By Stephanie Reitz
HARTFORD, Conn. —
Increasingly, a wrenching dispute is playing out in courts nationwide: balancing parents’ constitutional rights to raise their children without interference against grandparents’ desire to be involved in those youngsters’ lives.
Now, a growing number of grandparents are pushing lawmakers around the country to change state standards they say are too restrictive and ignore the unique bonds many grandparents have with their grandchildren.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide this winter whether it will revisit the issue, which it addressed 11 years ago in a landmark case out of Washington state that makes competent parents’ wishes the guiding principle in most disputes.
Although all state laws must meet that constitutional threshold, their efforts have resulted in a patchwork of state court rulings and legislation. They now impose such a variety of conditions that the parties’ home states can affect the cases almost as much as the specifics.
Connecticut has become a battleground state in the issue for two reasons: its protections for parents are among the nation’s strictest and many of its grandparents are very vocal in their push to change it.
A task force will advise the General Assembly this winter on whether to change state law to give grandparents more chance to get into court to argue their cases.
“Right now it’s the luck of the draw if you’re some poor family stuck in a state that doesn’t stand behind that grandparent-grandchild bond and attachment,” said Susan Hoffman, 59. She founded Advocates for Grandparent Grandchild Connection after losing her California petition for visitation when her adult son signed away parenting rights to her grandson.
The growing movement among grandparents’ groups has alarmed many parents and their advocacy groups nationwide, including organizers and participants on the parentsrights.com website.
Many say they are being pilloried by those who wrongly accept stereotypes that all grandparents are loving and supportive. And they say they’re being drained financially to defend parenting rights the Supreme Court has already upheld.
All 50 states have laws governing the conditions for non-parent third parties seeking visitation, but it was only in 2000 that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling said none of those laws can infringe on the rights of competent parents.
That includes determining who can spend time with their children, with courts stepping in to order non-parent visitation only under tight circumstances deemed in the child’s best interest.
That’s where state laws and court rulings have evolved to include conditions that vary widely from one state to the next. The circumstances also vary, from intact two-parent families being sued by grandparents to situations stemming from thorny divorces and remarriages, disputes with one parent after another dies, and other cases.
In some states, grandparents can sue for visitation only if they have been completely cut off by custodial parents. In others, they must show their relationship with the grandchild was similar to that of a parent. In yet others, they must prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that the child will suffer irreversible harm without the visits.
And while some states have a combination of those standards, others have very few and give grandparents far more latitude to present their cases.
That can include deposing their adult children, seeking the parents’ medical and financial records and other time-consuming actions. And some state courts have ruled that even if the grandparents lose, the parents can’t get their legal bills reimbursed.
Connecticut is not the only state struggling with the issue. In June, Alabama’s state Supreme Court struck down its law as unconstitutional because it included grandparent visitation rights over competent parents’ objections.
Connecticut, Florida and Arizona are considered among the most parent-friendly based on their laws or court precedents. Others are considered more grandparent-friendly, including Utah, Kansas and Oklahoma.
For parents and grandparents facing challenges in “unfriendly” states, the stress of family disagreements can be magnified by expensive court proceedings.
The possibility of that door being opened too far alarms many parents, though, particularly those who say they want to shield their own young children from grandparents who have broken boundaries and trust.
“They’re in an emotional crossfire,” she said. “The courthouse doors should have written on them, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’ Litigation is not going to heal these families — quite the reverse.” — AP