Even the healthiest families may wind up squabbling a bit over the holidays, but in the coming weeks the Supreme Court may reconsider how we should handle family conflicts so bad that the generations will only gather together if the court schedules a hearing. Eleven years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that when grandparents sue for visitation with their grandchildren, competent parents' wishes must get top priority. Now grandparents across the country are pushing lawmakers across the country to recognize their right to see their grandkids.
The Associated Press reports that despite the federal ruling, grandparents' rights from state to state are still tremendously varied. Courts can only order visitation against parents' wishes in rare circumstances, and it's up to the states to decide what that entails. In some areas grandparents can only sue if the parents have cut them off entirely. In other states, they have to prove that they have an extremely close relationship with the grandchild. Elsewhere grandparents have to prove with "clear and convincing evidence" that the children will be harmed by not seeing their grandparents. (Lack of access to homemade baked goods is tragic, but probably doesn't count.)
Over the summer Alabama overturned a law that gave grandparents visitation rights against the parents wishes, prompting Alabama and several other states to ask the Supreme Court to revisit the issue. While we have a stereotype of grandparents being loving and well-intentioned, parents groups argue that sometimes they are more like the Big Bad Wolf in grandma's clothing. Erin Bay, whose mother is suing her and her husband for the right to visit their five children, says:
"There are very real assumptions on the part of society about parents who are involved in this kind of litigation. It feels like our fitness has already been decided by the public because we've been sued by our parents or in-laws, and that's really disheartening."
They didn't deny her mother visitation due to some silly family argument about giving kids seconds on dessert. Bay says that among other concerns, she doesn't want unsupervised visitation because her mother is still in touch with a family member who sexually abused her.
In many other situations, there are no concerns about the safety of the grandparents' home, but they wind up getting cut off from grandchildren when their child gets divorced or dies. Grandparents' rights activists also point out that in most situations they just want a chance to see the kids, not custody. Karen Wyle, an Indiana attorney who works with parents in these cases, says these disputes just wind up hurting children in the long run. "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," she says. That's pretty depressing, but maybe the lesson to be learned is that the law needs to focus more on what's in the best interest of the child, not whether parents rights should always trump grandparents rights. If you just watch a few episodes of Teen Mom you'll seen the full range of grandparents, from those who shouldn't be anywhere near their grandkids, to those who are the only positive influence in the child's life.
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