What visiting rights do grandparents have?
The Test Case: Complex and Unclear continued...
Brad, who suffered from chronic depression, committed suicide. Later that year, Tommie married Kelly Wynn, a local businessman with two children of his own. Wynn adopted Natalie and Isabelle; Tommie also had three children from a previous marriage. Then Tommie got pregnant. Suddenly, the brood numbered eight.
During the stressful time of building a new family, Tommie cut back the Troxels' visits with Natalie, then 3, and Isabelle, then 18 months, to one day a month. In a brief later filed with the Supreme Court, Tommie said she asked the Troxels "to respect her efforts to nurture" her new family. Instead, they pressed for overnight visits every other weekend plus holidays and two weeks in the summer.
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.