Wallie Goolsby took photographs of the round bruises — more than 12 perfectly shaped marks on her grandchild’s right leg alone — but they weren’t enough to have the young child removed from home.
The grandchild had been in her custody before, for extended periods in California, due to problems in Goolsby’s daughter’s home, court records show. The bruises were the first visible sign that the abuse could be shifting to the children. Goolsby called the police and also filed a report with Arizona’s Department of Child Safety.
More than a month later, she is left with this: That cherished grandchild and the family’s other children are still living at home, and Goolsby, cut off from the family after filing the reports, must seek a court order to see them.
She knows little about their case other than that they are receiving in-home services. She sometimes waits for days for calls back from child welfare workers and was recently kicked out of a department meeting after her daughter and son-in-law protested her being there.
Goolsby wonders why the family’s history in California seems to have so little bearing here. She feels marginalized and frightened for her grandchildren.
The story is a familiar one to Jaia Lent, who — as deputy executive director of a national nonprofit called Generations United — works primarily with grandparents trying to negotiate their state’s child welfare system. (Learn more at www.gu.org).
“We get a significant number of calls from grandparents in crisis, calling to say, ‘Where do I go for information?’” Lent said. “We have a good number looking for legal resources after finding themselves in challenging cases.”
Often, she said, grandparents want to seek visitation rights or legal custody but do not have the money to go through the process.
“Access to legal services is a tremendous issue for these families,” she said. (Learn more at www.grandfactsheets.org).
The number of Tucson grandparents trying to help grandchildren has increased in recent years, if calls and referrals to Tucson’s KARE Family Center are any indication. In 2011 the center received 1,000 calls and referrals; in 2013, the number had soared to 1,500, more than 60 percent from grandparents.
The American Association of Retired Persons reports that, nationwide, nearly 7.8 million children are living with grandparents or another relative, and more than 5.8 million of those children are with grandparents.
In some cases, the relationship remains amicable. But when it fractures, grandparents are often shocked at the lack of access and rights they have.
In the child welfare system, for example, children and their parents are parties to the legal case, but grandparents aren’t, said Julie Treinen, program director of the KARE Center and project director for the organization’s Kinship Support Services. (Find out more at www.arizonakinship.org).
“The child gets a lawyer, the parents get a lawyer, but (grandparents) don’t get a lawyer,” she said. “What involvement can they have? They need a lot of help figuring it out.”
Some states, including Arizona, provide free legal advice to grandparents and other family members trying to help and stay connected to young relatives.
Each week, KARE Family Center offers guardianship clinics through the Southern Arizona Legal Aid Volunteer Lawyer Program for families not involved in the child welfare system. For cases where the child safety department is involved — and sometimes for cases when they’re not — Treinen’s organization refers people to the Southern Arizona Legal Aid program for a free appointment.
Family law attorney Douglas C. Gardner of Phoenix has represented several clients in Goolsby’s position.
A grandparent, or anyone, can ask the courts to sever a parent’s rights if they fear for the safety of a child, he said. But most often these cases involve the state’s child welfare system.
“Once (ADCS) becomes involved, they kind of take over the case,” he said. “The request could have been filed by the grandmother herself, but many people don’t realize that.”
For Goolsby, the next step will be petitioning the courts for visitation.
Arizona’s courts will consider ordering a parent or guardian to allow visitation with a child, but the circumstances in which they do this typically includes one of the following: the marriage of the child’s parents has been dissolved for at least three months, a parent is deceased, a parent has been officially declared missing for at least three months, or the child was born out of wedlock.
Judges in these cases will consider what’s in the best interests of the child in the context of the historical relationship between the grandparent and child, as well as the motivation of the parents denying visitation.
Goolsby hopes a judge will help her see her grandchildren again.
“I’m from an abusive childhood. I have a heart for children who are going through this, and especially my grandchildren,” she said. “When I was growing up, there was no one there to help me.”