Relative Power

What visiting rights do grandparents have?

4 min read

March 13, 2000 (Palo Alto, Calif.) -- All that Gary and Jenifer Troxel wantedwas to watch their granddaughters grow up -- to see them on holidays andweekends and even a couple of weeks in the summertime.

All that Tommie Granville Wynn wanted was to get on with her life and create a new family for her two daughters after her partner, their father, committed suicide.

Unfortunately, Tommie's partner was Gary and Jenifer's son.

And the ensuing seven-year battle between the grandparents, Gary and Jenifer Troxel, and the mother, Tommie Granville Wynn, has led to a landmark lawsuit, now before the U.S. Supreme Court, that raises tough questions about the limits of parenting and grandparenting.

At issue is the constitutionality of a far-reaching Washington state law allowing "any person at any time" to petition the court for the right to visit a child, even if the parents object.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist put it best: "To what extent can a court intervene on parents when there is no harm to the children?" he asked during oral arguments, which took place on Jan. 12. "Does this mean a great-aunt can come in and say, 'I want to take them to the movies every Friday'?"

"At its core, the legal question is how to balance parents' basic and comprehensive authority over children and the state's right to interfere," says Carol Sanger, a professor of family law at Columbia University.

"This has become a legal question, when in many ways it's a question of family dynamics," she adds. "In my view, any time you have to resort to the courts for such a decision the family is already in big trouble."

Indeed, the facts in Troxel v. Granville are complex.

Brad Troxel and Tommie Granville never married but lived together in Skagit County, north of Seattle. They had two daughters -- Natalie, now 10 years old, and Isabelle, now 7 -- before separating in 1991, before Isabelle was born. Brad went to live with his parents in nearby Mount Vernon, Wash., where the girls visited regularly.

Two years later, everything changed.

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."

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.