A Look into the Life of Being In Loco Parentis RSS Feed

In Loco Parentis - Acting Parent

Kids are our future, even the ones not related to us.
Our job as citizens and community members is to step in and help our children grow up to become healthy, well-adjusted adults who contribute positively to our society. Each child matters.

This blog is about those who are acting in place of a parent. The legal term for this is In Loco Parentis.

I am an authority of the legal status of in loco parentis in so far as that is my role in a child’s life. Some folks are biologically related, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, older brothers and sisters, cousins, etc. Other situations involve same-sex partner kinds of custody issues. I am not biologically related to or in a same-sex custody battle for my child. I’m closer to a step parent, but no longer dating the father. So as you can see, my story is quite unique. Even still, you find that some of my some of my experience applies to you or your situation, and some may not. I’m writing this for all the people, most likely good people, who find themselves with this strange title and thinking I’m in loco WHAT???

I’m going to dive into my experiences as acting parent here, emotionally and legally, and I figured you might be able to glean something from it.

Well, I’ve never had a chance to name a child, so we’ll call “my” child Matthew. That would have been his name had I named him, so that’ll work swell here.

The first thing I have to say about standing in place of a parent has to do with my relationship with Matthew. I started dating his father when he was just two years old. Matthew was just as cute as a button and fiercely independent. I never lived with Matthew’s father, not for any other reason than I never thought it would really work. But Matthew moved in with me when he was 6, just a couple days before he started first grade. I didn’t know how much, but it didn’t take long to learn that Matthew had some issues, and frankly, I felt obligated to give him everything I had.

Kids need love. It’s really that simple. Everything else has had elements of confusion and sometimes outright mayhem. But they really need lots of love. Unconditional love. They can only be responsible for so much, and chances are good that they’re not going to learn things like responsibility, and self esteem and self confidence unless they get unconditional love. Now on the outside, that sounds simple. When it’s your biological kid, maybe it’s simpler. But when you get tangled up in a custody battle and it looks like you don’t have a fighting chance, guess what? They still need love. So my best advice to anyone standing in loco parentis is this: love the child with EVERYTHING you have. There are times when you wonder if you’re ever going to see the child again. There are times when you hit brick walls painfully hard. There are times when you mind plays tricks on you, and you feel yourself instinctively protecting yourself by trying to pull away emotionally. Fight those feelings and love the child even more. Like I said, it sounds easy at first, but when you are in the thick of things, your child needs to know you’re there, and you have to fight all of the good-willed family and friends who are trying to protect you. You’re a grown-up, and it’s your job to care for and protect a child, so thank them for the well-intentioned advice and take your job very seriously. A child is counting on you and you can’t do right by the child if you don’t remember how much you love them and how much they need you. And if you lose custody, well, you can break down then, you can pull away then, but not before.

There are a few more things I want to mention here in this initial post, and then I’ll move on to other areas in greater details.

First, it is important to understand the situation you’re in. It is your duty and responsibility to make decisions that are in the CHILD’s best interest and that doesn’t always coincide with what YOU want in YOUR life. I am not a saint, so let me tell you there was more than one occasion where I thought I would surely lose Matthew if I did something crazy, like ask the mother to make regular phone calls to him or drive him to visit her, or encourage her participation in his life. In the end, you always have to put the child’s needs ahead of your own desires. I don’t have other children, so there is a real desire on my part to keep him all to myself. In fact, I would love that! But at the end of the day, I don’t think I could look him in the eye if I didn’t advocate for him ALL THE WAY, even with his parents.  He was only 6 when he came to live with me, and I know he loves me, so  I don’t worry about who he loves more. I would be thinking crazy if I didn’t understand that a child always holds out hope for their parents to come back to them, and I would be unfair to him if I didn’t try to pull his parents in and help them bridge their relationship in any way I could. When you are the acting parent, you have to remember that there may be a real parent or biological relative who may come back into his world, and there are lots of things you can do to deal with these issues. This does come back to loving the child all the way, with your whole heart. You really have to do right by the child all the time, even when it goes against everything you want for yourself and your relationship with the child. I will have a ton of things to say about this later. In the end, though, your child puts all of his or her trust into you doing the right thing, and even if you lose him to his parents or other relative, you’ll be able to look yourself in the mirror and know that you did everything right. Don’t ever resort to underhanded actions because this will never make you the better person. And you’ll never know when that child might need to come back to you.

The law. You have legal rights when you are standing in loco parentis. I am in the state of Pennsylvania, and here the rule is:  if the child lives with you for six (6) consecutive months, you have a legal right to that child and can pursue custody in court. There are almost always extenuating circumstances, so be sure to document everything as soon as possible. Documenting doesn’t have to be a horrible experience, and you don’t need to be a good writer to do it. Just create a spreadsheet and document important issues such as phone calls and visits with the parents, issues at school, and everything else that might seem only slightly significant. Make sure you put a date on everything you document and keep the spreadsheet in at least two physical locations for safe-keeping. You never know when you’ll need it, so the better the documentation, the better off you’ll be. Also, be sure to save emails to and from everyone (parents, other family members, teachers, etc.). Print those and put a separate copy in another location. These things really don’t take much time if you keep up on a regular basis. It is your obligation to your child to make sure that you stay on top of things. If you need to fight for custody later, it’s better to be prepared than lose because you can’t remember a bunch of little things that show a pattern of behavior.

When One of the Parents Begins to Step Up Consistently - Part 2

I wasn’t sure what to do when I noticed that Matthew’s mother seemed to be doing all the right things. I kept watching, kept waiting, and then I made a decision. It was time to give Matthew back to his family. Even though this totally tore my heart out, I spoke with his mother and we started making plans. I gave her a list of things I thought were necessary for her to address in preparation for this major life change. It took nearly 2 months after we initially talked about it to give it to her (even though I’d had it prepared for months). We agreed not to tell Matthew until the time got closer.

I cried for a solid month and then got off my keister and decided I was going to take full advantage of the time I had left. I was planning summer vacations filled with fun things to do. I was trying to remember what I did before Matthew came to live with me, trying to make plans for things I would do once I was no longer a full time parent so that I wouldn’t go “in loco”. That was hard. I mean, REALLY HARD. This was the hardest decision I ever made, or so I thought.

But then I started noticing some things. Matthew’s mother wasn’t exactly living up to my expectations. Sure, she was consistent with her scheduled visits, but really didn’t want to be bothered with extra visits or his extra curricular activities during “her time” (she has other plans for her weekends). She made it clear that didn’t want to waste her gas money on an extra gallon of gas every other week for weekday visits (I offered numerous times). She didn’t want to pay her part for other things listed in the child support order (medical expenses). She also stopped going to some of his doctor appointments (that are considerably closer to her house as opposed to ours). These things were coming to light at rapid speeds for me. She was so close, doing so many things right, but at some point, I realized I made a very grave mistake. The next step became crystal clear - I had to tell her. Of coure, I lost tons of sleep over this, because I know in his heart Matthew wants to live with her, and I really wanted to give him that. But I just couldn’t justify him moving back just yet.

I did the worst possible thing I could have done - I gave her hope, and then I took it back. The opportunity for her to take more steps is still there, but until she actively starts taking those steps, I’m not going to make any offers that I can’t make good on.

When One of the Parents Begins to Step Up Consistently - Part 1

And now I am finding myself in a new position in Matthew’s life. Maybe it’s not so new as it is evolving. Matthew’s mother has been stepping up in his life consistently for almost a year now. At first it seemed superficial and I didn’t know what to make of it. But as time goes on, I am seeing more effort and more active participation. I am also seeing that she is beginning to realize that her son has issues beyond “that’s a boy thing”, recongizing that her son truly does have special needs that are not always visible to the average onlooker.

I can honestly say that I did not expect this. And I can honestly say that I am cautiously happy for Matthew.  And now I realize that I may need to conceed some issues and think very hard and very seriously about what is in Matthew’s best interest (which is now in sharp contrast to my desire to raise him to adulthood).

I am seeing his mother make real and sincere efforts in Matthew’s life. She is trying, and she is learning. Maybe she did not have a role model in her life to help her learn to parent two children with special needs. Maybe she did not feel she had the strength or support (or both) to do it on her own. I’m not sure. I don’t mean to make excuses for her, but I am seeing something different, and I’m seeing it over a period of time. I am beginning to wonder if  this might be the time to allow Matthew to move in with her, with a few guidelines and safeguards for Matthew (of course).

In the past week or so, I have created a list of things that I think would be important before and during a transition to her home. Last year, she was required by the GAL (Guardian ad Litem) to attend parenting classes. That never happened because the GAL never set it up. I will ask her to find her own parenting classes and take them on her own. That will let me know if she is willing to be resourceful, not only for herself, but also for Matthew. I strongly believe that such classes will be immensely helpful in learning how to be a better parent and how to deal with some of the challenges that Matthew will undoubtedly present. Also, since she is living with her boyfriend (they have been living together for about 2.5 years and Matthew adores him), I think it would also be important for him to take those classes as well. I will insist on it. Raising a child with special emotional needs is challenging. and I don’t think either one of them is fully prepared for the challenges that will arise (but then, who is?)

Since this will occur outside of court, I believe I have more leverage to ask for things that will make sense for Matthew and provide a backup for his mother. Since I am currently Matthew’s legal guardian, I think it’s important to remain as such, even if I’m not not his primary caretaker. Matthew’s father has minimal interest in spending time with him, and if anything were to happen to Matthew’s mother or her living situation that would require a backup, I want him to be able to come back to live with me with minimal red tape. I will not agree to any transition without being listed as a legal guardian.

There are other things that I will ask for, such as asking her to step up and make more of an effort for herself so that Matthew can see her as a positive role model who follows the rules that are expected of her (simple things such as wearing her seat belt make a big difference when you’re a role model). I know this might sound like a small thing, but without a role model who takes safety or other rules seriously, how will he know how to take care of himself? And if they’re in an accident, maybe she will be safe and be able to continue to take care of him. It’s important. I know this is taking liberties, but this is where that leverage kicks in. A judge might not “order” it, but I think the GAL will agree with me, and I know it will only help in the long run. I might be able to get it in, and I think it’s worth trying.

She will also need to learn about the emotional support services in her school district and work together with me and both schools to make sure Matthew’s needs can and will be met in the school environment, and she’ll be required to provide information about how she would deal with childcare and extra curricular activities in her area. In fact, I’d like to see her set up an activity in her area in advance of him living with her.

I think all of these conditions are reasonable and realistic, and I won’t let Matthew move unless they are met. I don’t know if I’m missing anything, but I want Matthew to have a wonderful life and will do everything I can to make that a reality whether he lives with me or not. It’s a big step that I haven’t taken yet. I’ve decided to wait just a little while longer, but I expect to see more of the same good stuff I’ve been seeing. Last year, I didn’t have this same set of facts, and I didn’t see the same level of involvement and participation. I don’t think you need to let a judge  decide when you can negotiate the terms yourself in a way that truly will be in the best interest of the child.

In Loco Parentis and Child Support in Pennsylvania

Here’s an interesting fact: In Pennsylvania, the person standing in loco parentis does not have a legal financial obligation to raise that child. We are called “caretakers”. What this means is that your earnings are not calculated into the equation for determining the financial obligations of all the parties. Your financial obligation is automatically calculated at $0.00.

Mother and Father are sued individually, which is another bonus. So when the court compared wages between Father and me, he had 100% responsibility, and I had none. When the court compared wages between Mother and me, she had 100% responsibility, and I had none. It was not divided between them at 50% each. The financial responsibility was assessed based on the individual biological parents’ earnings, with a financial responsibility of 100%, and not based on the fact that another parent would also be obligated at 100%. Cha-ching!

Some Other Things to Know

The court papers will tell you that you must have your financial records and expenses prepared for the court to review. This is standard documentation that they send to everyone. They do not provide caretakers with different forms, even though the rules for caretakers are very different from the biological parents (this might also apply to adoptive parents). I spent a lot of time organizing and printing out pay stubs and outlining my expenses, but in the end, they wouldn’t look at any of them because of my legal role in Matthew’s life. Caretakers have no legal financial obligation in child support hearings. I’m not going to tell you not to be prepared, but it’s good to know these things up front.

Even if you file the paperwork against both parents at the same time, these will be considered separate filings by the court. Don’t be surprised if the hearing date for both parents is on the same day at the same time. After you file the paperwork, the court will send you different paperwork to serve individually and it will show that you are the plaintiff and each parent, individually, is the defendant. You’ll get two sets of this paperwork for this reason. When you get to court they will separate the parents and you will be in a small room with only one of them at a time when it comes to determining their individual financial obligations.


Before you get in front of a judge, you can negotiate everything. You can ask for more, you can agree to less. I strongly encourage you to walk in knowing the dollar amount you are willing to accept. Make sure you address medical liabilities in the support order. These can be divided between the parents, or you can agree to cover some of the expenses (you choose to pay nothing or you can show your willingness to cooperate to a degree by capping your medical bill/copay obligations to $100 - $500 per calendar year and have the rest divided between the biological parents). Note: If you agree to take less than the court-determined “guidelines”, they will make a special note of that. This may help your arguments in custody hearings and it will certainly show that you are willing to work with the biological parents in this regard. If you need more than the guidelines and the biological parents are not willing to pay it, you will likely need to show proof of expenses, and you will likely go in front of a judge.

Why I Decided to File

Many acting parents agree to take care of a child because the biological parents are facing financial difficulties. It’s an act of love and genuine concern. That is often the root of the problems, and we accept that because we’re not in it for the money. The truth is that raising children is expensive - they need lots of things, you lose work time when they’re sick or have to go to extra parent-teacher meetings or doctor’s appointments. That said, when the biological parents are working, it seems only right that they should throw you a few bucks to help out with the expenses, but that’s not always how it works. I’ve been struggling to carry the majority of the financial load for my child, and Matthew’s father gives me money every once in a while. It’s never anything I can count on. Matthew’s mother will not chip in on something as inexpensive as undies even though she works full time. I guess after hearing about new cars, big screen TVs, new furniture, computers, and other electronics, I got fed up hearing how they didn’t have anything left over to help support Matthew. I asked for less than $50 from one of the parents and was refused, yet continued to hear about purchases of new electronics and other luxury items on a regular basis. So I took them both to court for child support and held them both accountable. I think that’s the way it should be.

In Loco Parentis: Acting Parent vs. Biological Parent

It’s disturbing how easy it is to sway a child’s thoughts and understanding of their custody situation. The ideal way to approach this is to help the child understand that they are not responsible for their living arrangements because they’re not (at least not younger children. Teens may have different levels or responsibilities in their custody arrangements).

As the acting parent, you have to be careful not to insult the child’s biological parents, while at the same time staying on top of issues as they arise and safeguarding the child from the things that the natural parents might say to the child. Please understand that I’m referring to much more serious kinds of blaming than a child should have to be responsible for. If the child didn’t put his bike away, well then he might get a well-deserved (appropriate) consequence like not riding his bike the next day. That’s not what I’m referring to here. I’m talking about the parent who tells the child, “It’s your fault that I couldn’t parent you like I should have. You better be good or they won’t let you see me anymore.” Comments like this abound for children who come from dysfunctional family situations. While you’re busy getting help for the child, building his self-esteem and things along those lines, you can’t always do the same thing for the biological parents. As the child is learning better coping and communication skills, the biological parents usually haven’t learned a thing about their responsibility for the situation. When there’s no one else to blame, biological parents often blame the child. When children are blamed for things they cannot control, it sends them into a tailspin of trying to figure out what they could have done differently, and of course, there is no answer because it wasn’t in their control to begin with.

For the record, when you challenge what the biological parent says to the child (no matter how much the issue begs to be challenged (, know that you are entering a minefield; be careful where you walk.

Children in unusual custody circumstances are remarkably protective of their biological parents, and equally receptive to accepting blame for their situation. It’s not terribly uncommon that their parents are all too willing to have them shoulder the blame. On the one hand, you want to encourage and facilitate a healthy relationship between the biological parent and child. On the other hand, you cannot predict the awful things that the parent might say to the child and how the child will interpret those messages. It can be horribly destructive to a child whose self-confidence is already straddling the fence to begin with (an improvement over the complete lack of self-confidence in previous years). Worse, the effects can last a lifetime; one instance of misdirected blame can permanently scar a child straight through adulthood. As the acting parent, it’s important to listen to the child, pay attention to what he or she is saying and hear the messages that have been received and/or interpreted from such a discussion.

The key is to be ready to build the child back up without displaying disrespect (dismay, or disappointment) to or about the biological parent. I have also found that not everything my child reports is accurate, and may contain enough truths that his mother said that it all seems highly likely. I take what he tells me, listen for accuracy and open it up for discussion. For instance, he might say, “Mommy told me that I have to improve my behavior when I come home from visiting her house or else I might not get to see her anymore.” I’ve found that a given statement can contain multiple “authors”. I’ve found that he may add his own interpretation to the message he heard from his biological mother as he relays the message to me.

Regardless of the accuracy of the message, I always remind my child that his mother loves him, and then I proceed to dissect the facts to determine where each part of the message came from. By doing this, I can help him determine fact from misinterpretation (his or his mother’s) - give him access to and a better understanding of the facts - without letting him take the blame for things for which he cannot control. So far, I’ve found that this is the best way to give him the facts and show him respect by not insulting his biological parents or his own misunderstandings of the information. I think it’s really the only way to go.

In Loco Parentis: Loving a Child Who Isn’t Yours

When a child moves in with you, it’s natural to bond because as the acting parent, you spend a lot of time doing things and caring for that child. People put your relationship into the spotlight, and you get lots of kudos from lots of folks who marvel at your ability to love a child so truly. Personally, I think it’s very easy to love a child. The hard part is the possibility of being separated from Matthew.

You always know that the child is not yours and that he does “belong” to someone else. There are times when this notion slips away, but it doesn’t take long for it to return. I’m not into pretending that it’s something it isn’t, but I’m in the role of caring for a child who isn’t mine, and as such, I really do care for him and I really do love him, perhaps more than I’ve ever loved anyone else. The issues and roles get muddled every once in a while.

I have the same concerns as other parents about my child. I worry about his eduction, the dirt stains on his t-shirts, the bullies at his school. Where my worries veer off is that I also worry about his natural parents and what they’re going to do next. I do everything I can to protect Matthew from some of their actions while still encouraging a relationship among them. I do a lot of coaching.

All the hearings are over now, and Matthew will officially live with me. Even still, I have agreed to reunification efforts for Matthew and his biological parents. This is the twist: I want what’s best for him, and I will only get that for him if I do everything in my power to help his parents make better choices for themselves and for him - regardless of whether he ever lives with them again.

Since there might be a unification at a later date, the turmoil of being in loco parentis may never really be over.

In Loco Parentis: When the Best Interest of the Child Conflicts With Loyalty to the Biological Parents for the Child and the Acting Parent

As the acting parent, designated by one of the biological parents (the father), I find that my loyalty to him, which was sincere, has come into sharp contract with the best interests of the child. I have also found that the child experiences many conflicts regarding his loyalty to his biological parents and me, his legal guardian.

Loyalty is a tough issue for those involved in an in loco parentis custody case. To begin with, the child came to live with me at the request of a biological parent, as is the situation in many cases where an in loco parentis is involved in the first place. The biological father requested my assistance, and I was happy to help.  I am not a blood relative, but was a close friend. The relationship between the biological father and me became strained when I had to get a restraining order against him for myself, not because of the child.

However, even without the restraining order, the child was and is still dangling between us, and I have had many unfortunate opportunities to learn the damage that both biological parents inflicted on their child. Learning these things has changed my perspective on what I can or should do for the child, whom I adore. On the one hand, the biological parent entrusted me to care for their child until he could get on his feet. He didn’t get on his feet. I expected him to follow through on promises he made regarding his involvment with the child, who very much requres his father’s involvment, but again, he hasn’t followed through. The same holds true for ”my” chid’s biological mother.

I have considered every angle, every personal wish I’ve had for “my” child in contrast with the child’s best interest (ad nauseum), but it boils down to the fact that “my” child’s best interest has not been met first-hand by his biological parents, even with my assistance and support, even when I have put aside our personal differences in lieu of the child’s best interest. In the end, loyalty to the child and his or her best interest has to supercede loyalties elswhere. It can be a tough call, but if you watch how the parents interact with the child, and you see their efforst regarding the child’s emotional, educational, and learning needs, your decision regarding what is best for the child will become clear.

I have come to realize that I don’t believe in  “keeping” a child because you believe you love that child more than  his natural parents. I don’t think your feelings alone are a good enough reason to keep a child from living with his biological parents. There need to be compelling reasons why the child’s best interest are served by living with you as opposed to his or her natural parents. Even economical difficulties alone (to some extent), is not reason enough to keep a child from living with his or her biological parents. To go against the trust that the parents bestowed on you, to go against your loyalties to the parents who entrusted you to care for their child, you must look at legitimate and documented reasons (medically, psychologically, educationally) that show the child has been harmed or that his best interests are not being met. It is not fair to the child when you put your feelings or desires ahead of what is in their best interest or what they most desire (never forget that most children who don’t live with their natural parents dream of the day their biological parents will come back for them).

The child is in a tough situation because he loves both of his parents and wants a relationship with both of them. He doesn’t understand their lack of stability, but he does understand that their lives, their living situations, and their involvement with him changes from time to time. He has been pulled at and torn by comments that his parents have made to him. On the day I told him I got temporary custody, he cried. Through tears, he told me that he lied to his parents about his choice when the GAL asked him who he wanted to live with. He said he told them he didn’t choose. He couldn’t handle hurting his parents’ feelings. Loyalty can be such a tough thing to teach a child, especially when the choices are as difficult as choosing among the adults who you love most. I explained that his discussions with his lawyer (the GAL in this case is a lawyer),  are confidential and that I would never dream of asking his lawyer about his choices, and they cannot divulge the full contents of their discussions with anyone. This gave him a big sense of relief.

On the flip side, the GAL told me (without my asking) that he chose to live with me. It broke my heart that they even asked him. I know what’s in his thinking, that this is his way of keeping me in his life, but I wish he’d have never been put in that position to begin with.

The Acting Parent: Disciplining the Child Who is Not Yours

Matthew moved in with me when he was 6 years old, just as he was entering into first grade. I knew that he had some behavioral issues before he moved in, but he’d always been very good with me for the 4 years that I’d know him prior to our new relationship.

So as you can imagine, it was quite a shock to find myself in a new role that required new actions that neither of us was particularly comfortable with. Frankly, he was a bit of a terror. I read all kinds of books about strong willed children, what they needed, what I needed to do for him and the like. I wanted the experience to be positive, and I showered him with tons of attention, partly because I loved him, and partly because I thought that’s what he needed.

All the books said to set the ground rules and be firm. Yeah, ok.  The more rules I set, the more rules he defied. I created reward charts and bought a sickening amount of stickers.  I praised, I timed-out. I used TV programs, bought him cool books that I thought he’d like. I found movies that would teach him important “lessons” that we could talk about later. One book had a clear method for spanking, which was not likely in my thinking. But no matter what I did or what the school did, Matthew’s behavior was completely out of control. He hurt himself, damaged property, and threatened other children.  I was so new to the parenting experience, and so amazingly unprepared for the challenges Matthew sent my way, I really didn’t know how to get him to a better place. He resisted everything and was totally oppositional. It was exhausting. Despite all of the behavior problems at home and at school, Matthew got straight A’s in school. None of it made sense to me.

I continued reading everything I could find, and lucked out with a great first grade teacher who actually cared about the little holy terror I sent to her classroom five days a week. I still regard her as a saint. Really, I do.

Matthew’s first grade teacher recognized what I was too new to know. Matthew clearly had some psychological issues that were beyond my expertise or what she could do for him in her 20-student classroom. We agreed to get a psychological evaluation, which the school would pay for (schools are now required by law to provide psychological and psychiatric support for their students). Matthew’s biological parents were very familiar with these behavioral issues, and I think his behavior was part of the reason why he moved from house to house. He was difficult to deal with.  Very difficult.

The biological parents and I expected something like ADHD, but much to our surprise (and dismay), Matthew was initially diagnosed with a mood disorder (bipolar). The diagnosis was quite a shock. Matthew was moved to the resource room for half days. One of the best advantages to the resource room was that it provided for more individualized attention due to fewer students in the room at any given time (usually no more than 5-6).  His behavior at school improved almost immediately. We also worked together on a behavior plan that instituted the same rules at home and at school (and with babysitters, at church, at daycare, and everywhere else he went). We used rewards that truly meant something to Matthew, like volunteering at an animal shelter and one-on-one activities that he really enjoyed. One of the things Matthew most needed was attention. He did not have to earn positive attention, per se. In fact, I came to realize that he needed positive attention all the time’; he needed regular, heavy doses of praise for everything he did right. That was a big key to changing his behavior.

Although Matthew’s behavior mimicked symptoms similar to ADHD and bipolar disorder, it turned out that he had neither. Over time, he progressed very well, and the symptoms he originally presented are rarely, if ever, present these days. He’s still strong-willed, but now he accepts more guidance. He still wants to do things his own way, but after a while (and a few lost bets), he’s learned that I am usually right about the things I insist I’m right about. He trusts me more now, which is great. But what’s even greater is that I can trust him more now too.

One of the things I learned is that Matthew did have an elevated anxiety level. He’s never received psychotropic and anti-anxiety medication, although he did receive Omega 3’s, which is wonderful for just about everyone. If you do have a child who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I highly recommend the book, The Bipolar Child. What we did for Matthew was institute a series of actions that he can take when he gets frustrated, worried, concerned, mad or sad or just feels like he has no control (different than being out of control)… he does some of the following:

  • Breathes in and out deeply 10 times
  • Counts to 10 very slowly
  • Asks to talk to someone (me, or a designated person at the school) about what he’s feeling
  • Goes for a walk outside, usually around the house once or twice
  • Writes down his feelings, and then, if he chooses, comes to talk with me (or another designated person) about what he’s written
  • Takes a self-initiated time-out by going to his room to cool down
  • The above techniques have helped Matthew gain control of his emotions. His behavior has improved so much that the activities that used to be considered rewards are now a part of our regular routine.

Some things I learned along the way:

  • Praise. I can hardly describe how important praise is for children. They yearn for your approval, and so the more things you can find “right” about their behavior, the better off you’ll both be. Believe me when I say we had some truly dark hours, but in the end, I believe that praise was by and far the best reward I ever gave Matthew. In fact, one counselor suggested a technique called “attending and ignoring”. Attend (praise) positive behaviors, and ignore unacceptable (but not unsafe) behaviors. This technique worked WONDERS for Matthew.
  • One of my biggest concerns was Matthew’s self-confidence and self-worth. He had very low self-esteem when he came to live with me, and poor self-views are difficult to change if they go on for too long. I found that it was very important to enroll him in activities that he did not have to “earn” as rewards. Instead, I believe that there were other important lessons to learn in life besides good behavior. Before I signed him up for the activities, we talked about things like “commitment,” “teamwork” and “dedication”.
  • Keep the rules consistent everywhere. Matthew had the silly notion that the rules should be different with every adult in his life. I didn’t agree. The school and I identified specific problematic behaviors, and created a behavior plan based on those. I wrote out a summary of those behaviors, including a list of rewards and consequences. I explained the rules to Matthew, and then promptly gave copies to everyone who would be in charge of him. At first, he hated it and even once exclaimed, “Does EVERYONE have to know?!?!” I calmly said, “Yes, everyone has to know that our rules are the same everywhere you go.” Between you and me, I did NOT give these rules to his grandparents. I do believe every child needs to be spoiled a little, somewhere along the way. However, I did NOT let his biological parents off the hook. In fact, I had Matthew explain the rules to his parents, along with his consequences and rewards. He always got excited when he got to the “rewards” part.
  • Watch “nanny” shows on TV. These programs give an incredible amount of ideas for how to handle a variety of behavior issues at a variety of ages. At first I was reluctant to have Matthew watch them with me, which I later deemed ridiculous. When he watched them with me, it gave us a lot to talk about during and after the show. More importantly, these shows gave Matthew insight into how he might have looked when he did similar things, and there also seemed to be epiphany moments where he would understand why what he was doing wasn’t acceptable. Even if your child doesn’t “get it”, you can glean many wonderful techniques from these shows. Break out the popcorn and watch them regularly!
  • Mean what you say and say what you mean. Follow through on rewards and consequences the first time, every time. Do not, under any circumstances, make idle threats. I count to 3 when I want Matthew to do something and he’s resisting. If I get to three, he goes to timeout - every time. The last 3 times he went to timeout was 2 weeks ago, 3 months ago, and 6 months ago.  We’ve come a long way, baby! I promise, your consistency is the only thing that will ensure that it will get better! Stick with the program and understand that your child needs those boundaries, will actually thrive when you stick to your word. That’s how you create a safe world for them, and instinctively, they understand this. Don’t worry about them fighting you on it, that’s natural. They will still appreciate it in the end.
  • Demand respect and be respectful. If you allow them to walk all over you, or talk to you in a disrespectful way, then you are sleeping on the job. They need to know that respect is not optional, it’s a requirement. Likewise, kids do not need to be humiliated in order to learn, but they do learn respect when they are treated with respect. Keep your cool, and keep a straight face. You’ll need them both.
  • Participate in activities with your child. I coached one of Matthew’s sports. I decided to get involved this way because Matthew was clearly having issues with his peers. He didn’t fit in, and that hurt him very much. It hurt me to watch. Sometimes Matthew would act out because he didn’t want to be humiliated by his peers, and that was heartbreaking. By having me in a leadership position for an activity, I was able to create opportunities for him to have healthy interactions with his peers. Near the end of the season, we had a team party at our house, which just delighted Matthew in a HUGE way. HIS friends were coming to HIS house! It really helped! I still participate in other ways at his school, like volunteering for career day, or coming in to help with class parties. I still bring treats in for his class every year for his birthday.  The more involved you are in activities, the more focused the child becomes in those activities as opposed to the unwanted behavior that you don’t want. Don’t lay all the work on the child. Get involved in his or her life, and you will see that it will pay off in dividends!
  • Giggle sessions. I figured out what makes Matthew giggle, and try to find ways to work it in all the time. It’s fun, and it breaks up the monotony of constantly focusing on behavior issues. It’s important for you to find ways to bond with your child and have fun with your child. You’ll both get a lot out of it. Don’t be shy, giggle at silly things, make appropriate jokes where you can and tickle till they tell you to stop. Kids are great. Enjoy them every chance you get!

In the scheme of things, I think I have found that disciplining a child is disciplining a child, regardless of who he was born to or related to. It did take a while to figure out how to reach Matthew and bring his behaviors into acceptable levels of natural, developmentally appropriate levels of seeking independence (which children will constantly challenge you on because this is a natural part of development). I remember going to a parent class at our church and being shocked to find out how many “most terrible mothers of the year” were there with the same issues of “too tight clothing” and kids demanding later bedtimes, wanting to watch inappropriate TV shows for their age, and a host of other (as it turns out) very natural complaints. Whew! That was a real eye-opener for me.

If your child does have exceptional behavioral or emotional issues, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I looked high and low, asked for advice regularly, and considered lots of options. My parents didn’t have the internet when they raised me, but it’s here and since so many people are willing to share their experiences, take what you can from them. I strongly recommend that you first contact your child’s school to discuss ways to get on the same page. Most schools are very willing to work with parents who are willing to do their part. Don’t expect them to do all the work, though, because they can’t. Ask for resources in every area that pertains to your situation. They will be thrilled to help you help a child.

Know Where to Jump In - Child Development: Birth to 10 Years

As non-biological parents, we are constantly reminded that we are not the natural parents. When you find yourself in the role of “acting parent”, you realize a few things fairly fast. First, you likely haven’t had the time to plan for the child’s birth, let alone raising the child.

Immediately after Matthew moved in with me, I realized right away that I was unprepared in a lot of ways. For instance, I knew nothing about the phases of child development. I didn’t have 9 months to read all of the parenting books and magazines. The only thing I did was paint his room and get him bedroom furniture. I laugh just thinking about how little I knew about the new venture I was embarking on. But even in hindsight with all my new knowledge, I might have read a few more books in the beginning, but I never would have turned my back on Matthew. That’s not to say I didn’t read my fair share of books and magazines in the beginning, but looking back, I would have read a few more BEFORE he moved in with me.

Que sera sera!

No matter where you are in your experience of standing in place of the parent, I think you’ll find it helpful to refer to the child development spectrum to help you understand the kinds of developmental issues that your child is experiencing. I refer to this every so often to help me see where Matthew is at in these stages and how he compares to the standards. I think it’s important to know if something’s been missed that I can help him catch up on. I’d like to give proper credit here, because I did not write the list below. But I really don’t know who wrote it.

A baby’s first year is all growth and change. At this stage, a baby is very demanding and helpless. Parents cannot expect to control a young baby through any kind of punishment or discipline.

1 Month
Starts to sleep more regularly. Cries when hungry, wants to be held, or when physically uncomfortable. Totally unaware of self and others.

By 4 Months
May like to be propped up or held instead of left lying down. Watches everything with interest. Will begin to go to sleep more easily. May start to smile back when smiled at, and become more aware of surroundings.

6-7 Months
Very social age. Grabs objects. Like to bang things. Can amuse self, but will cry when mother leaves. Likes to be held standing up up to bounce.

No information about 8 months.

9-19 Months
Working at standing and may walk a step or more. Some begin to say “da da” or other short words. Can understand the meaning of “No” at some time around ten months. Loves to crawl and will grab at anything - into everything. Likes games like peek-a-boo.

By 1 Year (52 Weeks)
Becomes more social. Likes to stand. Crawls quickly, doesn’t keep still for long. May be walking and talking.

2 1/2 years
A difficult age. Stubborn. Demanding. Can’t make decisions and stick to them, so it’s best to make decisions for them. Lots of energy. Once started on something, it’s hard to get a 2 1/2 year old to stop.

3 Years
Begins to like to share, to say “Yes” as often as “No”. Likes to make friends. No longer so demanding. New words are fun for him/her. Enjoys learning. Can begin to dress self a little and try to “help” around the house. Motor development increases greatly to riding tricycles, jumping, nd throwing balls. The desire to please and conform is great, and preschool begins.

4 Years
“Out of bounds” behavior, mood changes quickly. Hitting, kicking, throwing, yelling, swearing, loud silly laughing. Tells lies because s/he doesn’t yet understand the difference between lying and pretending. Boasting and bragging are common. Parents have to control the most unreasonable behaviors, but the 4 year old needs to test her/his independence too. Needs some things s/he can mess up or destroy with all her/his extra energy (newspapers, clay, etc.)

4 1/2 Years
Begins to question what is real and what is pretend. Most like to talk about things more than before. they want to know all about all sorts of things. Begins to be less defiant of mom’s efforts to control her/him. Pictures, drawings, building with blocks can interest a 4 1/2 year old for long periods of time.

5 Years
A calmer, friendlier stage. Less out-of-bounds than 4. Accepts directions from parents. Plays quietly, likes to stick close to home. Going to school for the first time can be fairly easy for most 5 year olds because kindergartens are planned for this age. However, some children are less mature than others, and may be in the 4 year old phase of out-of-=bounds behavior even at 5.

6 Years
Very emotional stage. One minute seems to love, the next to hate. Demanding of mother. Needs lots of praise.  Reacts badly to blame or criticism. Will do what he is told, only slowly and with resistance. Some 6 year olds have problems adjusting to first grade; they may not yet be ready to concentrate on the work with all the other children there to distract them. Parents’ task is to support the child’s separation from them while not making the child feel rejected. This age child needs help with homework.

7 Years
Another calmer age. Likes to spend time alone, watching TV, reading, daydreaming. A 7 year old tries hard and tires easily. Sometimes less happy for awhile, pouting, saying nobody loves him/her. Lots of complaints about teachers, brothers, sisters and life in general. Feeling sorry for self. Needs a little sympathy, but a lot of encouragement and praise for things done well. Parents’ task is to encourage and praise this age child. Consider having the child joining Cub Scouts or Brownie Scouts. These children can do simple tasks with only one prompt.

8 Years
Begins to be aware of relationships with family and friends. Concern with what other people think of him/her. May try things much too hard for self, starting with a great deal of enthusiasm and ending in tears. Sensitive about failures and criticism. Friendships and school are a big part of his/her life. Parents’ task is to support the child’s out-of-family activities. Perhaps time for a child to go to day camp or an organized sport activity like little league.

9 Years
By 9, some children starting to have body changes of preteens - more aware of their bodies, more self-conscious. Aware of and interest in words or TV shows dealing with sex, even if in an immature or “silly” way. Independent, interested in friends more than family. Already showing signs of how the teenage years might be. Parent’s task is to be supportive of the child’s worries about new things. Maybe be the time in some early maturing children to talk about what they can expect from puberty. This is not necessary if the child isn’t asking for this information.

10 Years
Complains and worries a lot. Physical symptoms - stomach aches and other aches and pains are common along with general preoccupation with body - especially in girls who mature physically a little earlier than boys. Parents’ task is to continue to set firm limits so that this preteen feels security in the family. Child may begin some rebelling but this is normal. If parent’s anticipate this, it doesn’t seem like defiance.

Fighting for a Childhood

I know everyone has a different experience when raising someone else’s child, but one thing that really gets me fired up is how fast Matthew has been forced to grow up. Childhood is precious, the younger years go by so quickly, yet the effects and the memories can last a lifetime. Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting for Matthew’s childhood, for him to have a good childhood filled with all the wonderful things a child should have and experience.

I spend a fair amount of time teaching Matthew how to protect himself in different situations. Of course, learning some of these things isn’t all bad, but in Matthew’s case, they’re absolute requirements. If he didn’t have some of this know-how, he might not be able to protect himself when he’s with his biological parents (who aren’t always as watchful as they should be). If he doesn’t learn these things, then the courts might shorten the visits or put a stop to them altogether. There is no room for failure when it comes to Matthew’s safety. Because I don’t accompany him on visits with his biological parents, Matthew has a lot of responsibilities that he has to step up to, not because he should, but because he would suffer more than anyone if he didn’t.

There’s so much to teach a child, and it makes sense to make that education age-appropriate. Some of the things I’ve taught Matthew are beyond his years. He shouldn’t have these responsibilities. Sometimes he fights me on them, and I can’t always blame him. He just wants to be a kid. Even still, I feel like one of my most important jobs is to prepare Matthew for the environments that his biological parents provide because he does visit with them, and there’s always a chance that the courts may ultimately send Matthew to live with them. Because Matthew’s long-term living arrangement are not clear, I know I have a slightly different set of parenting responsibilities than what a more traditional family structure would normally provide. It’s difficult to find advice or suggestions on how to prepare children to visit or possibly move back with their biological parents because each situation is different, and as such, each set of needs is different.

I’ve learned a few things along the way. Matthew knows how to reach me (on my cell phone, my home phone, my toll free number and by email). He knows not to go with strangers, even if they have a cute puppy or if they try to convince him that they know each other by means of a quick introduction (I am so and so and you are so and so. Now we know each other and aren’t strangers! NOT!! Matthew’s hip to this game). He knows not to go into someone’s house, car, boat, shed, garage, cave, cabin, swimming pool, whatever, without the EXPRESS knowledge and permission of the adult in charge. And if he can’t find someone to get the permission, then he can’t go. He knows how to apply sunscreen and when to apply it, and I always make sure he has a personal stash handy when he goes on visits. He knows how to check the water temperature, and he knows to be in when the streetlights come on. He knows which shows he’s aloud to watch, and which ones will give him nightmares. He knows it can be just as smart to hide if he can’t outrun an assailant. He knows where to go in case of a fire. He knows how to make simple meals in the microwave, and he knows not to mess with a stove without adult supervision. He knows how to adjust and clean his glasses, and pretty soon I’m going to enroll him in a first aid class. He also knows how to swim.

I keep an open mind and I keep the communication lines flexible and open. Matthew and I talk a lot. I do expect him to talk to me in a respectful tone, but he knows he can (and usually does) come to me about almost anything.  I try to squeeze in different ideas on how to help him keep himself safe and make good choices. I know it’s hard on him to have to be more responsible for himself than he should have to at his age, so I make it a point to praise him every chance I get, for doing it so well. I don’t chastise him about mistakes, but we talk about what he might have done differently when he does goof. I treat him like he has common sense and tell him I’m proud of him often. Because he does take on responsibilities beyond his years when he’s with his biological parents, I try to take some of the pressure off when he’s at home with me by doing special things with him or for him. I make special things for his lunch box that aren’t food related (drawings and notes). He loves when I do stuff like that. I give him age-appropriate choices on a variety of things such as clothing, or sometimes let him pick the veggie of the night. I taught him to use a microwave, read cooking instructions, and let him help me cook if he wants to, but I don’t make it a demand.

Matthew used to have a lot of behavior issues at school and at home. There were times when he spent more time in time-out than he did out of it. But he has learned, he has grown, and he has succeeded and exceeded expectations in many ways. He’s hardly ever in trouble anymore, and when it happens (because it does every few months), we talk about it, discuss better choices, and move on. I don’t belabor issues that I think he understands, and sometimes I think his worst punishment these days is my disappointment.

In the meantime, I do lots of things with Matthew that give him a sense of his childhood. We work in the garden together, goof around, make jokes, send each other emails, go bowling, listen to music, and travel. We play putt-putt golf, hopscotch and catch. I coach his little league team, and we go ice skating. We love movies, air hockey, and horseback riding. We also go to his school’s football games, other school events. And I take lots of pictures that we enjoy looking at together. I tell him stories of when he “was little” and he totally loves it. I kiss him goodnight every night, and tell him I love him at least twice every day.  I think these things are what childhood should be about.

Get a Lawyer, BUT Do Your Own Work Too

Having the status of “acting parent” or “in loco parentis” means that you have unique parental rights compared to the majority of custody cases currently in the courts today. If you choose to fight for custody, then you are challenging the foundation and biases related to biological parental rights. In Pennsvlvania, the law stipulates that you are in loco parentis after the child has lived with you for six consecutive months. The law also states that it will rule “in the best interest of the child.” Make no mistake that non-biological parent is behind the 8-ball when it comes to legal statutes. There isn’t a ton of case law regarding the status of in loco parentis, and the courts are reluctant to rule against the biological parents without just cause. It can’t just be “because you love the child”. Your case has to provide compelling reasons why the child should not be removed from your custody. I have seen several instances that indicate that the best course of action in any motion seeking custody (only where it is appropriate) is to cite emotional issues that the child is suffering or has suffered as a consequence of their situation. It’s the first thing that will make the judge pause and give consideration to. It’s also the first thing the judge will want to have evaluated. Be financially prepared for this. Psychological Evaluations and Guardian ad Litems aren’t cheap. The more information you can gather in theemotional distrubance area, the better off your case will be.  I will not discuss some insights I’ve gained as a result of my experience out of fear of jeapordizing my case, which is still ongoing, but I will tell you this. Don’t mess around. Get a good lawyer.

When I decided that I needed a lawyer, I also decided to do some of the work myself. Let’s face it, I can write. And lawyers are totally expensive. Being that I’m not rich, It doesn’t make sense to me to pay my lawyer for things I can do myself. Fortunately, I found a good lawyer who agrees. A few times he’s pointed out ways to save me money (combining multiple tasks like reading relavant documentation, discussing case law, etc. at one time instead of doing each task at individual times). I appreciate these things because they really do help cut back on my bills. Not only that, but once he’s involved in my case, it’s easier to stay on task until all of the tasks are completed, so I find that it pays off in more than one way.

Writing is a critical element to legal proceedings, and even though I’ve never written a legal brief, I can follow a format and do some of the preliminary writing myself. If you’re not a writer, you can still contribute in meaningful ways that will cut down on expenses with your lawyer. And if your lawyer has any integrity, they will agree to and encourage your participation at whatever level you’re at. 

First, get organized. Get all of your documentation items together, and create separate file folders that you can hand to your attorney. In addition to this, I put a picture of Matthew on the top folder, as a reminder to my lawyer that the future of real live living human being is depending on him to do a good job. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s personal.  The file folders can be organized any way you see fit, but here are a couple of good folder labels:

  • Case Overview
  • School Documents
  • Psychological Assessments/Counseling Summeries (any documentation  relating to mental health)
  • Issues and written agreements with Biological Parent(s)
  • Court Papers (filings, notices. rulings)
  • Visitation history (printed from an Excel spreadsheet document)
  • Case Law - in your state

Another thing you can do is put together an outline or list of bullet points for a variety of areas in the case (this would go in the Case Overview folder). Important bullets points would include:

  • Emotional issues that the child has suffered or been treated for (include if the child is still receiving these services).
    • List all diagnoses and assessment results
    • Social skills assessment
    • List all recommendations provided by professionals
    • Observations of the child’s emotional stability as you’ve witnessed. Give the facts, but leave out the flowery or personally emotional embellishments.
  • School
    • Grades (for each quarter of each year)
    • Behavior issues (may coincide with emotional issues listed above)
    • Learning disabilities (include assessments and recommendations)
    • Copies of IEPs (Individual Education Plans) for each school year
    • Report cards and IEP evaluation reports
  • Medical Issues
    • If your child has any medical issues, these should included with the diagnosis, treatment and any other recommendations
    • Harm to child - any issues that involved the biological parents harming the child should be documented. Include photos of injuries when possible.
  • Concerns about Biological Parents
    • Reasons for relinquishing parental responsibilities
    • Pertinent historic facts relating to safety, emotional stability, work history and general environment
    •  Child’s reaction to and about parents (relating to if the child has been waiting in limbo for the parents to come back, if the child has expressed anger or sadness about the parent, what the child’s views of the parent are). It’s very normal for children to hold out hope that their parents are coming back for them, so be honest and up front about this with your lawyer (and yourself).
  • Your background with the child
    • How you came to be in loco parentis - the age of the child then, how many years the child has been with you, etc.(keep it brief, lawyers don’t read for free)
    • Your relationship with the child (have you bonded?)
    • Any changes that the child has made while in your custody (hopefully these will be good changes that can be cited when your case is argued). Important changes to note  include improved grades, mastery in IEP objectives, imrproved socials skills,

The more you can do to assist your lawyer, the more solid your case will be, and the less it will cost you. It’s really a win-win proposition. I was very up- front with my lawyer about money (and the fact that I don’t have a lot of it), and I’m glad that he has the integrity to work with me as a partner in my mission rather than trying to milk me for every dime he can get. On the flip-side, I didn’t ask him for a break and then expect him to do what I can do. Even though my case hasn’t been settled, I am very happy with the work my lawyer has done, the cooperation he’s extended to me, and the overall status of the case. And  I should be happy since I’m winning!

Standing in place of the parent, or acting parent, or "in loco parentis" is a big job that comes with a unique set challenges. I created this blog to share my story and my experiences with those who find themselves in a similiar situation. I look forward to hearing your comments!

The expenses do add up, so if you’d like to pitch in, please feel free to donate a few bucks. I really appreciate your generosity!