The “traditional” American family doesn’t look quite the same as it used to. As just one example, consider the fact that in many households, grandparents are taking on the role of primary caregiver to their grandchildren (rather than an being an extra set of eyes or frequent babysitter).
There are numerous reasons for this change, and not all of them are positive. In many states, the rise in grandparent caregiving is reportedly linked to the opioid crisis that has impacted millions of Americans across the country. According to recent research, many states with the highest rates of opioid prescriptions also had the highest rates of grandchildren being raised by their grandparents.
Four states in particular were named for having especially high rates of opioid prescriptions and a higher percentage of the over-30 population raising grandkids. Those states were: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
According to the data, the percentage of grandparent caregivers in North Carolina is consistent with or just above the national average, while the rate of opioid prescriptions is significantly above the national average. While we can’t draw definitive conclusions from the statistics, they suggest that opioid prescription rates don’t necessarily correlate with abuse rates. They could also suggest that opioid abuse in North Carolina simply isn’t leading to significantly higher rates of grandparents in primary caregiver roles.
What legal options do grandparents have in cases like these?
In North Carolina, there are four statutes under which grandparents can bring a cause of action for custody or visitation. The first of the four statutes under which a grandparent, or “[a]ny parent, relative, or other person” may seek custody is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.1(a). When a grandparent initiates a custody proceeding under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.1(a), the grandparent must show that the parent is unfit or has taken actions inconsistent with her parental status in order to gain custody of the child. A parent experiencing an addiction problem may trigger a grandparent to have standing under this statute. The issue to be careful of here is that a grandparent must be able to allege that both biological or legal parents or unfit or have taken actions inconsistent, and the action must be filed against both, and not just one parent.
Grandparents may also petition for visitation rights in an on-going custody proceeding between the parents, and they can petition for custody or visitation due to changed circumstances in actions where there has been a previous custody determination and they have been a party to the action. In these types of actions, a grandparent must file a motion to intervene in the already existing action between the parents, and if granted, this joins them as a party to the case.
Finally, another statute permits a biological grandparent to institute an action for visitation rights where the child has been adopted by a stepparent or relative of the child, and a substantial relationship exists between the grandparents and the child.
As noted on our grandparents’ rights page, issues like a parent’s drug abuse, mental health issues, abandonment, or endangerment of the children may make it necessary for a grandparent to step in and seek custody.
Grandparents’ rights are a complex and nuanced area of family law. Therefore, it is important to work with an experienced family law attorney who understands the complexities and can strongly advocate for you and your grandkids.