The Local Debate Over 'de facto' Parents Versus Bio Parents

Contact: Ingrid E. Cummings, APR Rubicon Communications, LLC
Phone: 317-873-0651

Indianapolis, July 16, 2003

The Local Debate Over 'de facto' Parents Versus Bio Parents

Are de facto Parents in the Best Interests of the Child?

The recent tragic situation in Noblesville - a teenager killing his grandparents and then himself - has drawn attention to the role of "de facto parents."

A de facto parent is one who has assumed the role of a parent on a day-to-day basis. This means that the person has provided emotional support, taken care of the child's physical needs, and given the child affection for a substantial period of time, just as the biological parent would do.

According to a January 2003 report from the Children's Defense Fund, 48,181 grandparents are raising their grandchildren in Indiana. (By contrast, the report indicates 7,482 children are in foster care.)

Indianapolis attorney Jennifer Wheeler Terry of law firm Lewis & Kappes works in the area of family law. "A phrase you hear all the time is 'the best interests of the child,'" says Terry. "It's a familiar court standard that serves as the basis for making legal judgment on many matters regarding children."

Terry says that powers of a guardian are statutory - sometimes a de facto parent will have been granted guardianship through a formal proceeding, and so will have these powers. If not, i.e., if the person has stepped in and there is no formal arrangement, they can (and should) petition for guardianship, which is usually done through the probate court. De facto parents can even seek support from a biological parent.

If the arrangement is expected to be temporary or the natural parent will continue to play a role in the child's life, a de facto parent would likely seek to become the child's guardian by filing an application with the probate court. Wheeler Terry explains that if the arrangement is expected to be permanent, however, the de facto parent would seek custody, and in essence, adopt the child.

It is important to tell the court all the ways you have cared for the child's needs. For example, you made sure the child went to school or day care, you spoke with the teacher about the child's progress, you took the child to the doctor for regular check-ups, you helped them with homework, you read stories to them before bedtime, etc. In other words, the person caring for the child wants to show the court all the ways he/she has been a "parent" to the child. Whether the biological parents consent to the arrangement will be a key factor considered by the court.

For more information, contact Ms. Wheeler Terry at Lewis & Kappes: (317) 639-1210.