Parenting is hard. It seems that all too frequently, that grandparents or foster parents have to step in and parent again when the biological parents for whatever reason become incapable of raising their own kids. That's harder, and there are unfortunately not enough resources available to properly inform the new parents what they have gotten into. After recently speaking to a Southwest Missouri group focusing on grandparents raising grandkids, I put together this short guide to the different scenarios that can result from having new children with you.
1. The kids were just left with you.
In this scenario, the kids were just dropped off at your house. Typically, if it is just for an afternoon, or even for a few days, there is no problem here. In cases where there are problems (drugs, alcohol, mental health issues) with the biological parents, these short visits can get longer and more frequent. In these cases, it is advisable to have the biological parents sign a temporary guardianship. This will allow you to make legal decisions for the children as to medical decisions, educational, and more. Without one, a hospital may not allow you to make the decisions necessary to treat your new houseguest.
2. Foster care
In this case, the children have been "placed with you" either through a kinship placement (you are a blood relative) or a foster placement, where you have taken classes to become a foster parent. This placement occurs when the children have been placed in the state's custody due to some problems with the biological parents. Here, the biological parents are given a written service agreement to try to meet the expectations of the Juvenile Office and the Judge. If they are able to meet these expectations (often successful drug tests, getting the house cleaned up, putting food in the fridge, etc.) then the children are reunified with the parents. The court maintains the goal of reunification from at least 12 months after the children are placed in care.
Here, the court determines that the parents are unfit, unwilling, or unable to parent the child, and a guardian is necessary. A guardian has many of the same rights as a parent, such as custody, legal decision-making power, and in the case of a conservatorship, control of the minor's assets. However, guardianships can be terminated by the biological parents, should they get their act together. If they can prove to the court that the circumstances have significantly changed and that they are fit, willing, and able to parent the child, then the court will terminate the guardianship and place the child back in the custody of the parent.
This is the death penalty of parental rights. Unlike a guardianship, once an adoption is granted, it cannot be undone. The adoptive parents are considered by law to be the same as biological parents for all intents and purposes. If you are married and you and your partner divorce, one of you could pay child support and there will be a parenting plan. If one of the adoptive parents dies, the same probate laws for secession apply to adoptive children as they would for natural children. In addition, the biological parents' rights are terminated. Judge's are instructed by the appellate courts to treat these cases as seriously as capital murder cases, as there is little that can be done to undo them, and a successful appeal of a termination case can have serious undesirable impacts on the minor children involved.
5. Third-Party Custody
A relatively new form of action, a third party can sue for custodial rights of a minor child and can be placed into a parenting plan with the birth parents or other custodial parties. This is a great avenue for step-parents who have been a part of their children's lives for a long time and risk losing that connection through a divorce. Third-party custody cases are not terminated as in a guardianship, nor are they permanent like an adoption. Instead, a third-party custody case functions like a paternity or divorce case; the other parties can file a "motion to modify" and seek to change the parenting plan if circumstances have significantly changed.
Please understand that every case is different and this is a VERY brief overview of the different possibilities when a child is left in your care. There are other alternatives and other outcomes, but these are the most common.