According to the American Association of Retired Persons, 2.5 million U.S. grandparents care for their grandchildren. There can be a variety of reasons a parent may leave a child in the care of grandparents, including the parent’s financial and emotional inability. Some arrangements result in a child under the care of grandparents for a short time; in other instances, the children’s stay is indefinite. However, when parents become stable, or think they are, they may attempt to take their children out of their grandparents’ care. If the grandparents believe it is not in the best interest of the child, what can they do?
In Pennsylvania, grandparents face a high bar to win custody in court. To bring a claim, the grandparent must have a relationship that began with the consent of a parent or a court order. The child must be adjudicated as dependent; be substantially at risk due to parental abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol abuse, or incapacity; or be, for a period of 12 or more consecutive months, residing with the grandparents for a grandparent to bring a case for custody. This is no guarantee the court will award custody to the grandparent.
In Pennsylvania, custody is presumed to go to the parents; the grandparents must overcome this presumption with evidence. If a grandparent is serious about petitioning the court for custody, he or she should seek the guidance of a local family law attorney.
Grandparents must protect themselves, even if they do not think their grandchildren will be swept away by their parents. If grandparents find themselves in the position of caring for their grandchild, they should document when the child comes to live with them, how long the child stays and what the grandparents provide for the child. This provides some proof if litigation does happen.
The best thing grandparents can do is have the parents sign consent for guardianship, if the arrangement is temporary, and custody if it is indefinite. The grandparents then have proof of the legal arrangement for future court appearances and can make decisions for the child, such as medical and schooling. Without documentation, it is difficult for grandparents to execute such decisions.
Having custody of a grandchild is an expensive venture; there are food, clothing and other expenses of a child, and possibly attorney and court fees. Taking care of grandchildren and any conflict with their parents also can take an emotional toll. Fortunately, there are services available to grandparents.
AARP has articles with information and advice about this topic. Generations United runs a National Center on Grandfamilies. The website www.usa.gov/Topics/Grandparents.shtml outlines resources that explain the different support grandparents can get, including Social Security and welfare benefits. Usa.gov also explains student loans and grants, vaccinations, bullying and health of children. The Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, accessible at pailp.org, provides a guide to custody and visitation for grandparents in Pennsylvania.
These resources, and more, can be found via Internet search. Today, many grandparents want custody of their grandchildren in need, and in many instances this may be in the best interests of the child and the family as a whole.