A Grandmother's Triumph in the Courtroom

After two years of fighting, she gained full custody of her grandchild

By Lynne Gilman

I never imagined becoming a frequent visitor to family court. Until eight years ago, I didn’t even know where the courthouse was located. But during the grueling two and a half years that my husband, Alan, and I fought for custody of our granddaughter, Alexis, we memorized every crack in its dingy floor. Blindfolded, we could have traversed the entrance hallway and found our seats in the main waiting room, nodding commiserating hellos to former strangers whose faces we could paint in the dark. Within those walls we waited, and waited, and waited.

How It Began

Our daughter, Rachel, was 20 years old when she gave birth to Alexis. Involved in an unstable marriage and emotionally unable to care for a baby herself, Rachel welcomed our offer to raise her little girl.

When she came to live with us, Alexis was two weeks old. As she approached her first birthday, friends began asking what legal arrangements we had made. Naïvely, we thought Rachel’s consent to have us raise her daughter overrode the need for legal documentation. It didn't.

We filed for custody of our granddaughter. Or rather, we began a process that would end up taking longer than we ever imagined.

Step One: Filing a Petition

The world of family court was uncharted territory to Alan and me. We expected a relatively simple and quick resolution to our petition for custody. Step one: Petition the court. Step two: Wait for a judge to sign an agreement. After all, Alexis already lived with us. Our granddaughter's father, Frank, had monthly supervised visitation privileges (that he only sometimes showed up for). We couldn’t imagine he'd stand in our way. We were wrong.

The courthouse opens at 9 a.m. We arrived at 8 a.m. Our plan was to return to work within hours. We emptied our pockets, walked through the metal detectors and scanners. We signed in, and stood. There were no seats in the waiting room.

Hours later, our appointment at the cubicle arrived.

A harried-looking woman, amid impatient sighs and rude glances, handed us a four-page petition to complete. We scrawled our names, addresses, and Social Security numbers. We flashed Alexis’s birth certificate. With one swift strike of the pen, we checked off the box indicating permanent, not temporary, custody.

In a nearby room, our petition was notarized and authenticated. We had a file number. The request was official.

“You’ll be notified by mail,” said our clerk, brusquely.

“Yes, but when?” we asked.

"There’s no way of knowing," she said.

The Battle Begins

Six weeks later, we received our next summons to court. Lawyers were appointed to Alexis’s parents — neither could afford to hire one. Our granddaughter was assigned a law guardian. Her job was to protect her interests in the fight for custody. Whenever the judges asked Rachel's lawyer to research custody questions, or make a visitation decision, the law guardian was consulted. Though the law guardian never contested anything, she had to be present at every court appointment.

Rachel’s lawyer, a 25-year family-court-system veteran, was never without an overflowing attaché case and armful of books. He was overloaded with cases. And yet, he supported us through the ordeal. Technically, he was our daughter’s lawyer. But he represented the two of us, as well, since Rachel had agreed to our raising Alexis. Before each court appearance, he conferred with us, without fail.

Forks in the Road

Alexis’s father resisted. He filed at least 20 petitions for visitation — more visits, less-restricted visits, cheaper visits — anything to delay the process. After he filed a petition, we'd receive a copy in the mail requesting lawyers, law guardians, parents, and grandparents to appear in court. The logistics involved in getting everyone in place were daunting.

The custody process dragged on into its second year. At times, we looked around the waiting room. We saw couples with sad and dejected faces, crying babies, bored toddlers. I wondered, “Is this ever going to end?”

I consider myself a strong and determined person, one who deeply believes in happy endings. (My nickname? Pollyanna.) As months passed, I tried hard not to get discouraged. When my resolve weakened, I pictured my granddaughter's face. I thought about my three daughters. Alan and I had strived to give them a secure upbringing.

Without an iota of doubt, I knew the safest, most secure place for Alexis to grow up was with us, her grandparents. I trusted that there was no way anyone would stop us from gaining custody of her.

At last, every one of Frank’s endless petitions was denied.

At last, we made some headway.

Home Free

After more than two long years, an end was in sight. We received a court order requesting our presence at a custody trial. Lasting just 30 minutes, this would be the final step in the custody process.

That day, we were nervous, even frightened — neither of us had sat on a witness stand before. Would the judge grill us, a la Law & Order? Alan and I were called to the witness stand.

Describe Alexis’s life with you, requested the judge.

Our granddaughter was a happy and secure little girl, we said. We told the court about her nicknames for us (Neema and Pa) and her black-and-white cockapoo, Caesar, that she loved.

We described her confidence as she tap-danced her way through her first dance recital, and the beaming pride she felt when she brought home pictures from nursery school. We talked about our big family of loving aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. It felt wonderful, we said, after having a nearly empty nest (we still had a teenager at home), to be raising a child again.

Rachel, the law guardian, and lawyers sat listening. Alexis’s father was not there.

Time passed slowly.

The judge then returned and granted us full custody of Alexis without awarding any visitation to her father. Tears of relief filled my eyes. Alan squeezed my hand, his own fingers shaky. We smiled at each other in exhausted delight. Outside the courtroom, we hugged everyone. We shook each other’s hands. The outcome we had waited for was finally a reality. The ordeal was over.

Six weeks later, we received the final court order in the mail.

Alexis, now 9, is a contented, well-adjusted little girl. Alan and I can’t imagine our house without her gap-toothed smile, quirky sense of humor, and silly jokes that make me laugh so hard they make my eyes watery. She and I watch High School Musical 2 and Hannah Montana together. We dance around the living room. Our custody battle was long. It was exhausting. But when I kiss Alexis goodnight, I am joyful that she is legally, unequivocally ours — that she is exactly where she belongs.


Beautiful story. I was raising my grandsons for 3 1/2 years. One day the mother took them and they never came back. With mother their lives were always unstable. Lived in filth, couldn't keep a job.
I just want them to know I have never turned my back on them. Every time I talk to a lawyer they always say grandparents just don't have rights. I wish to have a support group behind me changing the laws.
Please contact me through my email cdwhitefeather@yahoo.com. I intend to start weighting congress.
Please help me in this battle

cdwhitefeather on 2013-12-29 13:37:29

I lost my daughter and other granddaughter in a car accident last October 2012. My granddaughter that survived is now 8 and she was placed in the hands of the biological father who is a women basher alcoholic drug attic who ran to his mother's home with her.. He is trying to get his hands on her money.. I am trying to stop him as I know he will use it on drugs an alcohol.. I don't have anyone to represent me in the trial which will be on the 3rd march 2014..
I know I am goingmto give it my best as my granddaughter wants to live with me as I have been there everyday of her little life..

Leila64 on 2013-11-09 00:19:52

That is a beautiful story . I wish mine was that easy.

Leila64 on 2013-11-09 00:14:36

Gratz to you, and best wishes for those that have commented about their fight for the grandchildren. We have two of our three grandsons. They have been with us for three years, the older is six, the younger three. We were caring and loving them, and always on edge with no legal standing because we couldn't afford a lawyer, and couldn't seem to get the right answers to know what to do. Luckily this past spring I attended our second "Grandparents as Parents" seminar, and finally got a definitive answer we could use. We legally had to notify child welfare about my Daughter leaving the boys with us. Although there were no drugs or such that we knew of, she had just walked out one day and not come back. A judge at the seminar said that I had to legally notify child welfare and let them decide whether they considered it a case of abandonment (not) or a case of neglect (which they did.) It was considered neglect because she took off leaving me no legal ability to seek care for the boys. So they took it to court, within a few weeks we had temporary custody, and a little over a month after that the judge granted us permanent custody.
What a relief, I was on cloud 9. And the relief that we could say in our older grandson when we told him no more people coming to ask questions and look around. No more chance that someone could just walk in the door and depand they go with them. We had all been on pins and needles. And the joy I feel every day knowing that I am finally able to legally get healthcare, dental care and take care of everything else that the boys need.
We go to court at the end of this month as they are persuing the older boys father for child support. For some reason his (the fathers) mother seems to think that this court date is about visitation or custody, I don't think she realizes that we were already given permanent custody. I don't know why she cares as she has only come to visit the boys an average of twice a year since they've lived here.
We have had to deal with a lot of issues with both boys due to their abandonment issues from their Mother leaving like she did. Even more so with the older boy because of the way his Father would so infrequently and unexpectedly show up at the door. Many times I've wished they would just stop visiting at all if they couldn't do so in a way that made them feel safer, and less jolted each time.
I have never denied him visitation. I have never denied the grandmother visitation. I would however like to have some respect such as notice, and also enough respect for the grandsons not to tell them you'll see them again as if the next day and then not show up again for months.
Hoping that everything gets smoother from here, and our little guys can continue to grow happier and healthier in the comfortable knowledge of our love.

NativeAmerican on 2013-10-13 21:51:38

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