seal  Purdue News

December 11, 2003

Grandparent caregivers face legal, policy issues

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - More than 2.4 million grandparents provide primary care for their grandchildren, according to recently released data from the 2000 U.S. Census. In many cases grandparents assume care of these children because the parents are unable.

Dena Targ, professor emerita in the Department of Child Development and Family Studies at Purdue University, said parental substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, and incarceration of parents are major reasons grandparents are caring for their grandchildren. She also cited teenage pregnancy, abandonment, HIV/AIDS, mental health problems, unemployment, divorce, poverty and death of a parent as other reasons.

While grandparents bring many strengths to parenting, Targ said they also face many legal and policy challenges.

Some grandparents have informal custody of their grandchildren and aren't recognized as legal guardians. Targ said these grandparents often face problems when they try to register the children for school or obtain medical services. In response, a number of states have passed education and medical consent laws that allow grandparents to seek services for grandchildren in their care. Although informal arrangements can present problems, many grandparents don't want to pursue formal custody.

"Grandparents may consider the children as members of the family already and do not value a formal arrangement," Targ said. "And, in most states, grandparents would have to prove the parent is unfit to obtain formal custody. It is very hard for the grandparent to say that about their adult child."

There are formal custody options, which include:

• Legal custody – This option is available in most states but requires that the grandparents sue for custody and prove the parent is unfit. There is no termination of parental rights, and parents could return to court to try to regain custody. A de facto custodian law was passed in Indiana, however, it's recently been challenged in the courts. De facto custodians are grandparents or others who have been the primary caregivers and financial supporter of the child for a specified period of time. They have the same standing as the parent in a custody dispute.

• Legal guardianship – Legal guardianship is similar to custody but obtained through a different court with different procedures. In some states, being designated a guardian may make it easier to access services.

• Adoption – This is the most permanent option and ends the birth parents' rights and responsibilities. The grandparent becomes the parent in the eyes of the law.

• Foster parenting – In this option, grandparents care for the children, but the state has custody and can remove the children from the home. Financial assistance is provided for the care of the children.

Targ said grandparents who have specific legal questions should contact a lawyer who specializes in family law.

Purdue Extension and University of Wisconsin-Extension teamed up to develop a program that explains many of the legal issues involved. That program, "Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Legal and Policy Challenges," is a three-session, video-based program designed for presentation to grandparents raising grandchildren, relatives who are raising related children, the professionals who work with them and interested community members.

The program highlights the custody and financial implications of informal and formal arrangements. It also provides examples of options in several states. In addition, participants develop a plan to address important gaps in services available to grandparent caregivers.

For an overview of the program and ordering information, visit Or contact the local Purdue Extension office to ask about having the program presented in your area.

General information on legal challenges faced by grandparents raising grandchildren can be located on the Generations United Web site.

Writer: Kay Hagen, (765) 494-6682,

Source: Dena Targ,

Related Web sites:

AARP Grandparenting site:

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page