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Change to guardianship laws necessary, families say

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CHEYENNE – Jessica Delancy’s mother might as well be a stranger.

It has been nearly a decade since Delancy’s mother, struggling with mental health issues, grappling with addiction and working two jobs, dropped then-6-year-old Delancy off at her grandmother’s house in Cheyenne.

She hasn’t seen or heard from her since.  

Now, Delancy is a straight-A student at Cheyenne’s South High School, living with her grandmother, Debbie Bumford, in south Cheyenne. Her little brother, Robert Campbell, fondly known as “B-Man,” is thriving in sports and activities at Johnson Junior High.

But for many years, Delancy worried she’d see her mother out in public, or that her mother would come to take Delancy and Campbell away from the only stable home they’d ever known.

“For a while, I was really paranoid,” Delancy said. “And not having the power to do anything, it was scary.”

Delancy had reason to fear.

It is estimated that more than 10,200 Wyoming children live with a relative such as a grandparent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

But under current Wyoming law, caregivers such as grandparents, aunts and uncles don’t have the same consideration under the law as biological parents, even if they have legal guardianship.

It means that even though Delancy’s grandmother legally took over guardianship responsibilities, Delancy and Campbell could have ended up back with their mother if she moved to terminate Bumford’s guardianship rights.

And unless guardians such as Bumford can prove the biological parents “unfit” to care for the child – a difficult finding that often costs thousands of dollars and a large timeframe to prove – the kids go back with the biological parents, sometimes against their will.

This year, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee is sponsoring a bill that would protect children staying with third-party caregivers, known in the bill as “de facto custodians.”

Under House Bill 15, the child’s “best interest” would be considered in court proceedings when parents petition to revoke the guardianship of third-party caretakers.

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Jayden, 5, smiles, while getting a bedtime story read to him by his grandmother Annie McGlothlin and Steve McGlothlin at the McGlothlin ranch on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018 in east Cheyenne. Jayden first went to stay with the McGlothlins in 2014 when his mother was struggling with addiction and mental health problems. The Wyoming Legislature this session will likely consider a bill to allow the child's "best interest" in court proceedings, giving guardians like McGlothlin a voice in court. Under current law, parents can revoke guardianship rights under most circumstances. Jacob Byk/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Annie McGlothlin is leading the charge.

McGlothlin is a 63-year-old grandmother caring for her daughter’s 5-year-old son, Jayden. Jayden’s last name will not be used for his safety and privacy.

He came into McGlothlin’s care in July 2014 after his mother was brutally beaten by his father. Affidavits submitted in court outline how the pair abused alcohol and drugs, and the child’s mother suffered from mental health problems.

Years of on-and-off contact with the child’s mother and failed attempts at reunification made it obvious that McGlothlin and her husband, Steve, would become Jayden’s primary caretakers.

But any semblance of stability came crumbling down when Jayden’s father returned via letters and a court petition after a stint in prison, threatening to revoke the McGlothlins’ guardianship rights.

And even though the father was arrested earlier this month suspected of counterfeiting and charged with methamphetamine distribution, the McGlothlins still feared that he could’ve taken the child if he stayed out of prison.

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Jayden, 5, walks alongside his grandmother, Annie McGlothlin, at her ranch on Feb. 2, 2018, east of Cheyenne. Jayden first went to stay with the McGlothlins in 2014 when his mother was struggling with addiction and mental health problems. The Wyoming Legislature this session will likely consider a bill to allow the child's "best interest" in court proceedings, giving guardians like McGlothlin a voice in court. Under current law, parents can revoke guardianship rights under most circumstances. Jacob Byk/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

That’s, in part, because case law in federal and Wyoming courts dictate that parents have a fundamental, constitutional right to raise their children.

The U.S. Supreme Court found in 2000 that parents have a constitutionally protected right to “make decisions concerning the care, custody and control of their children.”

In 2006, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that the court must first determine that a child’s natural guardian is not fit before considering whether it is in the child’s best interest to return to the biological parent.

In cases such as the McGlothlins’, those rulings mean the grandparents are forced to prove the parents are so unfit that they shouldn’t have custody rights at all.

“That’s obviously a very difficult action to take,” said state Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, who is an attorney practicing civil and family law.

To prove a parent unfit, guardians have to present evidence that the person is incapable of caring for the child or there’s an unwillingness to do so.

But since the guardians can’t easily compel parents to take drug tests and often don’t have enough resources to hire private investigators, it’s nearly impossible to do.

Nethercott said the proposal would give guardians such as the McGlothlins and the children a say in the child’s fate without terminating the parent’s rights altogether.

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Art and Cherie Huckfeldt pose for a portrait in their home in Cheyenne on Jan. 30, 2018. The Huckfeldts raised Cherie's niece's two children for more than 11 years before they were taken back by their mother, who is a meth user with an extensive criminal history. The children's biological mother was later arrested for using, and the children were again displaced to another family member's home. Jacob Byk/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

For Art and Cherie Huckfeldt, it’s almost too late for the change.   

Last year, after more than a decade of caring for Cherie’s niece’s children, a Laramie County District Court judge ruled that the kids they raised would be going back to live with their mother – a known meth addict with an extensive criminal history.

Now they’ve watched as the mother abandoned the two teenagers again. She was recently arrested with 51 grams of meth, according to police reports. The children are living with their grandmother.

Alex Kane, a youth and family therapist at Peak Wellness, said instability can create chaos for nearly everyone involved.

And abandonment often causes children to feel a sense of loss or betrayal that can cause depression, problems at school, defiance and detachment disorders.

“The attachment that they may have formed or not have formed can really play a role in how the child grows and develops and learns to cope with their emotions,” Kane said.

In order for children in those situations to form healthy relationships with their parents, Kane said it’s often necessary to introduce them slowly to build trust.

The Huckfeldts get visibly frustrated when they talk about the instability and back-and-forth with the children’s mother.

Both said they see the problems that the lack of structure causes.

“When they’re out of this environment, it’s hard for them to deal,” Art said. “There’s no discipline, there’s no structure. There’s no love.”

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Jessica Delancy, 15, walks home from the school bus drop-off point in south Cheyenne with her brother, Robert Campbell, on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. Delancy and her brother have been living with their grandmother in south Cheyenne for the majority of their lives, after their mother dropped them off there. Delancy has not seen her mother in almost a decade. Jacob Byk/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

In an ideal world, Annie McGlothlin said, Jayden would be in a loving home with his biological parents.

His mother is working on treatment, and McGlothlin said she hopes that her daughter will succeed this time.

But until then, the McGlothlins are working to give him the best childhood possible.

The Huckfeldts know it’s almost too late to help their situation – the children are now teenagers, almost at an age where they don’t need legal guardians.

But the couple has thrown itself into the effort to get the bill passed, starting a GoFundMe page for the effort. They don’t want other guardians to go through what they did.

When Delancy’s father gets out of prison, Bumford and Delancy are planning a trip.

Delancy continues to work hard in school, reading books and writing some poetry. Someday she hopes to go to college.

“I’d like to get myself through college and then I’d like to go to California and see the sea,” she said.

Katie Kull is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at kkull@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3122. Follow her on Twitter at @katiekull1.

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