Most people think of a family as consisting of a mother, father, and a couple of kids. Maybe the dog shows up in the family portrait. That’s the image that often springs immediately to mind. But families come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties. Often times the person or people caring for a child aren’t biological parents. In juvenile dependency cases, the court calls these individuals the de facto parent.
When it comes to child custody, the best interests of the children take precedence over all other concerns. That’s the general overriding rule. In a majority of cases, the court considers remaining with a biological parent the best choice. That’s not always an option, however. A biological parent usually has the inside track, but in situations where the child’s well-being is in question, a de facto parent may assume custody.
What Is A De Facto Parent?
The California Rules of Court rule 5.502(10), defines a de facto parent as:
“[A] person who has been found by the court to have assumed, on a day-to-day basis, the role of parent, fulfilling both the child’s physical and psychological needs for care and affection, and who has assumed that role for a substantial period.”
The most common conditions where the court names a de facto parent are in cases of abuse, abandonment, and neglect. Essentially, when a parent isn’t meeting a minor child’s needs or places them in harm’s way. Courts may also relocate children if parents are involved in criminal activity or are otherwise potentially hazardous situations.
In these cases, a non-biologically related adult may step in as a de facto parent. This is often a stepparent, an extended relation, or other grown up. If you’ve been caring for a child, the court may allow you to step into this role. There are, however, conditions to meet.
According to California law, a person can become a de facto parent if:
- “The child is a dependent of the juvenile court;”
- “You are or have been taking care of the child every day;” or you
- “[H[ave been acting as the child’s parent;” or you
- “[A]re meeting (or have met) the child’s needs for food, shelter, and clothing. You have also met the child’s needs for care and affection.”
When making a decision about a de facto parent, the court weighs a number of variables. Whether or not a child and adult share a psychological bond, if the adult has acted as a parent on a day-to-day basis, if the adult has information about the child that aids the court and attends juvenile hearings regularly; all of these factor into the ruling.
De Facto Parents’ Rights
Caring for a child obviously comes with a great deal of responsibility. But if a judge rules that you’re a de facto parent, this also confers certain rights.
As a de facto parent, California law permits you:
- To be present at any relevant hearings.
- To have a lawyer represent you; in some cases, the court may even appoint one.
- To present evidence and even cross-examine witnesses if need be.
Outside of providing the usual routine care for a child, being deemed a de facto parent essentially allows you to participate in any official proceedings that directly impact that child.
Becoming A De Facto Parent
As with most legal matters, becoming a de facto parent is a process. You must fill out a De Facto Parent Request form. This asks for all of your relevant contact information and explicitly states your intentions.
Additionally, you must fill out and submit a De Facto Parent Statement. This offers you the opportunity to state your case. You lay out your argument for custody and list everything you’ve done for the child in question. Your application should include information about your relationship with the child, how well you know him or her, how much you care for the child, and how you fulfill the child’s needs and support their overall wellbeing.
You can also attach letters of reference from people who know both you and the child and can attest to your relationship. Though this is an optional step, most experts recommend following this course of action. These letters may be from a doctor, therapist, case worker, church leader, teacher, or another individual with knowledge of the situation.
The judge takes all of this into account and decides whether or not naming you the de facto parent is indeed in the child’s best interest. If your application fits the criteria, and it truly benefits the child, the court may sign off.