Editor’s note: The identities of the individuals featured in this story are being withheld to protect the children involved in this custody case.
A few years ago right before Thanksgiving, a North Idaho grandmother got a phone call from concerned educators at a local elementary school. No one had come to pick up her granddaughter — for the umpteenth time.
School officials and a police officer told her they believed this scared little girl was being neglected by her biological parents. They would have no choice but to call the Department of Health and Welfare unless the grandmother intervened immediately.
It was then that a terrible truth had to be faced: The woman’s own daughter was incapable of parenting two children because she was locked in a downward spiral of substance abuse and poor lifestyle choices. There was no one else to call for help. The biological father had no interest in parenting, or having the girls and he lived out of state.
The grandmother talked to her husband and they both agreed — they would pursue custody of the girls. Knowing she needed legal assistance, the grandmother called Merrilee Parr, a Coeur d’Alene family law attorney.
“I was in a panic, but Merrilee knew what to do. She quickly filed for an order for temporary guardianship and a District Court judge signed the paperwork at 5:20 p.m. that afternoon,” said the grandmother. “Merrilee had advised me to keep the guardianship order on my person at all times. It was a darn good thing. The very next day the police called me and demanded to know where I was.”
Her daughter had called the police and told them her mother had taken her kids without permission.“I was able to show the police I had an order giving me legal custody of my grandchildren,” said the grandmother. “Without it, you have no rights. The police would have taken my granddaughters and put them either right back with their mother or in foster care.”
From that moment forward, Merrilee Parr helped the grandparents, both in their 60s, win a complicated custody battle. The biological mother tried in vain to regain custody of her children, but the grandmother and her husband prevailed. Sadly, she no longer speaks with her daughter.
The good news is that today, the girls are stable, happy and secure. Their step-grandfather wiped away tears during the interview and said the girls are thriving at home and both girls are doing well in school and socially. However, they still are receiving counseling for the trauma they endured with their biological mother, who lived in a hellish world of drugs and alcohol.
“They were both damaged,” said the grandmother. “They were abused emotionally, but there are things that we will never know about what happened. I can’t imagine where they would be if we hadn’t done something.”
The step-grandfather has no biological children of his own and never imagined he would become a parent instead of enjoying his retirement. He and his wife are extremely thankful for their family and having the girls live with them. It hasn’t been easy. They have reached out to various support groups and nonprofits for assistance.
“There are hundreds of grandparents in North Idaho who are parenting their grandchildren,” he said. “It’s rampant. There is help — you have to know where to look.
The first step is getting those legal rights to act as a parent.” Historically, grandparents had little to no rights when it came to custody or visitation. It’s a national issue, but for the past six years Idaho has been making strides with grandparent rights.
The state has added new laws that give the court the ability to make custody decisions based on what’s in the best interest of the child not just for grandparents, but other relatives and individuals who are genuinely concerned for a child’s welfare. The court may recognize the grandparent as having the “same standing” as the parent, and grandparent visitation can now part of child custody plans in divorce actions as well, if found to be in the best interests of the child.
“The change in the law made a huge difference in these cases,” said Parr. “When I first started practicing family law 21 years ago we were able to obtain the rights the law allowed for some grandparents raising a newborn. Years later, while the grandchild was living with his grandparents in a stable situation, the biological father petitioned to get his child back. The older laws didn’t take into consideration the best interests of the child, so the judge had no choice but to grant the parent’s petition. It was tragic because the child acted out in a destructive way that ultimately got him put back with his grandparents, but it was not a good situation.”
It’s critical for grandparents facing a custody battle to gather facts about the situation, then call an experienced family law attorney to get temporary guardianship.
“Grandparents should know that there is help,” said Parr. “We can help save your grandchildren from really bad situations.”
If you are a relative or person interested in the welfare of a child whose basic needs are not being met or who is living in an unstable home environment, call Merrilee A. Parr for a legal consultation at (208) 667-1227.
DISCLAIMER: Informational articles are not legal advice and are not to be construed as establishing an attorney client relationship.