In a majority of families, grandchildren and grandparents enjoy a special relationship. Phone calls, visits, overnight stays, and the sweet indulgences that are a grandparent's privilege enrich both generations, strengthening ties and creating lasting memories.
If those bonds are severed, for whatever reason, both groups can feel confused and bereft. That's why family-rights advocates are watching with interest and concern today as the Supreme Court hears arguments in a case that raises questions about whether the state can constitutionally interfere with parents' rights to rear their children.
The case of Troxel v. Granville involves a couple in Washington State who are seeking the right to visit their two granddaughters over the mother's objections. The couple's son, who was not married to the girls' mother, committed suicide. After the mother's new husband legally adopted the children, the mother cut off the grandparents' access.
Richard Victor, executive director of the Grandparents Rights Organization in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., says the Washington law could be considered "overbroad," because gives "any person at any time" the right to request court-ordered visitation.
Still, he sees the case as a way to raise public awareness of an important issue: Should the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren be protected, or should parents have rights to sever them?
Opponents of court-ordered nonparental visitation argue that a mother and father should be able to make those decisions. Supporters counter that as family structures become more complex because of divorce, remarriage, and stepfamilies, children need legal protection to preserve family relationships.
"People have to realize that with every divorce in this country, parents are no longer related to the same people their children are," Mr. Victor says. "Children have an inherent right to have a relationship with their family as they define family through their own eyes, not the eyes of the adults."
All 50 states now allow grandparents to seek visitation in cases of parental death, divorce, or legal separation. Few states allow visitation if married parents say no.
Lynne Gold-Bikin, former chairwoman of the American Bar Association's family law section, has represented grandparents seeking visitation. Some valid reasons exist to deny access, she says, but not many. Interfering with religion is one.
"Let's say you're Jewish, and the grandparents come in and keep opening the Bible to the New Testament," she says. "That's interference."
Ms. Gold-Bikin, a lawyer in Philadelphia and the grandmother of six, also represented a mother wanting to block a grandmother's access. The grandmother was teaching the granddaughter to shoplift.
The challenge lies in trying to determine the best interests of the child. Acknowledging the difficulty of defining that phrase, Gold-Bikin says, "If you're trying to raise happy, healthy children, they ought to have access to their history. Grandparents are part of their history."
To underscore that point, AARP released a study last week showing the central role of grandparents in children's lives. Four in 10 say they see their grandchildren weekly. In the month prior to the survey, nearly three-quarters invited a grandchild to their home for a meal. Two-thirds took a child out to eat, and half had a grandchild spend the night.
Victor sums up the challenge before the courts: "The traditional American family has changed. The legal system needs to protect that family, not close its eyes to its existence and pretend it isn't there."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society