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Published in Print: December 12, 2001, as Parents Transfer Custody Of Children for School Reasons

Parents Transfer Custody Of Children for School Reasons

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Wanting a child to attend a certain school can be a powerful motivator for parents.

But officials of the New Hanover County school district, located in a coastal community in North Carolina, didn't think adults would go so far as to give up their parental rights in order to send their children to a particular school.

Yet that's exactly what some parents did. And it's a move parents in other districts around the country have also taken.

In response, the seven- member New Hanover County school board voted unanimously last week to revise a school attendance policy. The revised policy includes language intended to discourage parents in the 22,000-student district from transferring legal custody of their children to friends or relatives simply so the youngsters can attend the schools they prefer.

District leaders concede that the policy revision is largely symbolic because they cannot overrule a judge's decision to transfer custody. Still, they hope the revised policy will send a message to local judges to take a more critical look at parents who are seeking to shift custody of their children to relatives or friends.

"There's been a lot of support" in the community for the revised policy, said Al Lerch, the district's assistant superintendent for student-support services. "People are surprised that families are actually willing to do that," he said of the custody transfers.

Experts in school and family law say it is not uncommon for families to try to skirt residency rules to get a child into a preferred school, especially when high school athletics are involved. But actually giving up custody is a shortsighted move that could backfire, those experts say.

Jeff Atkinson

"It could be difficult for [parents] to regain custody if they wanted to," said Jeff Atkinson, a member of the American Bar Association's family-law section and a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago. "In some states, once guardianship is issued, it is presumed that it should stay with that person."

Moreover, he pointed out that parents who give up custody of their children could lose their rights to be formally involved in educational matters related to those children.

What Motivates Parents?

Officials in the New Hanover County district, which includes Wilmington, N.C., first noticed the problem when they recently opened three new schools: an elementary, a middle, and a high school.

Employees of the district, who periodically visit neighborhoods to confirm student residency, found at least seven cases in which families had transferred legal guardianship to someone else.

In some cases, parents wanted their children to remain in their existing schools when the boundary lines for enrollment were redrawn to accommodate the new schools, Mr. Lerch said. In other situations, parents wanted their children to attend the new schools, even though they weren't eligible.

The revised policy lists the various nonparental guardianship or custody arrangements that will be considered for school assignment, such as a child's being abandoned, being orphaned, living in foster care, or being declared a ward of the court.

The North Carolina district isn't the only place where parents are taking the unusual step of giving up custody of their children to get them in the schools of their choice.

"We see it frequently," said Ann M. Cullinan, the principal of the 500-student Carrington Elementary School in Waterbury, Conn. She said parents often make such arrangements because they've had a problem at a previous school. And that puts school administrators in a difficult position.

"Maybe [the parents] really are trying to make a fresh start," she said.

Ms. Cullinan said Waterbury doesn't have a specific policy that addresses the issue. But she said the district tries to be as flexible as it can be—especially if child-care arrangements are factors—so parents do not feel they have to take such a drastic step.

Such custody transfers are not always viewed negatively by educators, however.

Stephen D. Shepperd, the principal of the 285-student Sunnyside Elementary School in Kellogg, Idaho, said two families turned custody over to their children's grandparents so they could attend the school. Attending Sunnyside is more convenient for those families because of where their children's after-school-care providers are located, he said.

And even though the grandparents are involved in the school, the children still live with their parents, and their parents attend teacher conferences.

Although Mr. Shepperd doesn't have a problem with what the parents did, he said he might see the situation differently if more than one or two isolated cases arose.

"I'm sure things would change if we had a whole slew of them taking this route," he said.

Vol. 21, Issue 15, Page 13

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