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.


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