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There Ought to be a Law

Pennsylvania law didn't guarantee grandparents the right to seek custody of grandchildren in their care. So Diane Werner got the law changed.

By Ruth Dominguez

At age 43, Diane Werner suddenly found herself filling the shoes of a parent for the second time around. That was 1987, when Werner obtained legal custody of her grandson, Seth.

Seth's mother, Werner's daughter, was cocaine-addicted and had been in and out of six different drug rehabilitation centers before coming back to live with Werner in 1987. But Werner was finally prompted to act when her daughter disappeared for three days, leaving 2-year-old Seth behind. "When she finally came back, I wouldn't let her in the house," Werner says. Her daughter tried breaking a window to get her son. When Werner refused to give her the child, the daughter brought a police officer to the home who explained that Werner had to release the child because she didn't have legal custody. "But she was back [with Seth] the next day, and I immediately went to an attorney to get emergency custody papers." What she discovered in that legal odyssey would ultimately lead her to reconnect with her community and step into the arena of child advocacy.

Going It Alone

Like many who go through a family crisis, Werner tried to go it alone at first. But the burdens became too great when she lost her job and found she was close to losing her home.

She turned to Family and Community Service of Delaware County for help. "Diane asked if we had any services for grandparents," social worker Michelle Daly recalls. "And I said, 'Well, what do you mean for grandparents?'" Despite the fact that many grandparents were in similar situations, not many sought help. Nor were there any comprehensive support groups in the Philadelphia area. As Michelle learned more about Werner's case, she was able to guide her through the welfare system to apply for special financial assistance to help her keep her home.

Werner knew there were probably grandparents like her who did not know where to turn. So, in 1990, with Daly's help, she formed a support group, Second Time Around Parents. "Grandparents need to see a newspaper article about someone who's going through the same exact thing they're going through," Werner says. With the help of local papers, she shared her own story and spread the word about the need for a grandparent community. Twenty people showed up for the first scheduled meeting--unprecedented for a new support group, Daly notes.

Werner found she could relate personally to many of the stories of drug abuse and subsequent child neglect, which leads many grandparents to make difficult choices. "The grandparents feel lost and isolated. I see so many grandparents who enable the addicted [son or daughter] because they feel guilty for it. They must remember that these grown children are making their own decisions, and your energy must go into the [grandchild]. That child has lost their childhood already by waiting for the criminal, biological parent to 'get their life in order.' There's enough people to help [the parents]; there's not enough people to help the children." The program now includes the original support group, a therapy group, and a drug and alcohol prevention program for grandchildren. It has also expanded to include nearby Chester, Pennsylvania, a more impoverished area, where the program operates in some housing projects and in every elementary school. The program's success did not happen overnight, however. "Initially, we kind of did this on a wing and a prayer," Daly says, "with Diane volunteering a lot of her time and me volunteering a lot of my time. We were able to get some United Way funds. They've been very supportive."

"What You Need Is a Law"

In the meantime, due to her own experience, Werner had also become very knowledgeable about the court system, and she began to help others who would call her and ask, "How can we get legal custody of our grandchildren?" In her work with Second Time Around Parents, Werner had helped research reduced-rate legal representation for grandparents in need. Daly realized the group needed information about the legal process and arranged for judges to come speak with them. "The very first judge we invited said, 'What you need is a law.'" He explained how [biological] parents' rights were paramount and that, according to the law, grandparents in Pennsylvania weren't even guaranteed the right to go to court to seek custody. So Diane and I looked at each other and said, 'Well, what do we do?'"

For Werner, the question was never if she should work toward legislation for grandparents who saw a need to assume custody of their grandchildren, but how she could achieve it. "If Lincoln's Gettysburg Address meant anything," she explains, "that the government is 'of the people, by the people, and for the people'--we're the people who are supposed to be helping with the laws."

So Werner found herself in the role of a child advocate. Along with Daly and several Second Time Around parents, she spent six years working for legislation that would allow grandparents to enter the court system for custody purposes. The task, however, proved to be more arduous and complex than she anticipated.

Peggy Woods is a grandmother who worked closely with Werner throughout the tedious legislative process. "There's a lot of politics involved in something that makes so much sense and can save children's lives," she admits. They waited through three legislative sessions before the state Senate Judiciary Committee actually approved the bill, releasing it for a floor vote. But the process was not idle. Woods explains, "We attended committee meetings in Harrisburg, we attended hearings where there was testimony given, we wrote letters, we made phone calls. I had one phone bill that looked like a house payment!" Werner and her grandson testified several times, using their painful family history as an example for positive change.

State Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R), the bill's sponsor and head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, helped push the bill through the state Senate. But when the bill reached the state House of Representatives, the advocates confronted more bureaucracy and technicalities. "It went through some revisions," Daly reports. "We had to be really specific [with language] . . . that we weren't trying to steal grandkids from their parents."

Signed and enacted in October 1996, the final legislation gave grandparents the right to seek custody in cases of emotional, physical, or mental abuse of the child; parental drug-addiction or mental incompetence; or when the child has resided with the grandparents for more than 12 months. The advocates fought hard to include a final, but important possible prerequisite: "or if the grandparent deems it necessary." The criteria to be met is always what is in the best interest of the child and those who wish to protect the child.

As a support group member, Woods, like Werner, had seen reasons for this legislation. "I've had grandparents here who have had grandkids abandoned to them and still had no legal standing to do anything. One grandmother nearly lost her grandson to pneumonia because she didn't have the legal right to get medical treatment for him, and he'd been with her for seven or eight months. The court's only answer to her was, 'You can turn him over, and we'll put him in foster care.' That's no answer for a family member." It was precisely this kind of testimony that the advocates presented and, in the end, that helped them achieve the legislation.

All three women see the new law as a small but firm step toward improving the lives of abused and neglected children. "It's not a guarantee," Daly points out, "[but it does allow] the grandparent to go to court and say, 'At least hear my case.'" Prior to the bill, the state provided no open doors. Some Pennsylvania counties "were putting grandkids in foster care when you had grandparents who were fully ready, willing, and able to take the grandkids."

Redefining Families

Werner also sees the new law as a larger movement toward redefining the family, particularly for organizations whose purpose is to seek a stable family base for children. When the priority is to reunite families, Werner advises a practical and safe solution: "Rather than give children back to drug addicts who are not going to recover, rather than put [children] in foster care, you redefine what the family is and place them with the grandparents, whether it's inside or outside the child welfare system."

Kinship care is gaining more and more encouragement in child welfare, for many reasons. As state and federal governments grapple with limited funds, many argue that helping grandparents--not only legally, but financially--with guardianship could help reduce foster care expenses in the long term. Daly, who serves on a statewide kinship care study committee, observes that the new law has helped legitimize kinship care. "There is a law, the courts are recognizing it. So maybe there are some other areas we need to look at."

Some child advocates propose that grandparent caregivers receive the same financial support as foster parents. Woods sees far-reaching implications for the new law in this regard. "Hopefully, [legislators] will look at children being raised by grandparents and recognize they have the same needs as any child in foster placement or other facilities. They are not there because they've had happy, healthy, normal lives. They need to have some of the same services that [foster children receive]."

Regardless what direction kinship care takes in the future, Pennsylvania now has a support network, in both the judicial and social service systems, for grandparents who are acting in their grandchildren's best interests. Many, including Daly and Woods, believe that none of this would have been possible without the initiative and dedication of Diane Werner. Daly says, "There is no way [Second Time Around Parents], which has grown in leaps and bounds, could have gotten off the ground without [Diane]."

Werner was able to turn a painful history into motivation to improve the lives of others confronting similar circumstances. "Diane did not need this legislation," Woods notes, pointing out that Werner already had custody of her grandson, "It didn't alter our [own] lives in any way." Like her coadvocates, however, Werner realized the importance of improving the larger community by supporting those around her. "She has tireless energy in . . . working with grandparents and grandkids," Daly says, "and [she] goes out of her way to help people."

Werner continues to put that energy to good use working part time for Family and Community Service of Delaware County. Asked if she has advice for those who wish to start similar legislative campaigns in their states, she says, "Just be committed to children, and don't let anyone tell you that you cannot do it. Because you can do it."

Daly also encourages citizens to act "if they see an area that needs some change, if they see something falling through the cracks that could help, as Diane would say, in saving children."

Ruth Dominguez is a freelance author and former publications intern for CWLA.

This article is from the Winter, 1998 issue of Children's Voice magazine. For information on the magazine see the Publications Page. Copyright © 1998 by The Child Welfare League of America. All rights reserved.

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