When a child is found to be abused or neglected and are removed from the offending parent, courts would prefer to place a child with a caregiver the child knows. This could be the other parent, a grandparent or other relative, or even a family friend who is willing to provide the child a safe and stable home. If a child cannot be reunited with their parent, usually the best option for that child would be to remain with this caregiver. However the adults who are providing these children the security of a home and care often have no legal right to have custody of the child. So the children, and these caregivers, remain under the jurisdiction of the court until someone can help these caregivers to obtain the legal orders they need. While specific stories of the clinic's clients cannot be shared due to confidentiality, there are some stories that are common. The most common caregiver that the clinic assists is actually a child's father. For example, because of a mother's illness, addiction, or other unresolved problems, a court may determine that reuniting the child with the mother is not in the child's best interests. Dad, however, may be ready, willing, and able to care for the child, but may not have custody -- either because he has never had a paternity determination or because, in a prior custody action, mother was given custody. Students in the clinic work with Dad to establish paternity and obtain legal custody. Grandparents are often the family members who step in to care for a child when the parents are unfit, unwilling, or unable to do so. In fact, nearly 20,000 children in Missouri are living with a grandparent with no parents present in the home. Without a legal guardianship to transfer authority to these grandparents, they cannot enroll their grandchildren in school, consent to their medical care, or otherwise exercise the authority they need to properly care for their grandchildren. About one quarter of the clinic's cases involve establishing guardianship for grandparents or other relatives. Cases come to the clinic from the family court, hospitals, non-profit agencies, and sometimes from alumni of the program who know the help the clinic can provide. Family law issues are the largest unmet legal need in Missouri and the UMKC Child & Family Services Clinic helps to fill that gap.
Professor Mary Kay O'Malley
Children's Division Missouri Department of Social Services
16th Judicial Circuit of Jackson County Family and Juvenile Court
Cornerstones of Care
Jackson County, MO, USA