I can think of little in our Defense Department world more stressful than military death. There are all of the things that must be dealt with and orchestrated after a death, followed by the need for the new widow to decide where she or wants to live after the dust settles. Add kids to the mix, and you kick the stress up a major notch.
In the middle of all the pain and drama are relationships with the service member's parents -- people who have also experienced a major loss. If the spouse didn't get along well with them to start with, or doesn't plan to visit them often now that his or her service member is gone, well, things can get even more tense. Maybe the parents feel that their grandchildren are the only link they have to their now-deceased son or daughter. Maybe there is other drama that causes them to feel like their now-widowed daughter or son-in-law isn't the best caretaker.
"Once the service member dies I imagine that they suddenly want a lot more time and their expectations go up and those are some that the spouse is not always willing or able to accommodate," said Catherine Stanton, who helped edit the guide for MSJDN. "They’re a single parent then, they are dealing with the stress of their own loss and children."
It's circumstances like these that have led to the parents of deceased service members calling the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and their Justice for Military Families program with the Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN) looking for help, officials with MSJDN said. Grandparents wants to know: what are their rights to their grandchildren?
That question can put TAPS and MSJDN in kind of a pickle. That's because the widow is often calling TAPS, too -- and it's not fair to either group to get in the middle of a family battle where they cannot represent both sides.
Enter the new MSJDN Gold Star family grandparent visitation guide. Designed to give a succinct, whole picture view on grandparents' rights to their grandchildren on a state-by-state basis, the guide is thorough and complete. It's also written in real-human English, not legalease, which means that normal people like me (and anyone who needs it) can understand the help it's trying to give.
Volunteers and officials with MSJDN said they hope when a grandparent with questions calls for help, TAPS can simply pass them the guide and it will offer everything they need.
So is there good news in the guide for grandparents who want to look to the law for help with seeing their grandchildren?
Probably not, Stanton said.
"Grandparents don’t have a lot of rights, and it’s unfortunate," she said. "The guide can help give information but ultimately the grandparents that are going to be successful are going to do it through civil discussion and negotiation with the remaining parent."
MSJDN is hoping to gather more volunteers to work on a additional projects like the grandparent guide, said Gabriella Nostro, MSJDN's pro bono director. Their Justice for Military Families project has placed over 50 cases through TAPS from gold star families looking for legal help, she said. They hope to create an online legal clinic so users can write-in with legal issues for help or placement with a volunteer.
"Really the reason we haven’t been able to go bigger is just a matter of resources," she said.