Legislative advocates, grandparents raising grandchildren meet to discuss legal rights

Not long ago, many grandparents caring for grandchildren felt isolated and ashamed that their offspring had shirked their parental responsibilities; and there were few policies and laws to protect grandparents raising grandchildren.

But the sheer number of grandparents who have come to the rescue of their grandchildren - close to six million nationwide - has prompted a movement toward change.

Legislative advocates, Mohave County law enforcement officers and grandparents raising grandchildren met at the Kathryn Heidenreich Adult Center Wednesday to discuss Mohave County grandparents' legal rights and options.

The Western Arizona Council of Governments-sponsored workshop included information about legal rights, custody, foster care/kinship care, programs and resources available to grandparents raising grandchildren.

Stacey Holloway, Kingman Police Department school resource officer at Kingman High School South said times have changed since she was in high school.

"Fifteen to 20 percent of students reside with someone else," Holloway said.

"Grandparents need legal documents.

We need something in writing that says you (the grandparent) have the authority to make decisions for this child."

Legislative advocates Barry Gold, a member of the Governor's Special Task Force Grands Raising Grands and the Governor's Advisory Council on Aging, and Billye Wilda, also on the task force and active in the Phoenix chapter of Grandparents United for Children's Rights, spoke to 25 grandparents about what they can do protect their legal rights.

"I need to find out about guardianship rights," said Roxane Nelson whose three grandchildren have lived with her since they were born.

Gloria Richhart, the coordinator or Grandparents Raising Grandchildren support group in Kingman, said grandparents should get the legal documents necessary to get legal custody in order to speak on the child's behalf.

In addition, without power of attorney, legal guardianship or custody of the grandchildren, the children are not eligible for health care under any personnel policy, although grandparents can sometimes receive health care under government programs.

"If grandparents don't get that paperwork, our hands are tied," Richhart said.

"The job isn't finished until the paperwork is done."

Wilda spoke about the four categories of custody in Arizona: guardianship requires the consent of both parents; non-parent custody requires that the parents be divorced or in the process of divorce, where a child is born our of wedlock or a parent is deceased; private dependency requires that a child has no parent capable of effective parenting, is in imminent danger emotionally or physically, or is abandoned; permanent guardianship requires a child to have been declared dependent for the previous six months.

She also spoke of children's power of attorney, which is good for seeking medical attention and easier to get, but is only good for six months and is does not protect the grandchild from being removed from the home by an unfit parent.

"We are working on a bill that would give grandparents equal weight (to a parent) if that child has lived with the grandparent for a time," she said.

"But these things take time."

Gold spoke of 'kinship care' - the term currently used by the courts to define primary residential care by a blood relative.

"We are looking to build up one-stop centers that offer a variety of services from legal assistance to behavioral health services," Gold said.

"Some of these children come from homes with drug abuse or where a parent has been incarcerated."

Gold said a task force is currently being organized to start a kinship care center in Phoenix.

"We will see how it goes," he said.

"If it is successful it could also be a possibility in Mohave County."

Grandparent Kristi Denny said she attended the workshop to find out her legal rights.

She has a developmentally disabled daughter who will soon give birth and wants Denny to adopt the baby.

"I don't know if I am ready for that," Denny said.

"I want to help, but I want it has to be 50/50.

She could watch the baby while I go to work during the day."

A complex issue, taking an emotional and financial toll on the caregivers, Wilda said laws protecting grandparents' rights need to change.

Help is becoming more available, and laws are being revised, but grandparents need to review current statutes and take an active role in supporting legislative reformation of laws pertaining to grandparents raising grandchildren, she said.

The Grandparents Raising Grandchildren support group meets the first Wednesday of each month at the Kathryn Heidenreich Adult Center, 1776 Airway.

For more information contact Richhart at 718-0453.