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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 define.

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 lose."

Loren Stein is based in Palo Alto, Calif., and writes about health and legal issues.

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