Enrolling a Child When You Aren’t the Legal Guardian
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You’ve stepped in to help; now cut through the red tape
If you are asked to step in on behalf of a child whose Solo Mom is temporarily unable to care for that child, your first thought may be, Yes . . . but how?
Solo Moms rely on trusted support systems in many ways. These extended groups may include parents, ex-in-laws, friends, etc. In the event that a Solo Mom is temporarily unable to care for her child because of circumstances beyond her control (incapacitation resulting from illness, incarceration, involvement in deportation proceedings, etc.), she will need people to step in on her behalf.
Among the most pressing issues facing a noncustodial temporary caregiver is school enrollment. This can be tricky. This article is intended to cut through some of the red tape and break it down for a grandparent or someone who is involved with the child but not wholly familiar with school-enrollment requirements. This article also assumes that the biological father is not in the picture and is unable to provide any assistance in enrollment.
Generally, children must have a legal guardian to enroll in school, so obtaining authority to do this is critical and can be done through family court. Procedures for this will vary from state to state, and finding an advocate within the family court system is advisable. Ask the clerk, judge, or a court employee to whom you might speak. One can receive temporary guardianship that fully preserves the right of the Solo Mom to return when her circumstances have been resolved—once more working through the family court system to have her guardianship restored.
Once temporary guardianship has been accomplished, find out what you can about local regulations and procedures for school enrollment, as these will also vary from state to state. All districts will realize the value in a child’s enrollment in school and will provide necessary support for an individual to do just that. You may need to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. You may need a little patience and persistence, but it most certainly can be done.
For example, in New York State, biological parents (including Solo Moms) are automatically the legal guardians. If a noncustodial individual (e.g., a grandparent) is not considered the legal guardian—even though that person is likely to be providing care for an uncertain and extended duration of time—there are very specific legal steps that must be taken in order to register and enroll a child in school. First, anyone applying to act in this capacity must present a set of legal documents, which the public schools can provide. They demonstrate that he or she is acting as the legal guardian. Some of the steps likely will be similar across the board and are contained in this brochure—which is also available in languages other than English.
These documents can be completed in various ways—often through the office of the school district’s superintendent. Your requests may be considered on a case-by-case basis, and the outcome could be based on individual circumstances. Depending on where you live, you can reach out to a local government office or an office of family services, such as this one for Dutchess County in New York.
It is helpful to recognize that school administrators are eager to work with those who are working on behalf of children whose lives have been affected by the temporary absence of their Solo Mom (and, indeed, only parent). Go to the school, and make an appointment with someone in the registrar’s office. These administrators will assist you in helping the child in your care.
Such face-to-face meetings may have lasting benefit, as they allow school faculty and administrators to know the individual circumstances of a child. This will give them the knowledge to respond appropriately to any behavioral and/or academic issues—either challenging or especially excellent. If a child is behaving in a negative way or acting out, it is helpful for the teacher to understand why this is so. If the child is doing especially well, that, too, is worth noting.
In a sense, enrolling the student is only half the equation. The other half is continuing to work with faculty and administrators to make sure that the student in question is deriving the maximum benefit from school.
It is advisable to schedule an appointment with a guidance counselor. Such counselors are trained to respond to sets of circumstances beyond the traditional nuclear family. A guidance counselor serves to be an efficient conduit of information between the guardian, the child, and the school faculty and administration. Regular meetings between counselors and guardians can provide a good overview of how a child is doing academically and/or socially. Early intervention for emergent issues is always a better alternative to waiting for resolution, especially in cases in which a child is coping with stress associated with the absence of his or her Solo Mom/only parent.
If an individual who is acting as guardian or temporary guardian encounters difficulties in school enrollment, this person can and should consider his or her allies. If the person was awarded temporary custody, he or she might return to the authority that awarded this and explain the obstacles he or she is running into in trying to enroll a minor child in school. Asking for help in this regard is likely to yield benefit, especially if one is able to go in person to an office and schedule a meeting.
Individual mandates will vary from state to state and even within districts in each state. Look for commonalities—there are similar government liaison offices (such as social services) in every state. Each district will have administrators whose job is to assist with enrollment.
Children have a right to attend school, and it is absolutely in their best interest that they do so. Anyone acting on behalf of a child knows this and would be doing a poor job were they to create, rather than remove, impediments.
Here are some final considerations to keep in mind:
Communicate. A guardian can and should sit down with school administrators to discuss not only enrollment but also retention.
Ask about class offerings. If a child should be in an honors class, make sure that he or she is. It is advisable that kids be challenged at their level with peers who are likely to support their efforts.
Include the Solo Mom in the loop. If it is possible, make sure the Solo Mom is aware of the school-related issues and is kept informed of her child’s progress.
We wish you well as you navigate these realities and commend you for making sure these children get the support they need.
Meet other Solo Moms who are raising their grandchildren or relatives in our confidential community of Sisters.
Tara Shafer is the cofounder of Reconceiving Loss, an online resource center for families coping with pregnancy and infant loss. She is a contributing blogger to the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and BabyCenter. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. You can follow her on Twitter at @reconceivinglos.
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