Tuesday, June 06, 2000

Grandparents' rights dealt a setback

Court: Parents can limit visitation

By Sara J. Bennett
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In a decision that could touch every American family, the U.S Supreme Court on Monday curbed states' power to help grandparents visit their grandchildren when parents object.

        “So long as a parent adequately cares for his or her children ... there will normally be no reason for the state to inject itself into the private realm of the family to further question the ability of that parent to make the best decisions,” Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the court's main opinion.

        But the dispassionately worded ruling in one of the most emotionally charged cases in recent Supreme Court history stopped far short of answering all questions the state courts face daily in visitation battles over children.

        The court's 6-3 decision did not give parents absolute veto power over who gets to visit their children, disagreeing with part of a ruling by Washington's highest state court that appeared to do so.

        Local grandparents' rights advocates reacted with alarm.

        “It's going to create a lot of problems for states that have already moved forward on this issue, and it could very well put us in the position of having to backpedal,” said Theresa Dattilo, an Edgewood grandmother who runs a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren.

Find the complete text on the Web at:
supct.law.cornell.edu/supct (Click on "this month's decisions"> or
        How Monday's ruling will affect Tristate laws is not clear. All 50 states have grandparent-visitation laws, but few are as expansive as the Washington law struck down Monday by the Supreme Court.

        That law allowed “any person,” relative or nonrelative, to petition for visitation rights “at any time” if such visitations are found to be in a child's best interest.

        • Ohio allows grandparents and others visitation if a divorce, child support or other legal proceeding is in progress and a court determines visitation is in the child's best interest. Several factors must be considered, including the child's previous relationship with the person and how far away the child lives.

        • Kentucky's law states that courts can grant “reasonable” visitation rights to grandparents if it's determined to be in the child's best interest.

        • Indiana's law says grandparents may seek visitation if a child's parent is dead, the parents are divorcing, or a child is born out of wedlock and paternity has been established. The court must decide whether visitation is in a child's best interest and may consider past relationships with the grandparent.

        The thrust of the court's decision is that parents' rights to raise their children free from government interference generally trumps state laws aimed at giving grandparents broad rights to seek visitation.

        The case involved an Ana cortes, Wash., couple left with no legal right to see their two granddaughters. Gary and Jenifer Troxel had gone to state court to seek more time with the two girls, 10-year-old Natalie and 8-year-old Isabelle.

        The girls are the daughters of the Troxels' dead son. After he died, the girls' mother, Tommie Granville, limited their visits to see their grandparents. The Troxels went to court, and two years later were awarded visitation of one weekend a month, one week during the summer and four hours on the girls' birthdays.

        Local family law experts say they are not surprised by the decision.

        “It really is a parent's right versus the grandparents' rights, and parents ultimately control their children's destiny,” said Randal S. Bloch, a Cincinnati family law lawyer. “Grandparents' rights are not going to be paramount if a parent is fit, adequate and competent.”

        Ms. Dattilo argues that grandparent visitation laws should be as broad as possible so judges can consider each case on its own merits.

        Grandparents play an important role in the lives of children, she said, and that role should be respected.

        “Nothing is ever 100 percent, but in the vast number of cases, I would say that it's positive for the grandchildren to have a relationship with their grandparents. It's part of an extended family, and it helps (children) receive some perspective and insight.”

        Most divorce cases and other incidents where grand parent visitation could become an issue don't wind up in court, family law experts say.

        If problems do arise, it's best to work things out before going to court, said Bea V. Larsen, a lawyer and mediator with Cincinnati's Center for Resolution of Disputes.

        “If it's possible to address these situations before litigation, the chances of success are tenfold,” she said. With a mediator, “even if some animosities have grown up, you can explore what's underlying them and what the concerns are and try to design a way of reducing them and keeping connections.”

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