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.