[author: Michele Bowman]
The baby boom generation is aging and people are living longer, healthier lives, which means more and more grandparents are active participants in their grandchildren’s lives. They are also learning that they can pursue visitation rights when divorce or family dysfunction results in their being cut off from their grandchildren.
Some grandparents need to be very persistent in order to successfully secure these rights. In a recent case in Wisconsin, for example, a couple spent two years and thousands of dollars in order to maintain regular visits with two of their grandchildren. Rick and Mary Bowers went to court to get visitation rights after their daughter, whose boyfriend was sent to prison for domestic abuse, refused to let her parents see the kids.
Any number of situations can lead to a grandparent petitioning a court for visitation rights – frayed relationships with their own children or their spouses, abuse or neglect of the grandchildren by their parents, or divorce.
State Laws Vary Widely
“Many grandparents have found themselves to be the caretakers of their grandchildren during significant periods of time,” says Richard S. Victor, founding partner of family law firm Victor & Victor, PLLC in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and founder and executive director of the Grandparents Rights Organization (GRO). “Once that care is no longer needed, parents sometimes forget the special bond that has been created between the child and their grandparent, which would be in the child’s best interests to be allowed to continue.”
State laws vary in approach to allowing grandparents to petition for visitation rights. “Some states have laws which are very favorable to a grandparent, while other states have laws which require very strict burdens and/or standards for a grandparent to prove before they will be allowed to overcome the objection of a parent’s wishes, if they have refused a grandparent contact with their grandchild,” according to GRO.
Consider the Best Interests of the Child
Victor acknowledges that while parents can resist such petitions, the grandparents’ mere filing of one can open a dialogue between the two. “It forces both the grandparent and parent to talk about the problems that created the decision for the parent to deny the request in the first place,” he points out.
“Once communication is started, even if it was forced to occur, family dysfunction, which is usually based on emotional decisions, rather than logic, gives way to adults acting in the best interests of the child,” Victor adds.
That is the key to these cases: State laws require judges to make their decisions about grandparents’ visitation petitions based on the best interests of the child, but the U.S. Supreme Court has said that can’t be the only criteria, as parents’ rights must be respected, too. Other factors must be weighed as well, such as whether the child is in danger or the impact the decision might have on parents’ fundamental right to care and custody of their children.
Money Is a Factor, but Communication Is Key
While the Wisconsin case illustrated how difficult and expensive it can be for grandparents to pursue visitation rights, Victor says he’s seen many cases resolved through less expensive mediation.
“In my experience of over 30 years handling thousands of these cases, I have found that once I got parents and grandparents in a room and at a table to talk, most cases could be settled without expensive litigation and cost (both financial and emotional) for the family,” he says.
Reunification of the family can be a success for everyone,” Victor adds, “especially the child.”
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