{Ask an Advocate} behavior problems and grandparents are caretakers without legal custody

Today’s question:

Child lives with grandparents. No custody arrangement. Parents still somewhat involved. Got evaluated. Disruptive behavior. Suggested wraparound. Told to fill out SSI papers. Told he probably would not qualify because of no custody arrangement with parents. What to do now? Really out of control. Please help. He’s been living with his grandparents since he came home from hospital. Parents see him maybe 2x a week. Gives no money or support to grandparents. Grandparents have their own physical disabilities.

Whew, ok. First, deep breaths and hugs all around. I hate when I see families in such crisis. But it will get better, you will get your feet under you and things will be calm at some point. The good news is, that for the most part, there are resources out there for you. You just have to know where to find them and seek them out, they don’t come to you.

Regarding the custody situation–I’ve run into this quite a bit, grandparents unofficially taking custody of kids, or at the very least taking caregiving responsibilities, but not getting any assistance because legally they don’t qualify. I’ve asked this question many times to a good friend who used to work for CFS for our county, and every time she says “They need to get a lawyer.” So then I say, “But you know my clients, they don’t have any money.” And she still shakes her head and says “They need a lawyer.”

So that’s my first bit of advice. Someone needs to have a sit-down with these grandparents, in a ‘fish or cut bait’ fashion. They need to decide–are they in this for the long haul and are they willing to make this legal? They’re already doing all the work, but are they really willing to absolve the parents of any responsibility, and do what it takes to sever the parental ties? Because it sounds as if this hobbling along, hoping it will get better, is not really working out for anyone.

That being said, it’s not your only option. Grandparents can still get Power of Attorney for Educational Issues and also be named Parent Surrogates. I know in our county, kids with needs get surrogates assigned to them that they have never met, in the case that the real parents cannot fulfill the duties. Those are two other options worth pursuing.

Yes, in order to get wraparound,  child needs to be on MA. You can click that link which will take you to my post on applying for wraparound.

Action steps I would recommend:

Parent (or you do it and have parent sign) needs to do a request to school district, requesting a FBA-Functional Behavior Assessment. This needs to be an in-depth Level 3 one, not Level 1. Whoever does the FBA needs to determine what his triggers are to his negative behaviors, and develop a PBSP-Positive Behavior Support Plan. That will give his teachers and everyone a plan for avoiding his triggers if possible, and strategies for dealing with his negative behaviors. This plan should included strategies for all areas–not just the classroom, but the cafeteria, bus, playground, etc.

I would also take a look at the child’s academic records and see if there are any indications that he perhaps has a learning disability, and have him tested. Our society makes it much easier to be the “bad kid” instead of the “dumb kid” so his behaviors may be masking learning disabilities or other struggles.

If the child gets wraparound, even if you start today, you are looking at at least 90 days before implementation of services. In the meantime, talk to the child’s pediatrician to see if there are other options for therapy available. This sounds like a dysfunctional family–and that’s not passing judgment, just saying what I see. It’s not normal for parents to not be caretakers for a child and for the parents to just  pop in and visit whenever they feel like it,  and this child is old enough to look around him, and wonder why on some level, his parents are rejecting him. Even if his grandparents are providing a more stable, structured environment, and he knows that–there is rejection that he feels. Beyond a BSC and TSS to help with behaviors, it sounds like he needs therapy to get at the root cause.

Lastly, thank you for contacting me and for advocating for this child. Please hang in there and advocate for him, and do whatever you can. Behavior problems are quickly labeled as discipline problems, and this kid does not have a solid foundation. He can and will be quickly put into the school to prison pipeline, or drug addiction or dropping out of school. That’s not me being negative or a pessimist, that’s what happens to kids like him that don’t get the proper supports.  Hang in there to the best of your ability and do the best that you can to see that he has options for a positive outcome. If you need to, find him a case manager or other disability/kids in crisis/mental health advocate that will help him. Try your local IU if you have one, try your local Arc, or try finding agencies that help “at risk kids” or “kids in crisis.” Like I said, there is help out there, you just have to find it and be the squeaky wheel.


If not you, who?



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  1. Judi says

    Without legal custody they cannot authorize medical treatment should their grandchild have a medical emergency. The arrangement needs to be a legal one for a number of reasons. (I have friends in this situation and they made the arrangement legal. I’m not sure how much it cost to do.)

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