When Cynthia went to a Nevada courthouse in November 2022 to file for guardianship of her nine grandchildren, she immediately hit a roadblock: The form she needed to fill out had space for only six children. Similarly, Martin, a Utah father seeking to terminate a guardianship order and regain custody of his daughter, was utterly confused by the court forms and processes.
And their experiences are not unusual. In a new report, The Pew Charitable Trusts examines how processes in state civil courts present considerable hurdles for families seeking to understand, initiate, or change a minor guardianship—a legal arrangement that empowers nonparents to assume responsibility for the care of a child.
Cynthia—both interviewees’ names have been changed to protect their privacy—had been able to keep her grandchildren out of the foster care system while her daughter dealt with mental health issues, but she didn’t have the power to make critical decisions about their health and education. Her short-term custody arrangement didn’t always allow her to schedule doctor’s appointments or sign off on things such as field trips and sports. Her granddaughter made the school basketball team but couldn’t play because only parents or guardians could give consent.
Luckily, Cynthia was already working with Foster Kinship, a Nevada nonprofit that supports “kinship caregivers,” or family members caring for children. The organization encouraged Cynthia to work with court staff to simplify the process so she didn’t have to file two forms or keep track of two separate court proceedings. “It was hard figuring out how to do this for an entire family without doing different sets of paperwork,” Cynthia recalls. Fortunately, she says, Foster Kinship helped her through every step of the process.
But many caregivers navigate these complex, often confusing matters alone, putting the roughly 4 million American children living with adults who are not their parent at risk. These children may have to go without health care, education, and other essential services while their caregivers struggle through the courts.
And state and local legal systems do not do enough to help. Pew’s analysis found that less than half of states provide information about what minor guardianship is or when it can be used on statewide court or legal aid websites. Further, just 17 states offer any easy-to-understand instructions for completing minor guardianship forms.
One of those 17 states is Utah. Its court self-help webpage contains plain-language information about caregiving arrangements and tools for filling out forms. But users still need to know where to start, and Martin wasn’t sure of the best path forward. He says that he didn’t initially receive the court order granting a family member guardianship of his daughter. And when he finally obtained a copy, it didn’t include details about his visitation rights, which has created conflict and tension in the family.
“I started [by] looking at utcourts.gov, and I really didn’t know the details of the guardianship, so I started filing for custody/parent time,” Martin recalls. “Then from there, it just got really confusing for me.” After initially filling out the wrong forms, filing for custody rather than termination of the guardianship, Martin, a sober house manager working toward becoming a therapist, then spent nearly a year seeking help. He applied for legal aid services and was denied. He even signed up to receive legal advice from law students through a University of Utah program, but the wait time was four to six months.
“But then one day, Legal Aid Society [of Salt Lake] called me back,” he says. “It was really cool; they said they’d help me.
“[And my legal aid attorney] has been awesome,” he says. “I call her with questions, and she calls me back. But it takes time to get help, and I know I’m not the only person she’s helping. So the process has not been as fast as I want it to be. But I gotta trust the process.”
With the help of his legal aid attorney, Martin regained custody of his daughter in June 2023.
Cynthia is also grateful for the help she received. But legal aid and community advocates such as Foster Kinship have limited capacity to help all families pursuing minor guardianship arrangements, and even with help, Cynthia ran into hurdles. She believes that there are small changes that courts can make to help families, particularly in cases involving multiple kids. She’d like the court to provide a mobile staffer—similar to the mobile presence of the county’s Division of Welfare and Supportive Services office that is on-site at Foster Kinship—to cut the time families have to spend in a courthouse. “It’s inconvenient—and some people don’t have the means to find a babysitter for their kids,” she says.
She was also surprised that she was hit with court fees when she filed the final paperwork. “I don’t know if anything can be done about that, but I really think with the courts, with family court, with anything to do with kiddos, they shouldn’t charge you,” Cynthia says.
Still, she is relieved to finally be her grandchildren’s legal guardian and says it has eliminated uncertainty regarding their care. “With this paperwork, no one can say they don’t live here,” she says. “It’s official, it’s forever, unless [we] go back to court, or their mom says, ‘Hey, I’m better. I’ve got everything together. I can do it now,’ or they age out at 18.”
And she’s looking forward to signing her granddaughter’s consent form for basketball. “She said she’ll try out again next year.”
Sarah Godfrey is a senior officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ safety and justice programs and Darcy White is a senior officer with Pew’s civil legal modernization project.