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Losing Custody

“I am a grandmother raising my 8 ½ year-old granddaughter who came to live with me when she just turned 3.”

“Both her parents have been incarcerated for most of this time. Both parents have an extensive criminal and drug history. Her mother (my daughter) still has drug issues, so she has not reintegrated back into her child’s life. However her father was released several months ago and we are going through a court custody battle. My granddaughter is in counseling as she has had a very hard time with her father back in her life and so much in her life changing. We are about to be in the final part of our custody trial and I live in a state where grandparents have no rights when it comes to custody. She has met with court officials and each time tells them that she does not want to live with him, she wants to stay with me. But they believe that I have encouraged her to say that and that I put negative messages into her mind about her father. My granddaughter is a beautiful child, she excels in school, and has worked through most all the separation issues from her parents. I have worked very hard over the last 5 1/2 yrs to help make up for the lack of parental involvement in her life. I am beginning to see this custody situation is not going to go in our favor. How can I prepare my granddaughter to be separated from the only security she has ever known, her home, her friends, her family and be placed into full custody of her father.”

Although I usually shorten questions for brevity, I present this email in its entirety so my readers can come to grips with the effects of parental drug use and incarceration on children.

What is happening to this little girl is like a natural disaster…a tsunami…that destroys her world. This disaster was created not by nature but by her parents, the drug culture, the prison system, and the courts. This disaster wrecked her parents’ lives (and could have wrecked their daughter’s life in unstable foster care except for the fact she had a grandmother willing and able to care for her). Now she is at risk of losing the only parent she has known as well her familiar house, school, neighborhood and friends to go live with a stranger albeit her biological father.

The father has been out of prison for only a few months, I don’t know how long he has been clean and sober. I don’t know if he has a job, a stable home suitable for a child, a valid driver’s license, or parenting skills. I don’t know if he is still married to the child’s mother. I don’t know if there is a girlfriend in the picture and if so whether this is a permanent situation or another potential loss for this little girl.

However I do know that drug addicts can become rehabilitated. The man is the little girl’s father and she should certainly become reacquainted with him. But sole custody? Such a drastic, speedy change? Such a young child?

If I were this grandmother I would get the best possible family lawyer to argue for the “best interest of the child.” The child should feel free to tell the court she does not want to live with strangers and her grandmother did not coach her to say this. Joint custody might work if the father lives nearby. Next best thing would be liberal visitation for the grandmother.

If you do not get visitation use phone calls, emails, Skype, letters, little gifts. Tell her repeatedly that you love her and she can call you to talk. Always stress that the man is her father who is working hard to make a home for her. Try to have a good working relationship with the father so you two can communicate easily. Remember she has been nourished and strengthened by the love and stability she has had with you.

To answer the question you posed: how can I prepare her? How do you prepare a child for seeing her home swept away by the sea? I guess you start by saying, “The court has ruled and we must obey. I will always love you and continue to be a part of your life. I expect you to continue to be a good student and grow up to be a good person and a responsible citizen. It may be hard in the beginning because change is a challenge but you will find new friends. I know you can do it…you can make this transition. I believe in you!”

This is a lot for the child to grasp so it must be repeated often. Hopefully the courts will at least allow visitation so this message can be repeated with lots of hugs.

In the introduction to my first book I wrote, “Because the children of a society are that society’s future, parenting is everybody’s business.” I am not wise enough to solve our nation’s horrific drug problem but it is apparent that what we are doing now is not working. And, sadly, children…our future…are innocent victims of this system failure.