Grandparents Matter – Celebrating the Contributions of Grandparents in Raising Their Grandchildren

Grandparents, just saying the word brings up fond memories. Memories of sports games, of baked desserts, or loving words. The people who would get you that thing you wanted so badly when your mom or dad wouldn’t. People who would share the wisdom they gained over the years with you. Most importantly, individuals who often provide a safe haven for their grandchild.

This feeling of safety, present in a loving relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, has come to have great meaning in courts where custody and a child’s best interest are concerned. When mothers and fathers fall short of their parental duties to love, exercise good judgment, and to create an environment where children can thrive, courts must examine whether the parents should maintain custody of their children.

When there are grandparents who have come into the parenting role and are willing to take care of their grandchildren because the child’s parents are unfit, the courts are willing to grant the grandparents custody. Although removing children from the custody of their biological parents and placing them in the custody of their grandparents is something difficult for courts to do, it has been done. In Burak v. Burak, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland recognized the value of grandparents who are caregivers to their grandchildren and granted a grandmother and grandfather custody of their grandchild.

Burak is a complicated case that represents how invaluable grandparents are to a child when there is a breakdown in the child’s relationship with his or her parents. The facts relating to the child’s home life with his parents are as follows:

  • The Buraks were married
  • The minor child was born in 2008
  • The mother demonstrated behavior that indicated she may have had mental health problems, including a split personality disorder
  • Beginning in 2008, the Buraks began a relationship with a woman
  • In 2012, the woman moved into the family home
  • Parents used drugs during the marriage, including cocaine
  • Parents’ drug use varied from every other weekend, once a month, to every few months
  • Parents coordinated drug use so that Grandparents could care for the child
  • Parents started having relationship problems in 2012
  • Relationship became violent; Husband threatened to kill Wife
  • Mother had to get a protective order against Husband
  • The minor child was 8 years old when this case was decided

Facts relating to Child’s relationship with Grandparents

  • Grandparents heavily involved in the child’s life from the child’s birth
  • Grandparents had a home where the child had his own room
  • As an infant, the child spent 3 days a week and occasional weekends with Grandparents
  • As the child got older, child spent 2-4 days or nights with grandparents
  • Grandparents took the child to appointments and school events and other activities
  • Grandparents took the child to church with them

Facts concerning Child’s Emotional/Behavioral Issues:

  • Child would get upset and leave class/school
  • One incident, Child hit and kicked the principal and said he would blow up school
  • School informed mom that the child was being referred to a county Crisis Center

Court ruling:

A grandparent seeking to challenge a biological parent’s fundamental right to raise his or her child has a high standard to meet. The grandparent must first show that the mother or father is unfit or exceptional circumstances exist before a court will consider the grandparent as being eligible (the ability to bring a lawsuit, known as standing) to have custody of the child.

A parent can be unfit for reasons that include his or her lifestyle, drug or alcohol addiction, poor finances, or lack of responsibility in raising the child. Exceptional circumstances involve the bond between the grandparents, the harm the child could face if he or she remains with the biological parents, and the amount of time it took for the parents to assert parental rights over the child (meaning how long it took the parent to try to resume being the primary caretaker of the child).

In light of facts mentioned above, the Court determined that the mother, the only parent seeking custody, was unfit and that exceptional circumstances existed to permit the grandparents to challenge the mother’s right to custody. The unstable home environment, the mother’s lack of involvement in the child’s life, and the mother’s level of reliance on the grandparents demonstrated that the preference the law gives a biological parent in a custody hearing was not appropriate under these circumstances. The Court found that if the child remained in the mother’s care, there was a great possibility it would negatively impact the child’s life.

The Court made a key point that the ultimate goal in child custody cases is that the Court do what would serve the best interest of the child. In this situation, the grandparents had all the qualities you want in a parent. This combined with the parental duties the grandparents had already assumed made it clear that, based on the mother’s situation at that moment, it was in the child’s best interest to be in the custody of his grandparents.

The Court’s decision recognizes that it takes genuine love and selflessness for grandparents to take on a parental role of a minor child decades after they raised their own children. Like the grandparents in this case, grandparents who raise their grandchildren do, despite risking the loss of their plans for retirement, of travelling, or just enjoying the benefits of having time for themselves.

Although being a parent to a minor grandchild is something many grandmothers and grandfathers do not anticipate happening, it is a responsibility they welcome wholeheartedly. Even though their grandchildren call them grandma and grandpa, they are more like the child’s mother and father.

This case did not end here. The mother appealed to the Court of Appeals of Maryland, the highest state court, and that court ultimately reversed the Court of Special Appeals’ ruling granting the grandparents custody. The Court of Appeals granted custody to the mother. There will be a future article on that ruling explaining how the mother regained custody.

Fredric Antenberg is a family law attorney with over 30 years’ experience in Howard County and the surrounding counties of Central Maryland. Please call 410-730-4404 today for a Free Initial Consultation if you wish to explore grandparents’ rights.

Read: Part II: Burak v. Burak, A Parent’s Right to Custody Requires Fitness NOT Perfection