What visiting rights do grandparents have?
The Test Case: Complex and Unclear continued...
A series of battles ensued: The Wynns criticized the Troxels for calling
Isabelle by her middle name, "Rose," which Brad had used. The Troxels
accused Tommie Wynn of cutting off telephone contact. Nobody could figure out
how to explain Brad's suicide to the girls. On the other hand, the Troxels
acknowledged there were "no differences" over discipline or religion
and said they had "no criticism" of Tommie as a mother.
The Troxels filed suit in 1993 and won visitation rights of one weekend
overnight a month and one week in the summer. Tommie Wynn appealed and won. The
Troxels appealed to the state Supreme Court, and lost. Thus their case wound
its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision is expected in June.
"This case is about whether the state is going to control family
decision-making," says Catherine Smith, the Wynn's attorney. But the
Troxels "don't want to lose contact with their grandchildren," says
Mark Olson, their attorney.
"We don't believe that parents have rights over their children as if
they were objects," Olson says. "What's important is that the child's
relationships be sustained and maintained, so long as those relationships are
in the best interests of the child."
Grandparents Seek Firmer Rights Amid Social Change
Yet "best interests" and "relationships" aren't easy to
Beginning in the 1970s, grandparents in all 50 states responded to soaring
divorce rates by successfully pushing for laws protecting their ability to see
their grandchildren after a parent's death or divorce. Yet out-of-wedlock
births, single parents, blended families, gay partners raising children, and
test tube babies have created situations in which parents are no longer legally
related to their children's grandparents, says Richard S. Victor, Founder and
Executive Director of the National Grandparents' Rights Organization.
Amid the legal wrangling, one thing seems clear: Children should not be used
as pawns between feuding adults. Family infighting can be psychologically
harmful to children, undermining their sense of security and ability to trust
adults, child development experts say.
Communication also is key: Out of some 3,000 grandparents' visitation cases
that Victor has handled, only 5% went to court -- the rest apparently resolved
by families who worked things out.
"If the laws were revoked, you would take away the opportunity to force
people to the table to talk to each other," says Victor. But such legal
compromises aren't always clear: "That's where we don't win or
Loren Stein is based in Palo Alto, Calif., and writes about health and legal