Nearly one-third of America's children are raised outside of their home, most by grandparents. But few states give grandparents legal rights.
Some have even banned consistent grandparent contact for children in foster care, perhaps out of fear that the grandparents will side with their abusive adult children.But there's a move afoot to formally recognize the value of grandparents in a child's life. And Utah, with a new emphasis on kinship care, is taking part in that revival.
It's good news, according to Gloria Jensen Sutton, Division of Family Services. She presented a workshop on grandparents' rights during a recent conference on child-abuse prevention.
"There is a lot of power in extended families to assist and empower our own children," said Sutton, a social worker for 22 years.
Under new child-welfare reform laws, family members are a preferred temporary placement, "as long as the child is defining family. Our obligation is to the safety and emotional well-being of the child."
Having a child define family means that "Aunt Betty," the neighbor who isn't related but has always been there for the child, can be considered, too, as long as that's what the child wants.
Before placing a child, family members are subjected to the same safety checks as other foster parents, including criminal record checks and a search of the abuse registry.
"Your rights as relatives who care are being expanded constantly," Sutton said.
But in-family placements are not withoutheartache. Grandparents and other relatives have to know up front that the main goal in child protection is to rehabilitate families so they can take the children back home, she said.
The biggest mistake that grandparents make is "trying to be all things to all children." They can be torn between filling a traditional grandparent role and trying to be the parents, too. The combination doesn't work.
"Love overcomes a lot of problems, but you may not be prepared for the scope and depth of a child's problems. You have to keep enforcing limits.
"You have to decide who you're willing to be. If you're going to be a grandparent, someone else needs to be the primary caregiver."
Sutton said it is also important that relatives let the child-protection system provide all the buffering support it can.
Using available supports also makes it easier for families to adapt to changing dynamics. Sutton said she's seen families where Grandma and Grandpa take in a child and their other children become jealous, fearing a "favored grandchild status" that will somehow cut out their children.
The solution is to have good, honest family discussions about what you're doing and why you're doing it, she said. That gives everyone a chance to express and work through mixed emotions.