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Ask E. Jean For DearSugar: What Are My Rights?

Dear E. Jean.

I write this and I don't know where to start or end, because it seems it’s gone on forever and I'm afraid of how it might end. I have a stepdaughter that I love like she were my very own. She has been in my life since she was born. She is now a very confused 24 year old.

Her own mother is and has been heavily involved with drugs my daughter’s whole life. After many attempts over the years, my husband and I finally got full custody of her at 10 years old. I thought and prayed we got her in time, but by the time she was 13 it all started coming out: Now we can't believe anything she says; she lies constantly and steals from us.

We have tried to get her in counseling, I’d make the appointments and she would not show up. She gets fired from most of her jobs. She hangs out with some very scary, druggy people. She’s almost gone to prison for a felony and managed to get out of it. She was raped at gun point twice and she still won’t stop.

If all this is not frightening enough, she now has a three-and-half-year-old son. She does not know who the father is. She slaps the child in the mouth, berates him for everything he does. If he’s being quiet she will agitate him till he fusses, puts him in timeout, and then harasses him the whole time.

I keep trying to talk to her about it. She won’t listen. Luckily she leaves him with us six or seven days a week. We pay for daycare. We buy all his clothes and we feel like he is our child. Sometimes she won’t call or see him for a week and then out of the blue she wants him overnight. He cries and says he doesn't want to go.

She has no patience with him and he’s such a sweet, smart little boy! He has an uncanny knack of reading people. I’ve spoken with a child psychologist and asked what the chances are of getting custody. He said the court would probably not take her parental rights away, and that they would merely recommend parenting classes.

The last time we tried to intervene, she took the child away from us for a week! He acted like a different boy when he came home. We can't risk putting him jeopardy. At this point we have him most of the time and I feel blessed about that, but I'm so afraid of what goes on when he’s with her and her friends. We don't have the money to hire a good attorney and I have looked in to hiring a PI; we couldn't afford that either. We feel stuck. All we want is to protect him before something worse happens. Any advise will be welcomed. — Aching Heart

To see E. Jean's answer,


My Dear Aching Heart,

I’ve contacted the celebrated defense attorney and child custody expert, A.J. Reiber, in Indianapolis. (This is the closest big city to you.) Mr. Reiber, believes that there may be a “cause of action available which would allow the court to find that (you and your husband) are de facto custodians and thereby award (you) custody.” Mr. Reiber added:

At the same time, we should address the issue of possible supervised parenting time with the mother.

Mr. Reiber has agreed to discuss the matter with you pro bono. When you’re an old advice columnist like Auntie Eee, you soon come to realize that rarely does anyone step forward with any genuine help, let alone do it for free. Thank you, Mr. Reiber!

That said, as soon as I read your letter, I called you (as you know) and hearing your lovely voice, listening to the wonderful stories about your grandson, and feeling your alarm and fear that your daughter may harm him . . . the dilemma became clear. You are presented with two options:

Keep the Status Quo: The child lives with you six or seven days a week. For all intents and purposes, he’s living with you. Ergo, you already have custody of him.
Or, Get the Courts Involved and Try to Obtain Legal Custody: After talking with you, and hearing that your daughter is highly vindictive — i.e. if she suspects you’re even considering taking her to court, she’ll whisk the child out of your house and never let you see him again.

At this time, because you have the child with you, I’m leaning towards the first choice. We should wait, of course, till you’ve had your first meeting with Attorney Reiber to make a final decision. Till then, perhaps Dear Sugar can weigh in and help with her much-needed insight. . . .

To see more advice from E. Jean visit Elle Magazine and

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