KNOW YOUR OPTIONS, CHOOSE A PLAN OF ACTION
by Loma Davies Silcott
Gone are the days when your children and grandchildren lived down the block or around the corner and you could visit them whenever you wanted. In our mobile society, many children live half way across the country and grandparents are lucky to see their grandchildren once or twice a year. Today, even that seldom is better than what an increasing number of grandparents are facing: a court fight for the right to see their grandchildren.
Although no one knows how many such visitation cases there are in the United States today, experts agree that the numbers are rising. Richard Victor, an attorney in Michigan, has made a specialty of such cases. When he began in 1979, he had only half a dozen clients. In the years since then, his firm has represented well over 600. He also founded and is executive director of the nonprofit, nationwide group, Grandparents Rights Organization (GRO), based in Birmingham, Michigan.
Problems usually occur when there has been a nasty divorce and your child's ex-spouse has custody of the children. For whatever reason, he or she decides to deny you access to your grandchildren. Fortunately, many state laws now provide reasonable visitation rights for maternal and paternal grandparents. However, since legislation varies widely from state to state, even if you win your case in one state, you will have to start all over again if your grandchildren move to another state.
If possible, have grandparent visitation rights included in the divorce decree. If you are having a problem seeing your grandchildren, and visitation rights were not included in the decree, you can apply to the District Court for the right to visit with an unmarried minor child. However, the courts must consider whether grandparents' visitation is in the best interest of the child.
Because so many grandparents are facing the same problem, local and national organizations are working to obtain visitation rights. Dr. Arthur Kornhaber, a Lake Placid, New York, psychiatrist and president of the Foundation for Grandparenting, states: "Many times, grandparents have been legislated out of existence because of temporary problems." He recommends that even though there will be emotional and financial costs, grandparents should go to court if that is the only way to resolve the conflict. However, most, including the American Bar Association, believe court should be the last resort. They recommend going to professional, third-party mediators first.
Obviously, some kind of uniform state law is urgently needed. Rep. Thomas Downey chaired a grandparents' rights hearing in October 1991, and reported a "positive sign" --the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws intends to investigate the problem.
"Find alternative ways to continue the relationship," advises Richard Victor. "Write letters, call-let the kids know you're part of their support network. And never, never make them feel they have an emotional conflict of interest. Even if you have to bite your tongue when you say something nice about the children's parent, do it‹because you're doing it for the good of the child."
Divorcing parents can prevent later intergenerational conflict by including in their separation agreement a provision stating specifically that both sets of grandparents will have visitation rights. But for grandparents who have no such provision in their favor, here are some general guidelines:
About the author: Loma Davies Silcott of Rapid City, South Dakota, has written more than 600 articles. Her book, The Nuts & Bolts Writer's Manual, is now in its second printing. She has recently compiled 42 of her articles for seniors into a book entitled Senior Sense.