How do I get emergency custody of my grandchild?
As a grandparent, gaining emergency custody of your grandchild can be a difficult and emotional process.
However, if your grandchild is in a harmful or dangerous situation, emergency custody may be necessary for their health, safety and wellbeing. This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about getting emergency custody as a grandparent.
Understanding emergency custody
Emergency custody, also known as temporary custody, is designed to immediately remove a child from a dangerous environment. It allows a third party, like a grandparent, to take responsibility for the child while the courts determine long-term custody arrangements.
There are two main types of emergency custody:
- Ex parte orders – These orders are granted without notifying the child’s parents. They are used in cases where giving notice would further endanger the child. Ex parte custody orders are short-term, usually lasting only a few weeks.
- Temporary restraining orders – These court orders temporarily change custody arrangements if there is reasonable cause to believe the child is at risk. Temporary orders can remain in effect for up to 6 months.
Emergency custody is intended to be short-term, giving the courts time to fully investigate the situation and make permanent custody arrangements that are in the child’s best interests.
When emergency custody may be granted to a grandparent
There are specific circumstances when a grandparent may be awarded emergency custody:
- Abandonment – If the parents have abandoned the child or have mysteriously disappeared.
- Abuse or neglect – If there is reasonable cause to believe the child’s health or safety is at risk due to abuse, neglect, or unsafe living conditions.
- Parental substance abuse – If the parents’ alcohol or drug use makes them unable to properly care for the child.
- Parental illness or disability – If the parents are seriously ill or disabled and unable to provide adequate care.
- Incarceration – If the parents are incarcerated and there are no appropriate caregivers available.
- Death of a parent – If one parent dies and the surviving parent is unfit or unable to take custody.
In these scenarios, a grandparent may file for emergency custody to immediately remove the child from the harmful environment until custody can be fully resolved.
Proving the need for emergency custody
To be granted emergency custody, grandparents must prove to the court that the child is at immediate risk of harm if they remain with their parents. You will need to provide convincing evidence of the dangerous situation.
Here are some examples of evidence that demonstrates need for emergency custody:
- Police reports – Reports of domestic violence, abuse, unsafe home conditions etc.
- Medical records – Records showing abuse, neglect or the child’s special medical needs that aren’t being met.
- School records – Reports of sudden behavior changes, learning problems or poor attendance.
- Witness statements – Written statements from witnesses reporting abuse, drug use or other risks.
- Photographic evidence – Photos documenting unsafe home conditions or the child’s injuries.
- Drug tests – Results from parental drug tests indicating substance abuse.
- Police testimony – Police officers may testify to what they witnessed firsthand if they were called to the home.
Providing this type of evidence is crucial when filing for emergency custody. The stronger your case, the more likely you are to be granted temporary custody on an emergency basis.
Steps for filing for emergency custody
If you need to file for emergency custody of your grandchild, here are the typical steps involved:
1. Consult an attorney
It’s highly advisable to meet with a family law attorney to discuss your specific situation. An attorney can advise whether you have adequate grounds for emergency custody and walk you through the process. They can also represent you in court.
2. File an emergency petition
You will need to draft and file a petition for emergency custody with your local family court. The petition must explain in detail why the child is at immediate risk and request temporary custody be immediately granted to you.
3. Gather supporting documentation
Collect any documentation that supports the dangerous environment the child is in such as police reports, medical records, photographs etc. This will back up the facts stated in your petition.
4. Attend a court hearing
The judge will schedule an emergency hearing as soon as possible where you must explain the risks the child faces. Provide your evidence and be prepared to answer questions.
5. Court’s temporary custody decision
If the judge agrees the child is in danger, they will issue a temporary custody order granting you emergency custody for a limited time. The other parent’s custody rights may be temporarily suspended.
6. Formal custody case proceeds
Within that emergency period, the court will open a formal case to permanently decide custody between the parents, you and any other interested parties.
While it varies by state, the emergency order can last anywhere from 15 days to 6 months while full custody proceedings unfold. You will need to participate and make your case.
Caring for a child in your emergency custody
If a judge grants your petition for emergency custody, the child will be placed in your care right away. Here are some tips for providing stability and support during this difficult transition:
Be patient – Remember this is a confusing and frightening time for them. Don’t take any anger or depression personally. Focus on making them feel safe and secure.
Get counseling – Counseling can help the child cope with the trauma of being removed from their home. Look for child therapists who specialize in emergency custody cases.
Facilitate contact – If allowed, gently encourage the child to stay in touch with their parents through phone calls, letters or visits. This maintains a sense of normalcy.
Keep records – Document their behaviors, reactions, eating habits, moods and statements about wanting to see parents. This may help in custody hearings.
Enroll them in school – Enroll them in a new school near you as soon as possible. This provides educational stability. Inform the school of the situation.
Make medical appointments – Take them to the doctor, dentist and eye doctor for checkups if needed. They may be behind on exams and immunizations.
Establish rules and routines – Gently impose rules, schedules for meals, bedtimes and activities. Routines create comfort and predictability.
Get support – Don’t try to do it all yourself. Build a support system of extended family, friends, church members or other parents who can lend a hand or give you breaks.
While assuming emergency custody can be challenging, creating a stable, nurturing environment will provide enormous comfort to a child in crisis. With time, patience and support they will gradually adjust.
Dealing with parents during the emergency custody period
Gaining emergency custody of your grandchild means their parents temporarily lose custody without notice. This understandably leads to complex emotional responses and reactions you must handle carefully.
Be empathetic – Remember, these are still the child’s parents. Empathize with the shock, anger and grief they feel, no matter their fitness as parents.
Don’t disparage them – Never speak badly of the parents in front of the children. This will emotionally damage the kids and make managing relationships much harder.
Follow court orders – Respect all visitation, phone access and contact stipulated in the emergency custody order, even if you disagree. Violating orders could backfire in your case.
Keep documentation – Note and document any questionable interactions or concerning behaviors of the parents, especially if these support your custody petition.
Communicate kindly – When safe, keep communication open through phone, email, letters. Don’t completely shut them out unless absolutely necessary. Kind, factual communication is best.
Get professional advice – A therapist and legal counsel can help you set and maintain healthy boundaries with the parents that protect both you and the child.
With professional guidance and empathy, you can often maintain a working relationship with the parents, which benefits the child. However, always put safety first in any decisions.
Transitioning from emergency custody to permanent custody
Once the emergency custody period ends, the court will make longer-term custody decisions during formal proceedings. There are a few potential outcomes:
Parents regain custody – If parents resolve the issues prompting emergency removal, custody may be restored to them, especially if in the child’s best interests.
Split or shared custody – Custody may be divided between parents and grandparents if appropriate. The time split depends on circumstances.
Permanent custody to grandparents – If evidence shows the parents remain unfit, full permanent custody can be granted to the grandparents. Parental rights may be terminated.
Third party custody – Custody could be granted to another interested party who filed for custody, such as other relatives or a foster family.
Emancipation – A mature teenager may petition for emancipation from parents and custody orders.
To gain permanent custody, you will need to actively participate in all proceedings and put forth the best case demonstrating your ability to provide care, stability and a healthy environment if the child remains permanently with you.
Some factors judges consider are:
- The child’s emotional attachment to you and other caregivers
- Your physical and mental health
- Your ability to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical care
- Your family dynamic and home environment
- Kinship ties – a preference for placing children with relatives
- The child’s wishes if old enough to express a preference
- History of acting as the child’s caregiver
- Willingness to facilitate contact with parents
Evidence, witnesses, home studies and professional evaluations will all come into play if seeking permanent custody. Hire experienced legal counsel to advise and represent you.
Understanding parental rights in emergency custody cases
When emergency custody is granted to grandparents, parents often must forfeit certain parental rights and responsibilities during that period:
- Physical custody – Parents lose the legal right to physical custody and control of the child. The child resides with the grandparent.
- Decision-making – Grandparents gain the ability to make day-to-day decisions regarding health, education, religious practices, discipline, recreation etc. Some major decisions may still require parental input.
- Access and visitation – The court order will dictate whether parents have visitation rights, if supervised, the frequency and duration, based on protecting the child’s wellbeing. Phone calls and letters may also be regulated.
- Child support – Parents may be ordered to continue paying child support to whoever has physical custody, whether temporarily or permanently.
- Loss of public benefits – Parents providing certain public benefits for the child, like health insurance, may lose them if custody is lost. Grandparents should apply for benefits.
- Refusal to relinquish rights – Parents may violate orders and refuse to relinquish custody to the grandparent. This could result in charges of contempt of court or interfere with gaining permanent custody.
Understanding parental rights in emergency custody situations will help you abide by court orders and smooth the transition for your grandchild. The changes to parental rights are difficult but designed to protect the child.
Seeking financial assistance while having temporary custody
Taking emergency custody of your grandchild can place extra financial strain on grandparents. If you are facing economic hardship caring for the child, there are some options for seeking assistance:
Child Support – Biological parents are still obligated to pay court-ordered child support during the temporary custody period. If they are not paying, contact child support enforcement officials.
TANF – Apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) through your local social services agency. TANF provides monthly cash assistance to low-income families caring for related children.
SNAP – The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides food stamp benefits you can use to feed the child. Emergency SNAP benefits may be available if you’re facing dire need.
CHIP – Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) provides free or low-cost health insurance if you lack affordable coverage for the child. Medicaid is another option.
Subsidized Housing – Seek subsidized public housing programs that prioritize families with minor children. These provide low-rent housing solutions.
Utility Assistance – Programs through LIHEAP, nonprofits and churches offer help paying utility bills, free home repairs and discounted public transportation.
Legal Aid – If you cannot afford a private attorney, legal aid organizations may represent you in custody proceedings for free or reduced fees based on your income.
Support Groups – Join support groups for kinship caregivers. They often have resources, handouts and ideas for accessing assistance until you regain financial footing.
Don’t be afraid to use available public programs and benefits while providing for your grandchild’s essential needs during a difficult transition.
Hiring legal representation
Navigating emergency custody and subsequent legal proceedings is extremely complex. Having an experienced family law attorney guide you is strongly recommended. Here’s how legal representation can help:
Advise your rights – They will analyze your specific circumstances and options and explain grandparents’ legal rights in your jurisdiction.
Handle paperwork – Attorneys ensure all petitions, motions and forms are properly drafted and filed in compliance with laws. This avoids costly mistakes.
Gather evidence – Lawyers have resources to conduct formal discovery and investigations to dig up supporting documentation of risk and unfitness.
Negotiate settlements – They can often negotiate informal custody agreements with parents before reaching court if appropriate. This spares time and unpleasantness.
Court representation – During hearings and proceedings, they argue your case before the judge and question witnesses. This takes pressure off and gives you the best chance at a favorable outcome.
Post-trial guidance – After the custody decision, attorneys advise how to enforce the orders and protect your rights as necessary through appeals etc.
While an attorney involves legal fees, in major child custody cases their expertise significantly improves the odds of being granted custody in the child’s best interests. If low income, seek free or reduced cost help.
Understanding the typical timeline
Every emergency custody case moves on its own timeline, but generally the process follows this approximate timeframe after filing the emergency petition:
- 1-3 days: Emergency hearing takes place where judge issues immediate temporary order
- 15-30 days: Child is placed in your temporary custody while investigation begins
- 30-90 days: First follow up hearing to review progress of custody investigation
- 90-180 days: Final custody hearing where permanent arrangements are ordered
- 2-4 months: Permanent custody order is implemented and child transitions
- 1-2 years: Post-placement monitoring by court or child services to ensure child’s wellbeing
While emergency custody starts very quickly, the subsequent investigations, trials and appeals can take many months to fully resolve long-term custody. Hire counsel to keep the case moving efficiently at every stage.
Dealing with emotional challenges
Pursuing emergency custody of a grandchild during a crisis is extremely emotionally difficult for a grandparent. Here are some tips for coping:
Get support – Turn to your spouse, other relatives, friends, clergy, or support groups. Don’t isolate yourself.
Accept limitations – Understand you may be unable to “fix” the root of problems or change the parents. Focus your energy on the child.
Practice self-care – Make sure you take care of your own needs with proper rest, healthy eating, exercise and stress relief. Don’t become burnt out.
See a counselor – Get professional help processing your emotions. Therapists can help you handle anger, resentment, grief and other challenges in a healthy way.
Take breaks – Take regular time outs from the situation and lean on respite caregivers so you don’t get overwhelmed.
Focus on the positive – Instead of dwelling on the negative reasons custody was needed, focus on the joy of providing your grandchild with a safe, happy home.
Join a support group – Connecting with other grandparents going through the same experience provides incredible emotional comfort and strength.
Don’t underestimate the toll emergency custody cases can take. Using healthy coping strategies preserves your mental health so you can continue being an anchor for your grandchild.
Finding local resources and support
Since emergency custody situations arise suddenly, many grandparents are caught off guard and unaware of resources available to support them through the process. Here are some ways to find help in your community:
Child welfare agencies – Contact local child protective services and family welfare agencies to inquire about benefits, programs and referrals.
Legal aid organizations – Seek free or reduced cost legal assistance if you are unable to afford representation.
Kinship navigator programs – These programs connect relative caregivers to support services in their area.
Therapists – Find counselors experienced in counseling both children and grandparents coping with custody issues.
Kinship support groups – Join in-person or online groups to exchange advice and resources with similar families.
Churches and nonprofits – Faith-based organizations and nonprofits often have resources for struggling families or can connect you.
Online research – Search online to find local resources, contact information, programs and online support forums.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help. There are ample resources available if you actively look for support. Having assistance makes the custody process much less intimidating.
Questions grandparents should ask attorneys
If meeting with prospective legal counsel about pursuing emergency custody, here are key questions grandparents should ask:
- What experience do you have with emergency child custody cases specifically?
- What are my rights as a grandparent in this situation under state laws?
- Do I have adequate grounds for seeking emergency custody based on the risks to my grandchild?
- What type of evidence should I be gathering to help my case?
- How soon after filing can I realistically expect the child to be placed in my temporary custody?
- What factors do judges look for when awarding custody to grandparents over parents?
- If I’m granted emergency custody, how much access will the parents have to the child?
- How can I improve my chances of gaining permanent custody down the road?
- How long will this legal process realistically take from start to permanent resolution?
- What can I expect the legal costs to be through the entire custody process?
- How can I get financial assistance with legal fees if I cannot afford representation?
- How often will we meet and what will you