Lessons Learned: 5 Truths I Learned as a Guardian

 Most weeks our blogs focus on legal topics that support the area of law we practice at Alan R. Harrison Law. This week, we have a blog written by a mom who became the guardian of her adult child. She would like to talk to you parent to parent.

I would like to start by saying that not every person who has a developmental disability or a significant mental health challenge needs a guardian. In fact, most don’t. Guardianship is really meant for individuals who are unable to make decisions that keep them safe. I am not talking about an 18-year-old who spends their entire paycheck on new rims for their car instead of paying rent. I am discussing an adult who doesn’t understand why they might need to go to the doctor when they are hurt, or maybe doesn’t understand how to contact a doctor, or even how to express they are hurt to the people around them.

Idaho currently has two distinct types of guardianship for adults, specifically, one for adults with a developmental disability, and one for adults that are considered incapacitated. Incapacity could be a result of a mental illness or a medical condition that renders them unable to make decisions on their own.

It’s essential to note that guardianship is a serious legal intervention and is typically considered when less restrictive alternatives, such as powers of attorney or supported decision-making, are deemed insufficient to meet the individual’s needs while respecting their autonomy as much as possible. The goal is to strike a balance between protecting the individual and preserving their rights to the greatest extent possible.

The reasons for guardianship, and the examples I could give, are vast, but the reality is, most adults with appropriate supports can be successful without guardianship. My kiddo just wasn’t one of them.

When we decided to become guardians, my hubby and I had a long chat about what that meant. We had concerns. Where would our kiddo live? What about poor decisions that included law enforcement? Where did the money come from? How involved would we be? Would it feel just like parenting a teenager for the rest of our lives? There isn’t really a handbook for this stuff, so we talked to parents we knew who had become guardians, and then spoke with a lawyer. It required a lot of thought and consideration, but ultimately decided it was the right option for us and our kiddo.

Lessons Learned as a Guardian

So after all of that, here is a short list of the things I learned. If you gave me the time and the space, I am sure I could write a novel, but here is what I wish someone would have told me.

  1. My kiddo does not need to live with me as an adult. Typing that sentence felt a little funny because most parents assume their kids will grow up and move out, but we were not always sure that was an option for ours. As we went through the teenage years, we became concerned that this might be a lifetime roommate situation. As we investigated it more, we realized that having our kid live in the community was a real option. They needed support, and through a combination of supported living staff, an amazing case manager, and our oversight, our kiddo was able to move into a house with roommates. That is a pretty big deal, as it gives them a sense of independence and allows personal growth that isn’t always possible with mom around.
  2. Law enforcement isn’t my problem unless I am negligent. This also sounds funny to say, but it was a concern. My kiddo does not always make the best choices. Maybe it is something small, like keeping the music up too loud at night, or something more serious like getting aggressive when upset, but as an adult any legal issues belong to them, not me. Assuming the issue isn’t a result of my negligence as a guardian, the police use me as a resource, but unlike having a minor in your home, you are not expected to participate directly in the legal system with your adult child. For parents who have been part of the juvenile justice system with their kids, this can be a welcome relief. Obviously, you are involved as the guardian, but not liable. This is a huge difference!
  3. My kiddo uses their own money to pay for their life. While most adults get a job and pay their own way, and some people with a guardian may be able to do the same, my kiddo qualified for government disability benefits and uses those dollars, coupled with other types of public assistance to pay for housing, utilities, food, and personal items. The amount received each month determines the budget I help them stick to, and ultimately determines the activities that are affordable. I may bring over a casserole from time to time, but I am not buying weekly groceries or subsidizing rent. Those expenses are not my responsibility. Interestingly enough, helping my kiddo learn about money as we go through the process of budgeting has motivated them to develop skills to get a job so they can afford more preferred items. (Didn’t see that coming!)
  4. I am only as involved as I need to be. My kiddo has made it clear that they are able to do a lot by themselves and I don’t need to be involved very often. I am not part of daily activities, nor do I get involved in social activities and weekly shopping. Because they participate in a program with supported living staff, I get updates and I participate in a monthly planning meeting, but I can go days, if not a couple of weeks between conversations about managing the needs of my kiddo. It is more often now that I receive a call about something funny that happened, or a success they want to tell me about. It didn’t start out that way, but as we built a routine, I quickly changed from being the daily case manager to being mom.
  5. My former teenager is growing up. Because of developmental delays, I wasn’t sure how long it would take to hit some of the expected adult milestones. Because they have had the chance to learn from others, and get their needs met by interacting with staff and others in the community, life skills have been learned in some unexpected places. Recently my kiddo went to an appointment that was a little more professional. They showed up with hair groomed, clean clothes, appropriate appointment materials, and were on time. All of these were things that they learned by watching those around them, and because I wasn’t there, they didn’t expect me to do it. I was very proud of them and very excited for their growth.

As I said earlier, I could go on forever, but I am proud of the adult my kiddo is becoming. Some days are still hard. I don’t love the middle of the night calls when a safety related decision needs to be made, but I am grateful that we have the legal authority to step in, advocate, and help our kiddo when that assistance is needed. As I said, guardianship isn’t for everyone, and being a guardian doesn’t make my kid magically listen to me all the time, but it does give me a seat at the table with their team of community supports, and that has made all the difference for us.

If you are looking into guardianship in Idaho, I suggest reaching out to Alan R. Harrison Law and talking to a member of their guardianship team. Another great resource is the Idaho Supreme Court informational page about guardianship. There can be a lot to learn, and those resources are a great place to start.