• U.S.

The Right to Visit

3 minute read
Amy Dickinson

Jenifer and Gary Troxel see themselves as pretty typical grandparents. They like to go to their 10 grandchildren’s recitals and soccer games. They take the kids out to eat and invite them to their home to cook and do crafts together. The youngsters love to take turbo bubble baths in the Jacuzzi. But the Troxels’ experiences with two of their grandkids, Natalie and Isabelle, are frozen in time.

Though they all live about an hour north of Seattle, the Troxels haven’t seen these granddaughters in almost a year because of a dispute with the girls’ mother that started after the Troxels’ son Brad died. The couple hadn’t married and were estranged at the time of Brad’s death. The Troxels had bonded with the girls during weekly visits with their father. Later their mother married, and her husband adopted the girls.

Despite these complications, the Troxels’ heartache is all too common. Each year millions of grandparents see their relationships with beloved grandchildren curtailed or even severed when the parents split up. And the Troxels are trying to do something about that. Later this month the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case of Troxel v. Granville and define what legal rights grandparents have to visit their grandkids.

With the boom in divorce since the 1970s, all 50 states have granted grandparents statutory rights to petition the courts for visitation with grandchildren. Judges will generally grant visitation if it is deemed in the best interest of the child.

Experts say that whichever way the Supreme Court decides, the implications will be far-reaching. If, as the Troxels hope, the court upholds Washington State’s liberal visitation statute, other states are likely to extend more rights to grandparents. But if the Washington statute is overturned, states could give the parent who has custody more control over when and how grandparents can visit the kids.

Grandparents who are thinking of seeking court-ordered visitation, though, should consider not only their chances of winning but other consequences as well. Andrew Cherlin, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University and author of Divided Families, counsels that “after divorce, children who do the worst are those who feel caught in the middle. The most important factor shouldn’t be what is best for grandparents but what is best for children.”

Grandparents at risk of estrangement should be flexible with former in-laws and keep in touch with grandchildren any way they can, without insisting that the relationship stay exactly the way it was. Grandparents should remember that when a family is in flux, everything changes. Anger from a divorce can spill over onto a spouse’s relatives, but it often subsides if no one pushes too hard. Grandparents can also try to have their visitation rights included in a separation agreement as a precaution against having to go to court later. The American Association of Retired Persons provides helpful resources through the Grandparents Information Center, (202) 434-2296, and at aarp.org

Parents who are breaking up should be mindful that grandparents can be the heart, soul and collective memory of a family. Severing relationships with former in-laws may seem like a relief, but doing so will leave your children with half a family–a situation no court can really remedy.

See our website at time.com/personal for more on grandparents’ rights. You can e-mail Amy at timefamily@aol.com

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