Having just completed my third round of school-supply shopping with dozens of other parents in packed aisles searching for the scarce green-marble-covered composition books with graph paper, I remind myself that this was the easy part of going back to school.
Oh, don’t get me wrong; my husband and I have been giddy for weeks, reminiscing about the old Staples back-to-school commercial that ran to the tune of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” We have made it to the next phase where my hand is cramping from filling out contact information in minuscule squares in triplicate for each of our three children.
All of this is part of what parents do to get their kids through school and ultimately to the colleges and careers of their dreams.
But for parents and stepparents of millions of stepchildren in the United States, there is a little more to these contact information cards than meets the eye.
There is often space on the card only for a mom and a dad. Where do you put the contact information for the stepfather who routinely picks up his stepchild from school? Yes, you could put him on the extra emergency contact line, but then where do you put the other parent’s spouse on the form? After all, a child could have two biological parents and two stepparents in his life in a joint custody scenario. So, just put three parent names on the form and move on, right?
It isn’t always so simple. In the case of a child with special medical needs, it gets more convoluted, not just for parents, but also for educators, school administrators and medical care providers. Take, for example, my son who has Type 1 (juvenile) diabetes. Three parents need to build a strong support network with his school to properly manage his diabetes on a daily basis. In our joint custody arrangement, any one of us parents has to be contacted on any given day by the school about variables, such as what he has eaten, his recent physical activity levels up to 24 hours prior, insulin dosage rates, etc.
Imagine my surprise and frustration when a school representative told me in the middle of the last school year that my husband - my son’s stepfather - could no longer be included in any communications about my son’s health. A schoolwide memorandum stated that stepparents have no rights, so they should not be included in any correspondence, communications or meetings.
That didn’t make much sense to me, especially when there are some mornings when stepfather and stepson are the only ones who know what the latter had for breakfast. Neither my ex-husband nor I wanted to exclude my husband from the parent/school team; our focus was to make the best decisions for my son’s health on a timely basis.
We got through all the bureaucracy with angst, but it certainly wasn’t an easy process for anyone involved, including the school personnel. Fortunately, my husband is included in the e-mails again.
I don’t want to dismiss the challenges educators and school administrators face in this context. Even if all parents and stepparents were to be listed on the contact card, should the parents expect the school staff to call multiple parents for any given problem each and every time? Should the staff call the parent with whom the child is living for that week - which would assume the school would keep track of custody schedules? Or do they call the first person listed on the card? When you throw a substitute health room monitor into the mix, things can get confusing pretty quickly. You often get a different answer depending on whom you ask.
I think everyone would agree that frequent and good communication should be mirrored between home and school, parents and stepparents, health care providers and school health employees. But there are cracks in real life and in mirrors, especially with multiple parties involved.
As a layperson, I cannot even begin to address the legal aspects, policies and regulations related to custody, school and health. A cursory Internet search shows how complex the laws can be, and how laws vary from state to state. But let’s start small. At least make the contact forms a little bigger and add a couple more lines to accommodate today’s changing family dynamics.
By Elaine Donnelly
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