Grandparents affected by opioid crisis have court options with grandchildren

WARREN — Grandparents who have lost a child to addiction in one way or another — and there are more than ever in Trumbull County — have the ability to petition for visitation or custody of their grandchildren as long as they meet certain factors, according to a local judge.

“This whole opioid crisis has had a ripple effect. Not just on the people who are addicted, but a ripple effect on the children to the grandparents and other family members. And so many parents have lost their child to this addiction, so whether your child is still living with addiction, or if you have lost your child to addiction, there are certain rights that grandparents have,” said Trumbull County Family Court Judge Sandra Stabile Harwood. “If the mother or father of a minor child is deceased, the court may grant the parents of the deceased parent reasonable visitation rights.”

Most options available to grandparents can be filed with the court pro se, meaning without representation from an attorney, Harwood said.

And although the court doesn’t just hand out the right, and the court must consider the order to be in the best interest of the child or children, a lot of grandparents in Trumbull County have won the rights, Harwood said.

However, the court will want to see paternity established, which can be hard to prove if the father is deceased and the couple was not married.

“It doesn’t matter if the parents of the child weren’t married, but paternity has to be established before the grandparents can come in,” Harwood said.

If the father has not been added to the birth certificate, the court will want to see some other type of action he took, like court filings or some other type of acknowledgement, before the court will hear the complaint, Harwood said.

If the family has established paternity, the grandparents or other close relative can file a complaint to seek visitation if the parent of the child is deceased, not married to the other parent or going through a divorce or dissolution, according to Ohio Revised Code.

Some of the factors judges will consider are the relationship the child had with the relative prior to the petition, the geographic location of the child and petitioner, the child’s age and adjustment, the child’s wishes, the mental and physical health of the parties, the effect the visitation would have on the child’s relationship with siblings, the wishes of the surviving parent and the criminal history of the petitioner, according to the ORC.

Besides visitation, the courts also will consider granting custody of the child to a grandparent or other relative if the parent of the child is deceased, not married or in the middle of a divorce, or if the court finds it is in the child’s best interest not to live with either parent, Harwood said.

“The court in that situation would make a legal determination for placement or certify the juvenile court to do a full on investigation to help decide,” Harwood said.

If a child is already in the children services system, grandparents still have options.

“Another thing coming up with this crisis is more and more children are being placed into care because of dependency and neglect. And when there is a dependency or neglect concern, the grandparents can look at it two ways. If they are already in care with children services, they can make a request for home study, for placement in their home,” Harwood said. “Or before the kids are in the system, the grandparents can come into the court and file a complaint for custody. The court would have to find in the best interest of children, and if there is a dependency or neglect issue, it is possible the court will find neither parent is suitable and grant custody to a grandparent.”

In cases like that, it is important for the court to see verification of the dependency or neglect, Harwood said.

“We need clear and convincing evidence of drug abuse by parents. This is a big concern for us and the situation is becoming more and more prevalent,” Harwood said.

The court needs to see a police report, documentation from a medical professional or a report from children services.

“We encourage those who are aware of issues in the house to contact children services, because that is the type of corroborating evidence in the event there is a custody issue down the road,” Harwood said.