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Opioid Epidemic Forces More Grandparents to Seek Custody of Their Grandchildren

As the opioid crisis increasingly devastates individuals, families and communities across the nation, attention is now being turned to grandparents and other relatives who are stepping in to seek custody of children in households shattered by this drug epidemic.


According to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, almost 400,000 people died from an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription and illicit opioids, between 1999 and 2017.


One study shows that of the more than 70,237 drug overdose deaths in 2017 alone, the biggest increase occurred among deaths related to synthetic opioids other than methadone, including tramadol, fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances. Deaths from these drugs increased 45 percent from 2016 to 2017.


The CDC also noted that more than 140 Americans die daily from an opioid overdose and in 2017, nearly 1,050 Georgians died from these legal painkillers, which include morphine, oxycodone or hydrocodone.


More grandparents and other relatives are raising children because drug-addicted parents are users, in treatment, incarcerated, deceased or are otherwise unable to take care of their own minor children. This is reflected in foster care statistics. A report by the Administration for Children and Families shows that the percentage of child removals nationally due to parental substance abuse increased from 13 percent in 2012 to 32.2 percent in 2016.


Furthermore, a study by Generations United, an advocacy organization for kinship parents, notes that for every child formally placed through the foster care system, another 19 go to live with a family member outside the foster care system. An estimated 2.7 million children, or four percent of all children, are in these informal arrangements.


Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services has reported that Georgia is among the states with the largest one-year increases in the number of foster care children.   In fiscal year 2017, there were 19,312 foster children being serviced, representing an 11 percent increase over the previous year. Significantly, drug abuse was a factor in 40 percent of the cases where a child was removed from a family, an increase of approximately 25 percent over the same period two years earlier.


Traditionally, in custody and parenting time arrangements, it is normally the biological or legal parent of the child who is granted custody rights (for example the child’s mother or father). However, as the opioid epidemic takes its toll on families, sometimes seeing both parents succumb to these drugs, grandparents have been seeking to take care of their grandchildren though “third-party” custody cases.  These are situations in which a person other than the child’s biological or legal mother or father may be granted custody rights. In these cases, custody or guardianship of a child is granted to grandparents, close relatives or other persons.


A third party could be awarded custody or guardianship of a child, in certain circumstances, including:



Georgia law allows a limited number of third parties, including grandparents, to file for custody against a parent.  In this state, the most common custody battles occur between the parent and grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings or adoptive parents, among others.


Bringing these disputes into a legal forum is no easy task. Georgia law states that there is a “rebuttable presumption that it is in the best interest of the child or children for custody to be awarded to the parent or parents.”


In order to rebut that presumption and get custody, the grandparent must prove by clear and convincing evidence that parental custody would harm the child and it is in the child’s best interest for custody to be awarded to the grandparent. Determining factors in granting third party custody include drug addiction and mental health problems.


In addition to seeking guardianship or bringing a custody proceeding, grandparents can go to Georgia’s Juvenile Court to get temporary custody of a child while a parent attempts to sort out their problems that make them unable to properly care for their child. In those cases, the grandparent must show that the child has been neglected or abused.


Clients need to seek out a lawyer and law firm with considerable experience handling these matters.

Despite the long, expensive and emotionally arduous journey they face, grandparents and other relatives seeking custody of children of drug-addicted parents, will continue to take control of these difficult situations.



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About The Author

Kimberli C. Withrow Partner

Kimberli Withrow has 16 years of experience in representing clients in family law matters. She has served as trial counsel in both jury and bench trials and hearings litigating divorce, child custody and child support issues. Kimberli is trained as a mediator and is a registered neutral with the Supreme Court of Georgia. She has Read More

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