Grandparents Find Advocate in Fight for Custody Rights : Families: An organization called GOLD is getting across its message that relatives are often the best alternative for children in harmful home situations.

A San Diego grandmother unknowingly fed her daughter’s drug habit for several years. She did it by paying electricity bills, buying food and shopping for clothes--all so her two grandsons wouldn’t be without the basic necessities of life that the addicted daughter neglected to provide.

Narcotics demanded more. Three years ago, the daughter abandoned her sons, then ages 4 and 5, and disappeared. The grandmother, who asked that her name not be used, has been the boys’ sole parent since then. In February, she sought permanent custody of the youngsters.

“I feel that that’s a protection for them, primarily so that neither parent can come to the school and say, ‘I want my child now’ and take them off,” said the communications professional.

Prospects for permanent custody seemed bright until the daughter suddenly returned last October and told her mother she would fight for the children. Since then, the daughter and her husband have attended a handful of counseling sessions and two Narcotics Anonymous meetings, the grandmother said.


But neither has a steady job, nor have they proven--to the grandmother’s satisfaction--that they can be responsible parents. The judge in February agreed. The grandchildren will stay where they are for at least another year.

Other San Diego County grandparents aren’t so fortunate. They’re still struggling to free their grandchildren from deplorable home lives and to gain custody of them. They say the system in which they must operate sometimes makes it difficult to help the children they’re trying to protect.

Social workers say they place children with relatives as often as possible. By law they must consider relatives first. But, many times, family conflicts and legal constraints create barriers for grandparents.

Into this came Grandparents Offering Love and Direction (GOLD). The group, a nonprofit organization, was formed three years ago with two purposes in mind: It wants to help grandparents gain custody of their grandchildren and to improve child-protection laws.

The group, born of aggravation with the child-protection system, also turned a once-hostile relationship with the County Department of Social Services into a fruitful alliance. Together, GOLD and the department have published a handbook to guide grandparents and other relatives through the system’s maze of procedures and regulations. GOLD members meet with department representatives once a month.

GOLD has also aggressively coaxed the department into placing more children with grandparents or other relatives. Four years ago, only 17% of the youngsters taken into the child-protection system were placed with relatives, while 50% went to foster homes, according to county statistics. The remaining 33% either went back to their parents or were placed elsewhere.

Now, nearly 30% are placed with relatives.

That’s an improvement, the group said, but it’s not good enough. Two children still go to foster homes for every one placed with relatives. A government that professes to be concerned about the disintegration of the family should take advantage of extended families when they’re offered, the group contends.

“Certainly where no appropriate relatives are available, foster care is the next best option, and we appreciate the wonderful job many dedicated foster families are doing,” said Margie Davis, GOLD’s founder and its most vocal member--as well as a parent to her three grandchildren. “But nothing can substitute for the family.”

Children enter the system when they are abandoned or taken from abusive parents, when neglect becomes potentially harmful, or when parents are arrested. According to a county Grand Jury report from spring, 1989, the Juvenile Court deals with 6,500 to 8,000 children a month, two-thirds of whom are involved in dependency cases.

GOLD estimates that 89% of its grandparent members are involved in custody efforts because of the drug abuse of one of their own offspring.

A typical scenario involves a parent who “speeds” all night on methamphetamines, then sleeps it off during the day, leaving infants and children to bathe, feed and clothe themselves, get themselves to school, handle emergencies, etc. Even worse are the cases in which parents, high and uninhibited, abuse their children physically, emotionally or sexually.

Society’s perception that grandparents failed with that drug-addicted child too often biases social workers against those grandparents--even if that person raised other children to lead normal, productive lives, GOLD leaders said.

“The (biggest hurdle) is a belief that the abuse and neglect is intergenerational,” Davis said. “ ‘Put the kid back with grandparents, and you get the abuse and neglect again.’ Maybe that was true five or more years ago, and, in some cases, it still is true. But, in the vast majority of cases, these grandparents are productive individuals who have raised other children who are succeeding in parenting roles. Yet, because of drugs, they have one child who can’t. This doesn’t mean the grandparents were the root cause of the problem and can’t raise their grandchildren.”

Mignon Scherer, a family therapist and GOLD board member who fought for permanent guardianship of her grandson for several years, said social workers sometimes overlook the fact that no family situation--foster or natural--is perfect.

“They have malfunctional families and problems, too,” she said.

Arnold Zimmermann--who recently retired as assistant deputy director of children services within the social services department--knows the benefits of placing children with grandparents or other relatives.

“Children aren’t traumatized as much--usually, at least--when they are placed with a relative they know,” he said. “Staying in the family has a lot going for it.”

But state law requires that the utmost be done to reunify children with their parents. So, if putting children with grandparents will make a parent resist reunification, social workers usually place the children elsewhere. The same goes for grandparents who say they have given up on their own offspring and will refuse to let them see their children.

It is this regulation that most often stands in the way of grandparents obtaining custody, Zimmermann said.

“Often, the best hope for grandparents is if reunification fails,” he said.

Social workers have to make judgment calls when family conflicts are involved, Zimmermann said. And he acknowledged that some calls probably are unfair. Workers can be swayed by angry parents who view family attempts to help as interference.

But, in the “vast majority of cases--98%--there are legitimate reasons for not placing with the grandparent,” he said. “Frequently, those are things that we can’t talk about.” He mentioned family members who are suspected of child molestation but never charged as one example.

Still, Zimmermann acknowledges, he has seen many cases in which reunification doesn’t seem appropriate.

The county grand jury noted one such case in its spring report, a scathing critique of the juvenile dependency system. A young girl lived with her grandmother after the mother died. Noticing repeated bruises on the girl following visits with her father, the grandmother reported it, only to have social workers place the girl in a foster home. According to a social worker, the grandmother could not provide a safe home for the child because she didn’t have legal custody.

The woman fought for temporary custody, obtained it and again reported bruising on the girl after court-ordered visits with the father. Again, the girl was placed in a foster home. Nearly two years later, the court awarded permanent custody to the father. Five months after that, the girl was found dead in the father’s empty apartment from a blow to the head. The missing father is suspected in the death.

Though that tragic incident was a worst-case scenario, GOLD founder Davis said it aptly illustrates GOLD’s contention that the laws tend to support reunification with parents above the safety of children.

“We have kids living as we won’t allow our dogs and cats to live,” she said. “They’re treated as property, not as human beings.”

GOLD wants to see that changed.

To do so, it supports pending legislation that would require that judges be trained to recognize child abuse and neglect.

AB 1762, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sunny Mojonnier (R-Encinitas) would require that judges attend at least 40 hours of classes on the subject.

“Too often, Davis said, it is difficult for untrained judges, whose main purpose is to rule on the law, to recognize the more subtle signs of emotional abuse and neglect that can destroy a child.”

The organization also wants to get court-appointed attorneys for relatives. As it is, said GOLD member Larry Lockhart, parents have legal representation, children sometimes do, but relatives only do if they are proven to be de facto parents. He said that more than 40% of relatives fighting for custody are retired or single grandparents and unable to afford their own lawyers. Lockhart’s own 2 1/2-year battle for his granddaughter cost him $6,000.

“Most of all, children whose parents use drugs and are unable to provide them a safe, sane and stable environment need to be taken into the system and their parents forced to seek drug rehabilitation before their children come back to them,” Davis said. “We’re waiting too late to react to our children.”