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grandparent day

National Grandparents Day 2018: Celebrating Grandparents and Sharing the Care

by Vivienne Duncan September 7, 2018

Although the word may conjure up an image of gray hair and a walking cane, grandparents are as diverse as the rest of society; from barely into middle years, active and working, to long retired and facing age-related challenges. Whatever the case, their contribution to the lives of their grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) is immense.

As we celebrate National Grandparents Day on September 9, 2018, let us acknowledge the support, encouragement and words of wisdom that are routinely offered by our family elders. Studies have shown that children who maintain a relationship with a grandparent are less likely to experience emotional and behavioral problems and greatly benefit from learning about family history and life experiences. Many grandparents also willingly share in the upbringing of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including extensive babysitting duties.

However, some grandparents take on a much greater role – as full-time caregivers for their grandchildren. Whatever precipitates the crisis, such as a parent’s ill health, divorce, incarceration or substance abuse, grandparents frequently step in to ensure that the child or children will be cared for. And, while some parents will maintain contact with their children during this time others may disappear, relying on the grandparent to provide a stable home for the child.

Depending on the circumstances, there are different legal options for grandparents wishing to take on the role of full-time caregiver, temporarily or permanently:

Physical Custody: an informal arrangement between the parent and grandparent where the grandparent has physical custody of the child and is responsible for providing day-to-day care and support. However, the parent retains legal rights over the child, including decisions about medical and educational matters. The parent remains responsible for financially supporting the child and can take the child back at any time.

Legal Custody: if a parent cannot take care of their child, the court may award legal custody to the grandparent, who will be able to make more substantial decisions about the child’s welfare than under an informal arrangement. Grandparents who are legal custodians can apply for public assistance to help cover child care expenses. If circumstances change later on and a parent asks for custody to be restored, the court will decide whether that would be in the child’s best interests.

Kinship Care: if a child has been removed from the parent’s home by the State (Child Welfare Agency) and taken into foster care, a grandparent can offer to care for the child instead. This can be done by accepting responsibility for the child’s care without any involvement or oversight by the agency, or by becoming the child’s foster parent, which requires agency supervision but also enables grandparents to apply for foster care payments to help cover child care costs.  The grandparent will have temporary physical custody of the child but legal custody will remain with the State.

Guardianship: a grandparent can obtain guardianship if the court decides the parents are unable to care for their child at all, i.e. due to death or another substantial reason. Guardians generally have more authority to make decisions on behalf of the child than the previous carer categories. Although a parent cannot remove the child from the grandparent’s home without the court’s permission, they are still financially responsible for the child’s support and may be granted visitation. If circumstances improve and either parent asks the court to end the guardianship, the court will decide whether that would be in the child’s best interests.

Standby Guardianship: if a parent develops ill health and foresees a time when they may become too ill to care for their child, they can designate a grandparent as a standby guardian.  This can be achieved: (a) informally, by signing a legal document in front of two witnesses; or (b) formally, through the court at the parent’s request. A standby guardianship does not affect parental rights and can be easily ended if improved health means they are able to resume parenting. If a birth parent objects to the person named as standby guardian, he or she has priority for custody of the child unless the court decides they are unfit or there is another compelling reason.

Adoption: this process permanently terminates the biological parents’ rights over the child and the adoptive grandparent assumes all parental rights and responsibilities, including financial support of the child.

Whether grandparents assume the caregiver role temporarily to enable parents to focus on their health, recovery, studies or work – or on a permanent basis, the benefits to their grandchildren are incalculable. Particularly for older grandparents who may have limited financial resources and health issues to consider, the sacrifices can be great, but they make them willingly.  Grandparents give their time and energy as babysitters, teachers, sounding boards, guidance counselors, sources of history, chauffeurs and in numerous other roles.  In return, the lives of grandparents are also greatly enriched by these interactions, with higher levels of happiness and less depression as they age.

These intergenerational relationships benefit us all, providing a solid foundation for families, communities and society as a whole.  Happy Grandparents Day – and thank you.

The Elderlaw Project of the City Bar Justice Center, with the help of volunteer attorneys, provides low-income seniors with free legal services for life planning. Learn more: Elderlaw Project

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