Parental Rights & the Juvenile Justice System
KNOW YOUR OPTIONS, CHOOSE A PLAN OF
Loma Davies Silcott
Gone are the days when your children and
grandchildren lived down the block or around the corner and you could
visit them whenever you wanted. In our mobile society, many children
live half way across the country and grandparents are lucky to see their
grandchildren once or twice a year. Today, even that seldom is better
than what an increasing number of grandparents are facing: a court fight
for the right to see their grandchildren.
Although no one knows how
many such visitation cases there are in the United States today, experts
agree that the numbers are rising. Richard Victor, an attorney in
Michigan, has made a specialty of such cases. When he began in 1979, he
had only half a dozen clients. In the years since then, his firm has
represented well over 600. He also founded and is executive director of
the nonprofit, nationwide group,
Grandparents Rights Organization (GRO), based in Birmingham,
Problems usually occur
when there has been a nasty divorce and your child's ex-spouse has
custody of the children. For whatever reason, he or she decides to deny
you access to your grandchildren. Fortunately, many state laws now
provide reasonable visitation rights for maternal and paternal
grandparents. However, since legislation varies widely from state to
state, even if you win your case in one state, you will have to start
all over again if your grandchildren move to another state.
If possible, have
grandparent visitation rights included in the divorce decree. If you are
having a problem seeing your grandchildren, and visitation rights were
not included in the decree, you can apply to the District Court for the
right to visit with an unmarried minor child. However, the courts must
consider whether grandparents' visitation is in the best interest of the
Because so many
grandparents are facing the same problem, local and national
organizations are working to obtain visitation rights. Dr. Arthur
Kornhaber, a Lake Placid, New York, psychiatrist and president of the
Foundation for Grandparenting, states: "Many times, grandparents have
been legislated out of existence because of temporary problems." He
recommends that even though there will be emotional and financial costs,
grandparents should go to court if that is the only way to resolve the
conflict. However, most, including the American Bar Association, believe
court should be the last resort. They recommend going to professional,
third-party mediators first.
Obviously, some kind of
uniform state law is urgently needed. Rep. Thomas Downey chaired a
grandparents' rights hearing in October 1991, and reported a "positive
sign" --the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws
intends to investigate the problem.
"Find alternative ways to
continue the relationship," advises Richard Victor. "Write letters,
call-let the kids know you're part of their support network. And never,
never make them feel they have an emotional conflict of interest. Even
if you have to bite your tongue when you say something nice about the
children's parent, do it‹because you're doing it for the good of the
Divorcing parents can prevent later
intergenerational conflict by including in their separation agreement a
provision stating specifically that both sets of grandparents will have
visitation rights. But for grandparents who have no such provision in
their favor, here are some general guidelines:
some hard work and perseverance, most of you will soon be a part of your
grandchildren's lives-something both they and you need.
- Don't be too aggressive. If the custodial parent remarries, give
him or her plenty of time to make the new marriage work. Such family
transitions are usually difficult for young children, who may be
torn by loyalty to the divorced or deceased parent.
- Don't run out and start a lawsuit. First, open a line of
communication with the parent or parents. You might even use a
neutral third-party mediator. Try to ascertain what the difficulty
is. "More often than not, visitation is not being denied because the
parent thinks contact with the grandparents will be harmful for the
children," says Richard Victor. "Instead, the parent fears that the
grandparent will talk to the children about him or her in an adverse
way." He suggests discussing with the parent some ground rules for
visitation. Then, whatever rules are agreed upon, follow them.
- When there is no other recourse, call your local bar association
for referral to a family-law attorney, preferably one with
experience in third-party (other than parental) visitation rights.
When you meet with the attorney, be prepared with documentary
evidence and lists of witnesses to support your contention that it
is in the "best interests of the children"-the legal standard in
most states-for them to see you. Evidence that a consistent, caring
relationship existed between you in the past is important.
- If there is animosity between you and the children's parents, do
everything you can to keep the youngsters from getting involved in
- Remember that grandparent visitation rights are not intended or
designed to supersede parental authority. Grandparents should step
in only when there is a threat to the children's safety. If there is
evidence that the children are being physically or emotionally
abused, contact the department of social services for the protection
of minor children in the state where your children live.
- Be aware, too, that the law applying to your visitation rights
is the law in the state where the grandchildren live.
About the author:
Loma Davies Silcott of
Rapid City, South Dakota, has written more than 600 articles. Her book,
The Nuts & Bolts Writer's Manual, is now in its second printing.
She has recently compiled 42 of her articles for seniors into a book
entitled Senior Sense.
God Bless, GranPa Chuck