to these kids. I don’t need someone else coming in and deciding that for me.”
Despite the fact that there are requirements for legal guardianship, such as regular reporting, it is less intrusive than the requirements for foster parent status. In addition, says Glanz, with regard to foster care, “the goal is for reunification with the parent(s) if this is at all possible. The court monitors the progress of the child and the parent and helps them to work towards reuniting families. With full guardianship, this is not the case.”
As with any type of court proceeding, procedures may vary from State to State. For court rules in your own area, contact an attorney specializing in family law. Contacting your local bar association will help in this process and, often, many attorneys are willing to take on a pro bono (free of charge) case a few times a year. Says Glanz, “It is important to look beyond the here and now and help to make the right decisions for these kids and their future.”
In Baxter’s case, the big picture was what steered her and her husband to seek full guardianship. And, “at this point, I’ve bonded with these children,” she says. “I’ve had them for a long time, and they look to me and my husband as their security. They know we will never give them up and we will always act in their best interests.”