Grandparents as Litigants

High court hears a case that's about more than rights

In this litigious age, another deeply personal issue has been elevated unwisely up to a national question of constitutional rights.

We wish the US Supreme Court well as it hears heart-felt arguments and combs the fine print of the Constitution for an answer on something so private as whether grandparents should be able to spend time with their grandchildren, over the objection of a parent.

The court case involves a couple whose only son died, leaving two kids and their mother. The mother won't let the grandparents continue a close relationship with her children other than a once-a-month visit.

The case boils down to this: Is a child harmed by restricting ties to grandparents? And is that harm great enough to overrule a parent's vital autonomy and privacy in raising a child?

Letting someone outside a family make that call requires the wisdom of Solomon and a great love and understanding of children. What judges often fail to recognize in cases of fractured families is that the process of litigation itself can leave immense emotional and financial damage.

Just watch what happens to the Cuban boy in Miami, Elian Gonzalez, as he is paraded from one public forum to another, all the while denied the love of his sole surviving parent.

For grandchildren caught in a court case, the bitterness of litigation can leave lasting damage. And the costs of lawyers can bankrupt a parent, thus possibly denying a child a college education. Why isn't that harm taken into consideration?

Fortunately, cases of "grandparents' rights" are still few and far between. Their increase reflects a larger shift in the consensus over what is a family. And as more marriages are interreligious, many grandparents try to press their religion on grandchildren, creating strains.

At the same time, government is lessening its tolerance for letting parents sometimes make the wrong decisions for a child - short of doing such great harm as denying children an education or forcing them to work.

These trends call for more efforts to keep family matters out of court and out of legislation. Private groups and state social-service agencies can do more to offer the skills of a private mediator who can lessen an adversarial situation.

Visitation privileges for grandparents are best worked out within families, recognizing that parents' rights are fundamental to any society and that children do often benefit from relationships with grandparents.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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