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SeniorLAW Center

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Initiative with AARP

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in Pennsylvania

SeniorLAW Center is working to enhance access to legal services, information, outreach and supportive resources for grandparents and other older Pennsylvanians raising grandchildren or relative children. Our new federally-funded project focuses on the unique challenges intergenerational families face, especially when there are additional obstacles, such as financial hardships, housing concerns, parental substance abuse or addiction, or language barriers.

We are proud to partner with AARP Pennsylvania and other organizations on this powerful initiative. Click here to learn more about SeniorLAW Center’s programs for grandparents raising grandchilren.

Pennsylvania is home to more than 100,000 grandparents raising grandchildren (“GRG”). It is not a new concept for grandparents to assume the care of grandchildren when birth parents are unable to parent. But the opioid epidemic is dramatically increasing the number of “grandfamilies” in our communities every day. We recognize many grandparents do not know their options nor the resources available to support their family. Further, recent changes in the law have expanded the opportunity for grandparents, great-grandparents or other third parties, to seek custody of children under certain conditions.

For a Free Legal Assistance
If you are age 60 or older and a Pennsylvania resident, please call the PA SeniorLAW HelpLine at 1-877-PA SR LAW (1-877-727-7529) for free legal advice, information, referrals, and in certain circumstances, legal representation.
Philadelphia residents, please call: (215) 988-1242

We understand Family Court procedures can be confusing. Please see additional information outlined below to learn more.

You Must Have Standing to Seek Custody
A new law permits a grandparent, great-grandparent (or any third party) to seek custody of a child if they have legal standing. You must prove you have standing before you can proceed in court. Standing is a legal term and only a judge can determine if you have it or not.

There are different types of custody. If you want a child to live with you most of the time and you want to be the main caregiver daily, then you want primary or sole custody. You could have standing to seek primary or sole custody if one of these statements is true:

  • The county child welfare agency is involved, and the child has been deemed “dependent” via court order in dependency court; or
  • The child is substantially at risk in their parents care due to abuse, neglect, drug/alcohol abuse, or if the parent is otherwise incapacitated and cannot function (i.e. very sick and cannot give proper care and supervision); or
  • After the child resided with you for at least 12 consecutive months, the parents removed the child from your home. In this case, you must file a petition within six months after the removal of the child from your home.
    • Brief or temporary absences from your home would not count, however, if the child only stayed with you on the weekends that would not be considered the child’s residence.

Note: Seeking primary or sole custody does not terminate the rights of the parents. You could have joint custody with one or both parents if the child would benefit.

You Must Have Standing to Seek “Visitation”
Perhaps you don’t want the child to live with you, but you want to see and speak to them and attend their extra-curricular activities. You want to foster a loving relationship through reasonable and regular contact. In that case, you want partial custody.

It can be confusing to use the word custody here, but in Pennsylvania, we no longer use the term visitation. Whether you want to see a child for the weekend or for 2 hours, if the parents will not allow it, you want to ask the Court for partial custody. You still need standing, but the rules are slightly different.

  • You could have standing to seek partial custody in the following situations:
  • Your son or daughter is deceased, and you want to see their child (your grandchild) but the surviving parent will not allow it; or
  • Where the grandparent-child relationship began with the consent of a parent (or by court order) and the parents:
    • Have a pending custody case against each other; and
    • Do not agree if the grandparent should see the child; or
  • When the child has, for a period of at least 12 consecutive months, resided with the grandparent, excluding brief temporary absences, and is removed from the home by the parents, an action must be filed within six months after the removal of the child from the home.

If You Are a GRG
Even if you are already caring for your grandchildren, there may be additional items to consider.

If you never went to court, but are raising a child within your family, there could be consequences down the road. If you ever need to make important decisions or seek certain services or benefits, you could have difficulties without a court order. Without an order, you do not have the legal authority to act on the child’s behalf or seek needed assistance for yourself as a GRG. A birth parent can remove the children if you do not have legal rights confirmed by a court.

Maybe you already have a custody order, but the circumstances changed, and the provisions of the order no longer work for your family. You can petition the court to modify the order if you and the parent cannot come to an agreement.

Impact of the Opioid Crisis
The national opioid crisis has hit Pennsylvania hard. We know this epidemic has prevented many parents from caring for their children, and often, it is grandparents, great-grandparents or other older adult family members who must take on the responsibility of the children left behind.

Pennsylvania has two options to transition children to the care of another adult when parents are unable to care for them. The two designations are called Standby Guardianship and Temporary Guardianship. These mechanisms allow parents to sign a document to grant a grandparent, or another trusted adult, guardianship of the child. This is often for a defined temporary length of time or specific purpose. For example, if a parent wanted to seek drug treatment, a temporary guardianship would permit a grandparent to care and make decisions for the child, until the parent is finished treatment.

The biggest advantage-none of these documents require the court or a judge. These are consensual agreements made between the parties who agree it would be best for someone else to have control of the child under specific circumstances. The rules to properly draft these agreements can be complicated, it would be best to consult one of our attorneys to discuss if this would be a viable option for your family.

Legal Resources
A lawyer can help you navigate legal procedures and inform you of your rights and options. However, over 90% of Family Court cases proceed without an attorney. That means it is possible to proceed without an attorney, as the vast majority of cases do. Call us to speak about your case and available options for legal representation.

Resources for Supportive Services
Often GRG face challenges that extend beyond the courts. If there are issues with food or housing insecurity, financial stability, language barriers, counseling or behavioral services for the child, or more…we can help. We have partners specifically tailored to for GRG and their unique needs. Please contact us via the PA SeniorLAW HelpLine for resources and referrals.

Frequently Asked Questions and Glossary of Common Terms

  1. WHAT IS CUSTODY? Custody is a legal term which defines the rights you have to care for a child. There are two types of custody:
    1. PHYSICAL CUSTODY: The actual physical possession and control of the child. This person is responsible for the daily routine caretaking, such as food and shelter. Physical custody is granted as either sole (all of the time) primary (most of the time), partial (some of the time), or shared (about 50% of the time.)
    2. LEGAL CUSTODY: The right to make major decisions affecting the child’s overall well-being and upbringing, such as major medical procedures, education and religion. Legal custody is granted as either sole (make all the decisions) or shared (must consult with the other party to make decisions)
  2. WHAT IS IN LOCO PARENTIS? You may see and hear this term a lot in custody procedures. If you are already acting as a child’s parent, meaning you assumed all the duties and obligations for a child without a court order, you may be deemed in loco parentis to that child. Only a Court can determine if you are in loco parentis. The advantage of petitioning the court using the in loco parentis designation means you automatically have standing.
  3. WHAT WILL THE COURT CONSIDER TO GRANT CUSTODY? Judges are afforded great discretion in deciding custody matters. These decisions based on the best interest of the child standard. The best interest of the child is determined by numerous factors cited in the statute, such as:
    1. Any history of drug or alcohol abuse or domestic violence in the household
    2. Which person can best care for the physical, emotional, developmental, and educational needs of the child
    3. Which person is more likely cooperate and foster the child’s relationship with the other party
    4. Criminal background of household members
    5. The child’s preference
  4. DOES IT COST MONEY TO FILE IN COURT? Each county sets their own filing fees. If you are low-income your filing fees may be waived. Ask the clerk or prothonotary about filing In Forma Pauperis (IFP). This is a special motion to excuse you from paying court fees. Contact us for more information about getting your court fees waived.
  5. WHAT IF A CHILD WELFARE AGENCY IS INVOLVED?
    If a child welfare agency is involved, that likely means a case is pending in dependency court, not regular domestic relations court. An agency is commonly known as DHS or CYS, depending on the county. When a child has been removed or if an agency was called to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect, a special section of the family court hears these cases, called dependency court. Dependency court has special rules and procedures and it can be more complicated than regular cases. It is important to act quickly for dependency cases if want to know your options to get involved, such as seeking custody.

Read our Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Flyer here. 

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