Use the courts as a last resort

If you’re concerned that you might lose access to your grandchildren, get to work immediately. There are many steps you can take without setting foot in a courtroom, according to lawyer Allan Cooper and organizers of support groups for grandparents:

  • The old adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is particularly apt here. While your relationship is good with your child and his or her spouse, continue to build on it. Don’t give unwanted advice — give advice only if it’s asked for.
  • If separation or divorce is involved, don’t take sides, and don’t criticize the parents, especially in front of the children.
  • If you have any inkling that things may be going wrong, contact one of the many support groups in Canada (see accompanying box).
  • If there has been an estrangement, or if you are seeking custody, keep a private journal. This document will be extremely important in the event of a court case or mediation, and will also save you time and money. Keep a record of telephone calls, visits, and what was said and done. Don’t be vindictive — but record the fact that someone was on drugs or alcohol. Number the pages and write one side only. Most courts will now accept such a journal.
  • Try to rebuild relationships with the estranged parent. Nancy Wooldridge, coordinator of the B.C. Grandparents Rights Association, suggests that you apologize — even if you feel you weren’t in the wrong. Write a letter along these lines: “If I’ve done something to offend you, please let me know what it is, and I’ll try to correct it.” You might also want to add things like, “The children must miss me as much as I miss them…if you would like a break, I could look after them for a weekend.” Before sending any letter, read it to the coordinator of your support group to ensure you have not written anything that could be damaging in court.
  • If your letters regarding access don’t work, you may want to hire a lawyer. If you can’t afford a lawyer, inquire about Legal Aid. Allan Cooper suggests you instruct your lawyer to take a soft approach. Ask him or her to designate a neutral, trained psychologist or child care worker who is willing to hear all sides. Try to avoid a psychological assessment, which can be “rather formal and costly.”
  • If you can prove that your grandchild is being abused or neglected, consider seeking custody. (Under the law, you must report any abuse to the authorities.) Check with your provincial attorney general’s office about the procedure; custody application may not cost you a cent.
  • If attempts at mediating access fail, you will have to choose between a court battle and biding your time until the children get older and can decide for themselves. Cooper says that while you’re waiting, you can continue to do things for your grandchild — “try to send a gift or card, call the child on his birthday, set up a small trust fund.” Protect yourself from bad-mouthing by the parent; don’t get embroiled in arguments.
  • Work with your support group to lobby for change. Reform Party’s Daphne Jennings says that even if her bill proposing changes to the Divorce Act is referred to committee, that’s a positive step. “Write to your MPs and let them know you expect to see some changes. Don’t give up…it’s an important issue that’s not going to go away.”
Bonnie Buxton is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Toronto.