Grandparents taking care of grandchildren can become a messy thing, especially when a traditional parent is addicted to drugs.
State Rep. Spencer Roach said he’s working to make sure there’s a better transition for kids when an absent parent shows up suddenly in the picture.
“With the opioid crisis, which is now in its second decade almost with Florida being the epicenter, we have seen an explosion of grandparents raising their children,” he said.
Often, that’s not because of any arrangement documented in the justice system. Addict parents will sometimes bring young children, even infants, to their own parents’ doorsteps. But just as easy, a parent can show back up, clean or not, and be able to take the child out of the home they have known for years.
Roach has a bill in the House (HB 185), which aims to address such situations. As written, the law would give some legal authority allowing an extended family member temporary or permanent custody of a minor in such a situation.
“We’re trying to look after the best interest of the child and make as a safe a transition as possible,” Roach said.
The process would involve petitioning the court to ensure the parent of a child is fit to take the child back. If necessary, a judge could put requirements in place for the parent to provide proof.
The legislation carefully defines what constitutes an extended family member, whether by blood or with a stepparent seeking to keep a child safe. The child in question must have lived with the family member for at least a year.
But the bill also poses some constitutional problems regarding custodial rights, as House staff noted in a report.
“Parents have a fundamental liberty interest in determining the care and upbringing of their children. This interest is protected by both the Florida and federal constitutions,” the staff analysis notes.
“The bill may be construed to allow visitation rights to an extended family member during a transitional period over the objection of a fit parent, which may implicate the parent’s privacy rights. In court opinions addressing the right of a non-parent or grandparent to have custody of or visitation with a child, courts have held that a non-parent may have custody of or visitation with a child in very limited circumstances.”
Stepping on those rights, particularly in situations where a parent’s custody of a child has never been legally severed, makes the matter lawfully complicated.
Spencer said The Florida Bar had contacted him about the bill, and he’s working on an amendment now in hopes of addressing the custody issues.
“There’s a misconception this is about custody,” he said. “It’s not a custodial bill. It’s about child safety.”
But it unquestionably touches on custody and what authority a parent has to decide their involvement in a child’s life.
Roach said he wants to make sure not to put barriers up to extended family members helping with the care of children. These situations are far preferable to the state breaking families apart.
“The government makes a terrible parent,” Roach said, “and anytime we can avoid placing a child in the state system and taking them as a ward of the state, we are giving them a leg up.”
Roach says that as a long-time guardian ad litem who in 2019 officially became a foster parent. He said he knows there are situations where the state must get involved and take a child out of a dangerous situation.
But he wants options like leaving a child with a grandparent to be available. And a parent who does that need not forfeit their parental rights entirely.
Roach’s bill already passed in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee and now heads to the Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee. A health problem for Roach prevented it from being heard there before Session.
Companion legislation (SB 124) sponsored by state Sen. Aaron Bean has advanced through two committees there and awaits a vote in Rules.