Over the course of time, it seems like the very definition of family has changed. There were always exceptions, but family generally used to mean Mom and Dad and the kids.

When divorce became rampant, family increasingly has meant Mom "or" Dad and the kids.As a society, we cling to the belief that one thing about family has been constant: However it is formed, family is people who love and protect you.

Gloria Jensen Sutton knows that isn't always so. As a social worker in the Division of Family Services for the past 22 years, Sutton has seen a lot of families in crisis.

Within families, thousands of Utah children are abused and neglected every year. Some are sexually assaulted; a few are even killed.

Love within the circle can't be assumed.

Family dynamics are still shifting and reshaping themselves. According to the American Association of Retired Persons, one of the most common modern-day families is the one with Grandma and Grandpa raising the children.

But most states don't have any specific rights that protect the grandparent-grandchild relationship and their access to each other. Some states even ban continual contact out of fear that grandparents will "interfere" in placement of children or even take the side of their adult children against their grandchildren in cases of abuse or neglect.

It's a tragedy, according to Sutton, and it's time to face the fears and "turn some of it around."

From personal experience, she said, she knows the value of grandparents in a child's life - and the sense of worth they can instill.

"I grew up in the enviable position where I was cherished and wanted as a child," Sutton said during a presentation on grandparent rights at the eighth annual child-abuse prevention conference in Ogden last week.

"I had a grandma who rocked me and sang to me and loved me until I was limp and sated with being nurtured. She wove a blanket of love and security around me."

Grandpa was just as terrific. When he was in his 70s, he broke his ankle playing on a pogo stick with Sutton and her sister. When they went on a camping trip, the first thing he did was take out a rope and two boards to make swings for the little girls so they'd have something to do when the adults wanted to sit around and visit.

He wore a shirt with shoulder pads so that Sutton would have a soft place to rest her head if she got sleepy in church.

When her mother went back to work and couldn't fulfill her obligation as room mother at Sutton's school, Grandpa stepped in.

"My experience was, they were an integral part of my life," she said. "I had a grandma who really needed to be there for me and not just for herself."

While Sutton knows that not every child will have grandparents like she had, the two generations need to be a part of each other's lives. She describes grandparents as the "touchstone" and the "root."

Utah's not one of the states that discourages too much contact. Child welfare reform has given relatives a place at the table when a family comes apart. Judges and social workers actually seek out relatives to provide "kinship care" instead of traditional foster care.

But it's tough and sometimes heartbreaking work, this skipped generation of nurturing. Grandparents like Sutton's didn't have to be the parents as well. They were free to provide the love and support, while the child-rearing was done by the girls' parents. They could be a little bit indulgent because that's a right bestowed by the magical "grand" at the beginning of the word grandparent.

Grandparents raising their children's children don't have that luxury. And Sutton believes they must choose which role they will fulfill - primary caregiver or grandparent. They can't be everything to everybody.

But they must be allowed to be something, she said. Something as important and as central as the strings that run through the lights at Christmas, holding the brightness together.