Filling the GAP

Filling the GAP

Grandparents acting as parents are often the glue that binds troubled families

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 07/17/2013

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Dear Patti,
My husband, Lenny, and I haven’t seen our daughter, Allison, in eight years. She began experimenting with drugs in high school, became a hardcore addict (despite several rehab attempts), and left the state. We tried to find her but finally realized there was nothing we could do.  
We were recently shocked to learn we have a 6-year-old granddaughter named Emmy who has been put in an emergency shelter in Florida because of Allison’s drug addiction and neglect. We’ve talked to the social worker who is willing to bring Emmy to us (if that’s what we want) following a background review and a physical check of our home to make sure it’s suitable. (If we don’t agree to take her, she’ll remain in foster care.) Allison would have a “reunification period” for a year. If she takes parenting classes, has clean drug tests, counseling and shows she could provide a good home for Emmy, the court might order Emmy to go back. During that year, Emmy would remain a dependent of the Florida court.
Lenny strongly believes we have to take care of our granddaughter. I don’t know this child and – until a week ago – didn’t know she existed. I’m so afraid our hearts will be turned inside out again because of Allison’s actions.
— Tina 

Dear Patti,
My wife, Tina, may not realize it yet, but I know she’ll never be able to turn her back on our granddaughter. Tina loved Allison more than anything and Allison completely broke her heart. Deep down she’s afraid we’ll get deeply attached to Emmy, only to have to give her up after a year and maybe never see her again.  
When asked if she’d ever met her grandparents, Emmy said no but that we had lots of flowers and a golden retriever; Allison had to have told her these things. Emmy must feel so alone without her mother — the only family she’s ever had — and needs us now more than ever. My wife has one of the biggest hearts I know and deep down feels the same way.
— Lenny 

Dear Tina and Lenny,
Lenny, your undeniable love and commitment to Emmy, sight unseen, is beautiful, commendable and an inspiration to us all. Tina is correct, however, in voicing her concerns and doubts about the huge responsibility of taking a child into one’s life at any age. Not only will you become instant grandparents but also have to fill the role of parents in finding doctors, counselors (to help her grieve for her mother), schools and adjusting to a whole new life.

Ten percent of all grandparents are raising grandchildren. Many of them find support by joining groups such as Grandparents As Parents (GAP) — a free organization that provides programs and services for older relatives raising at-risk children. I encourage you to contact them.

When a grandparent has a close, vested interest in the child, they can get “standing” — a legal concept referring to the person’s recognizable right to be represented in court by an attorney, allowed to know what is going on, and to voice their opinions as the court works toward custody decisions in the best interests of the child. I recommend consulting an attorney as well as counseling for Emmy and possibly couple and family counseling.

Try to obtain as much personal history from Emmy’s social worker as you can regarding her lifestyle, how much abuse and neglect she endured, her current physical and emotional health, behavioral problems, intellectual and academic growth, separation anxieties, and how many places she has lived since her birth. If, for instance, she had to keep leaving people and places behind, she may be fearful of another loss and initially have trouble attaching to you.

While I understand your belief that she’s an innocent child whose well-being needs to come first — even before your own — let’s not paint an overly idyllic picture of what could be a lifetime commitment. Emmy may seem like a stranger at first and, given what she has gone through, may not seem easily lovable. She might be angry, difficult or aloof and withdrawn or impossibly clingy. Your marriage may be stressed as you adjust to her presence in your home. And yes, Allison could get custody back or be granted visitation rights and be back in your life. Further, there are no guarantees you’ll ever be appreciated by Emmy, Allison or the courts. You can, however, assure Emmy that no matter what she does, how terrible she feels, or how things turn out, you’ll both always love her and always be there for her. It may even turn out to be one of the most satisfying relationships the three of you ever have. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her Web site,


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