We already knew that some old folks are decidedly inclined to bask in the dubious glow of martyrdom. We know about the really obvious ones (“Never mind, I’ll just sit here in the dark.”), and we know about the more wily ones. (“I never told you that I gave up a promising career in Brain Surgery to have you, because what was important was that you have a Happy Childhood.”) And we all know how to make sure that we wind up seated elsewhere at social gatherings, or engaged in a fascinating conversation across the table, so we don’t have to hear it for the twelve millionth time. And you don’t want to encourage them. What if I told you that it’s already too late; that the new crop of these folks are being encouraged far beyond the simple capacity you or I might have to do so?
Along with the numerous other scarier plagues of our modern world, like superviruses, smart bombs, and identity theft, we now have a twenty-first-century version of what used to be a relatively harmless – if annoying – personality disorder among some senior citizens. I am talking about the Terminator of the feeling-self-righteously-sorry-for-myself set. And your tax dollars are helping pay for it!
At the San Mateo County Superior Courthouse in Redwood City, right there on the clerk’s desk, is a pamphlet which speaks gently and supportively to those noble, selfless individuals who have sacrificed their own personal happiness in order that they might be of service to humanity by taking over for someone whom they, in their infinite wisdom, have designated a Hopeless Fuckup. After all, we know that people who take up the mantle of Rescuer do so only after they have become convinced of the infallibility of their personal judgement with respect to other people’s lives. And so, to take just a teeny bit of the heavy burden of Being Right off of those august shoulders, the Foundation of the State Bar of California and the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County have graciously offered their services free of charge to people who have decided that they don’t think that their grown children are good enough parents. ( – -and who don’t see anything wrong with interfering in a serious way.)
This program provides volunteer lawyers who will give up free legal advice to these self-proclaimed experts on other peoples’ parenting skills. What’s more, they will also provide volunteer lawyers to represent them in court for free. Do you see how this could get really, really dangerous once word gets around? There is no plausibility test. There is no screening for major mental health issues like bipolar or senile dementia or NPD. They do not check any facts. They just make the poor old folks a nice cup of tea, assure them that they will most certainly get their way, and then everyone goes to court.
I know better than anyone how dangerous this is, because this program made it possible for my parents to steal my only son, my best friend, and to make it extremely difficult to even see him. And I didn’t even know about it until it was already done.
He was on a monthlong visit with his grandparents over the summer. A perfectly normal thing; we did it every summer. After all, who could look after my little guy better than his own grandma and grandpa?
Within two weeks, they had gotten his school records from the school he attended in Oakland where we lived, registered him for school in their city, and transferred my TANF grant to themselves. I had no idea this was going on, and no one made any attempt to check with me. At no time did I ever see or sign any documents of any kind.
This is where your friendly neighborhood lawyers come in. I tried to call and speak with my son, and my mother informed me that her attornies had advised her not to let me speak to him! Then I was informed that my parents, with the help of their free attornies, had obtained an Ex Parte Order for Temporary Guardianship, which is a kind of court order you can get without the other party being there. Historically, this kind of strategy has been used only in extreme cases, like when a battered wife gets emergency custody of her children because they are all in danger of physical harm – of being beaten. Now, an interfering grandparent can use this against you if they don’t think you are beating your child enough!
At this point I need to make it clear that there were no accusations of abuse, no accusations of neglect, no CPS involvement, no police involvement, no crises or incidents alleged at all. My son had been with me every day of his life – – and he was 10 years old! He was getting all A’s and B’s in school, he was on the Honor Roll, and he had been recommended for the gifted program the next school year. When I appeared in court, my parents didn’t have to say a word – all the maneuvering was done, and all the documents provided by, their THREE FREE ATTORNIES who had volunteered to help every step of the way. Now, after 2 years of living with his grandparents, my sweet good boy is failing the seventh grade, and getting in trouble at school. And what are the free attornies doing about this? They are trying to blame it on me!
I called the phone number on the pamphlet, and I said, “I understand you are providing free legal advice and free legal representation to grandparents who are trying to get guardianship of their grandchildren.” The woman on the phone said, “That’s right.” I said, “Do you provide any services like that for parents who are trying to fight to keep custody of their children?” She said, “No.” So I said, “Is that fair?”
Well, she didn’t answer me at all. So I said, “What are parents supposed to do?” And she said, “You’ll have to consult a private attorney.”
There you have it.
I actually didn’t intend to describe my own nightmare originally. I was going to talk about putting elderly caregivers on a pedestal, and giving them something for them and all their friends to talk about. I imagine it can make you a sort of celebrity among your peers if you are going through a lot of trauma and heartbreak with that awful kid of yours and their poor innocent child, whom you have taken into your bosom. You can go on and on about the financial burden to your fixed income, the woeful inadequacy of the government money (the same money that the parent must have been squandering, because it seemed like they were always broke), how that ungrateful wretch of a kid must have put the poor kid through hell because he acts like he’s mad all the time (certainly not at you!), et cetera ad nauseum. And your friends will nod and cluck and look at you with the misty-eyed admiration we reserve for the True Humanitarian. I think that unfortunately, any time we make it this easy for people to meddle in other people’s lives, and to feel self-righteous and superior while they are doing it, it turns out to be a very bad idea. Think Salem Witch Trials. Think McCarthy. Then, if you like, you can call the number on the pamphlet: (650) 558 – 0915. Or you can call the State Bar Association.