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Grandparental Custody: A Stressful Satisfaction
by Marjorie Dorfman

Most of us would like to think that our jobs as custodians of our children’s welfare changes when they become adults and go off for a life of their own. Not that they aren’t always our children, but it is hoped that when they leave the nest and begin their own families that grandparents can grow older in peace. Why isn’t this happening as much as it used to? Why are more and more grandparents gaining custody over their grandchildren? How will this affect the children in generations to come? Read on for some answers, whether you are old enough for this or not.

When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments: tenderness for what he is and respect for what he may become.
– Louis Pasteur

American society has witnessed an alarming growth in the numbers of middle-aged and older adults who have taken on the primary responsibility for raising their grandchildren. According to the 2000 Census, 6.3 percent of children under the age of 18 (approximately 4.5 million children) live in an American household headed by a grandparent. This usually occurs after a traumatic event or as the result of long-term problems that render the adult child unable to function as a parent. In many cases custody is temporary, in others permanent depending on the circumstances. In all cases, there are many challenges and opportunities during these troubled times.

For those of you who considered this period of growing older as one of relaxation, you better wake up and smell the coffee. It’s one thing to enjoy your grandchildren and quite another to then say "it’s time to go back to Mommy now." It’s enormously taxing to fulfill that role, especially when you don’t really feel like it. When grandparents intervene in an attempt to offer family stability, the results can be catastrophic in terms of creating the proper combination of the roles and responsibilities of family caregivers and parental figures. Even if done with the best of care, there are consequences, and the problems can be and often are many and even more than expected. (Perhaps not unlike opening up a can of worms and finding another can of worms inside.)

With the increase in the number of elderly Americans raising their grandchildren, come a number of issues concerning legality, including custody, guardianship, adoption and foster care; all of which present their own particular problems and issues. There are also the financial aspects of raising an additional child, insurance coverage and school to be considered. Assistance is readily available through such wonderful organizations as AARP. The American Bar Association and the Children’s’ Defense Fund.

In the case of custody, a showing of parental unfitness is necessary. Many times it is temporary because a parent can come before the court at any time to show that the conditions have been corrected. With guardianship, the grandparent files a petition and notice is given to interested parties. It is usually temporary and may be removed once the parent has established fitness as such. The best interest of the child standard is used to determine guardianship. Adoption is permanent and once the grandparent has adopted the child, all parental rights to the child are terminated. Foster care is still another alternative. In such cases, the Department of Human Services will provide the grandparent (foster parent) with monthly reimbursement to cover insurance and childcare.

Grandparenthood is supposed to be a time of great joy and satisfaction. According to Hagestad, the significant family ties, which develop as adult children marry and become parents, is referred to as "family continuity." Involvement with younger family generations is vital for healthy later-adult development and well being. For the grandparent, this time in life can be most meaningful and satisfying. If an adult child is suffering from drug or alcohol abuse or any other illnesses that may preclude good parenting and refuses to relinquish care, a grandparent may pursue legal custody. It must be remembered, however, that once grandparents begin raising their grandchildren, they face a new set of needs and challenges. Expectations for both themselves and their families change because of the interruption of events in their life cycle.

According to Ehrie and Day, different lifestyles can create significant feelings of isolation for grandparent caregivers. Because of their custodial status, their concerns and problems automatically set them apart from their peers. Responsibilities coupled with uncertainty are powerful factors in creating feelings of loneliness. Some caregivers may be gainfully employed and married, but still burdened by the additional expense of a dependent grandchild. On going financial difficulties only add to the distinct sensation of "living on the edge."

Usually, grandparental authority occurs after a period of conflict about who should have custody. The child in the middle is a hot potato, who needs protection and stability. Problems usually deteriorate terribly before a grandparent steps in to hopefully remedy the situation. Part of the problem is that voluntary legal custody requires permission from a custodial parent, which can be difficult to obtain from a sick or troubled adult child who refuses to admit they have a problem and face his or her parental responsibilities. Conflict between grandparents seeking custody and the adult child is almost inevitable.

The goal is stability. In many cases, the grandparents do not actually have legal guardianship of the grandchild they are raising. If they pursue such action, the termination of parental rights, which can happen voluntarily or involuntarily in court, can be a source of turmoil and hostility between the adult child and the grandparent.

In short, the best interests of the child have to be the primary standard to consider when dealing with grandparental custody. Childhood is a short and special time as is grand-parenthood. For the best results, relationships need to by symbiotic and nurturing. It’s a delicate balance between grandparent and grandchild, not unlike a juggling act. Keeping everything up in the air, including hopes and dreams, seems a job suited for the likes of Jiminy Cricket and the special star that he wished upon. But don’t despair. I’ve heard that a grandparental cricket raised him and, after all, he didn’t turn out so bad.


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Copyright 2005