Don’t become the elephant in the family courtroom.

Help win your own case by becoming a star witness instead of an embarrassing elephant in the family courtroom because you don’t know how to act or what to say.

In family court the judge, not a jury or set of laws, determines the outcome.  He, or she, relies heavily on recommendations from caseworkers and the court-appointed attorneys for your grandchild(ren).  However, you can impact their decision positively, or negatively, based on what you say, how you say it and your body language.

Rambling, focusing on past behaviors of birth parents, or talking negatively about caseworkers or the judicial system takes up unnecessary time, confuses the issues and frankly works against you. It’s hard to trust someone you don’t like.

Make every word count.  Show you are committed, competent, and caring by dressing and acting appropriately and giving honest, concise answers to questions or if you have an opportunity to make a statement.  You gain opportunity to speak by having legal standing and that requires filing as an enjoiner or psychological parent.

Years ago my job was to explain the business side of publishing to our company lawyers–sometimes testifying in court, but mostly helping develop strategies and responses for likely-to-be-asked questions.  I also spent years in and out of ‘the child welfare and court system’ getting custody, then permanent guardianship and finally adopting my grandson.  The former experiences gave me insight into legal processes and players;  the later a passion for helping others.  Here’s what I learned.

Always prepare a one-page summary

Preparing a one-page summary to take with you for distribution to key players in the courtroom helps you focus and brings others up-to-date.  Caseworkers, attorneys and even judges often change or cover for each other.  They have huge caseloads and may arrive with thick files they have only glanced through.

The format is as critical as the content.  The document needs to be easy to scan, and understand, so the reader can glance down while talking or listening without it becoming a distraction. Include your name, and the grandkids’ names along with the date at the top.  Use space between each header and include no more than three bullets under each section. 

The first header, Goals, states the outcome you want from this hearing whether it’s to change non-supervised visits to supervised, obtain custody, challenge current placement in a foster care setting, or file for adoption.

The middle header, Recent Developments, lists facts and events since the last hearing that best support your goal.  Note: My website software does not allow me to double space or indent bullets in following example–but you should.

  • Birth dad arrested for assault against drug dealer May 10th in Orange County.
  • My granddaughter’s counselor, Kirsten Brown, Ph.D recommends no further contact with parents (Statement attached).
  • Previous court request for home visit and criminal background check for self were conducted through Children Services this week.

The final header, Additional Information, reflects pertinent information that you think impactful.  I always included a reminder that my grandson’s birth dad made the following statement in a pre-trial conference, “If it takes a beating with a two-by-four to get the child’s attention that’s what you use.”  Another time he called asking, “How much is it worth to you for me to get out of yours and Chad’s life”.  Word pictures can be more powerful than medical or legal terms…just don’t overdo.

I typically have to write, edit, rewrite and repeat numerous times but it helps me eliminate redundancies, items not directly impacting the issue, or things not favorable to my case.

Have a pre-hearing meeting with attorney and role-play questions and answers.

Go prepared with a list of questions and a ‘to do’ list so you don’t waste time and money and you know that your attorney has all the information necessary to be effective.  Knowing what to expect builds confidence on both sides. This is the time for you to discover what steps must be covered by law to minimize any future legal challenges by the birth parents.

If your lawyer doesn’t initiate the conversation ask what presentation style is most effective with the presiding judge.  What works with one may blow you out of the water with another.  Be prepared in court to adapt your responses  if you realize the judge is becoming frustrated by over, or under, sharing information or yours or your attorney’s mannerisms.

If you don’t have legal representation and are representing yourself you need to do your own research by asking other grandparents, sitting in the judge’s courtroom another day to watch and listen, and by going on-line to research laws and precedents.

In the courtroom

Be on time.  Do not discuss the case in court, in the bathrooms, halls or in nearby restaurants or street corners unless it is with your attorney–you can be overheard.

Be honest but try to keep your emotions–especially anger–under control.  If you give an incorrect or incomplete answer ask for permission to clarify what you said previously.  Also, be tactful, “Your honor I apologize for any confusion  I may have inadvertently created.  What I meant was…”

Be absolutely clear in all you say, or write, that your grandkids’ safety, happiness and health are, and will continue to be, your first priority even if it means breaking all contact with your adult child.


When grandparents raising grandkids die, or are dying…

IMG_2932How do you help grandparents who have recently lost their spouse, or life partner? 

You show up.  You listen.  You offer to talk to their grandkids who are struggling with their own fears and tears. Nothing will ever be the same, and suggesting otherwise is demeaning.

Affirm positive steps, and suggest counseling, grief classes and support groups for the family. Child/teen-focused grief release programs, such as the Dougy Center in Oregon or Comfort Zone Camp in Virginia do incredible work.

What do you do if the grandparent them self is dying?

This is 911 heart- stopping stuff but reality can’t be put off.  These grandparents need a new home for their grandkids now, or as their health deteriorates. They need to talk with an attorney, grief counselor, and hospice to determine what’s possible, timelines, and how to legally, financially, and emotionally make it all happen.

Their caseworker must be involved if children are wards of the court. Sadly, some children will be returned to the foster care system, some to a barely functioning birthparent, and others transitioned to the home of an older sibling, aunt, adult-friend, or parents of their best friend.

In my latest book Raising Children of Alcoholics & Drug Users there is a whole chapter devoted to the practical issues of estate planning, wills, guardianships, talking to extended family, and transitioning information for a new care-taker.

All children need to know where they are going to live.  Every grandparent in this situation needs help.  Offer to make appointments, talk to grandkids, or contact their faith community.

Helping grandkids deal with death: advice from professionals:

Tell kids immediately.  Don’t let them hear from anyone else–and certainly not from a thoughtless media tweet or post–if you, or another family member is dying…or if someone they love is dead. Helping a little one, or teen, say goodbye is hard–but not giving them a chance to say goodbye if there is the opportunity is worse.  Sixty plus years after my husband’s mother committed suicide, he is still dealing with the pain of no one talking about his mother, and not getting to go to her funeral.

Use the words died and death, not euphemisms.  If you say grandma is asleep, went away, is with the angels, or ‘we lost her’–children, especially preschoolers, get confused.  They expect sleeping people to wake up, and people who aren’t there to return eventually like when Papa comes home from work. They have no concept of forever.

Using words that describe everyday activities to explain death can lead to anxiety or fear.  If papa was “sick” and “died” then they will be terrified when they, or anyone, gets sick. Explain only serious illnesses, or very bad accidents, cause death. There are some excellent child grief books including Tear Soup and Freddie the Leaf. There are equally good ones for teens and adults.


Let children attend a parent/or grandparent’s service.  However, consider taking pre-schoolers to ‘after service’ gatherings only.  Ask a trusted acquaintance to watch over them because you will be busy, grieving, and unable to deal with their short attention span, fidgeting, and questions about why people are crying or, “Where is grandpa?”

Ask children how they are feeling and ask often enough, and in enough different ways, to really “hear” what they are feeling. Reassure them by words and actions that whatever happens, they will be safe and with people who love them.

Help them put their feelings into words, or pictures, so they can process grief. Some will feel very sad for a long time, others not so much.  Some will be angry and feel abandoned (don’t forget that for adolescents life is all about them). Reassure them that they aren’t responsible for the death.

Seek counseling for kids if there are prolonged: 

-Changes in school performance and peer interactions.

-Difficulty in sleeping, nightmares, reverting to bed wetting, or needing you in the room while they fall asleep.

-Destructive behaviors such as temper tantrums, using drugs or alcohol, cutting, depression, stealing, bad language, isolating themselves in their bedroom,  or sexual aggression.

-Refusal to talk about the deceased, or talking exclusively about them.

Re-assure grandparent.

Grieving is not easy and there are no timetables, no pre-mapped steps. The activities of parenting often facilitates that a grandparents’ feelings and needs are set aside…but whether they are saying good-bye to their spouse, or saying a long good-bye to their grandkids, let them know you’ll be there.

Ask them if they are spiritually alright?  I’m Christian, but spirituality can include agnostics, atheists, or anyone.  Asking simply opens a conversation door that maybe no one else has been willing to walk through with them.

Regardless of your intent don’t tell them everything happens for a reason, heaven is a better place, or other similar comments. In the bible it says God never wastes a tear. Sometimes crying with another is one of the best comforts we can offer.