A grandparent's right to a place in his grandchild's life

WHO would deny a cookie-toting nana from Kansas access to her own grandchildren? And why would anybody want to keep the ``little old lady from Pasadena'' from visiting her kin's kin? Grandmothers are sweet and kindly. They bake apple pies, read bedtime stories, and provide free babysitting on Mom and Dad's special night out. And that's equally true for grandfathers -- sometimes the unsung heroes of the extended family.

Sure, Ma Barker was a grandma. And Attila the Hun probably had some tot who called him ``umpah.'' But these are rare exceptions to the ice cream-and-cake rule.

Ergo: (1) Grandparents are, for the most part, good and virtuous; and (2) they should have rights. Right? Maybe.

There seems to be a broad consensus on the first point. But there is at least some disagreement about grandparents' rights -- what they should be and how far they should extend.

Now, almost every state in the US has statutory or regulatory provisions concerning the rights of grandparents. They range from visitation privileges to direct participation in the lives of their children's children. Some courts have extended this jurisdiction to step-grandparents and to situations involving adopted children.

Why is it necessary to turn informal relationships into legal compacts? In the large majority of instances, it isn't. The input of the judiciary isn't needed. But in situations of divorced or separated families, a more structured or court-ordered relationship may sometimes be called for.

The right of visitation may be abused, however. For instance, a mother recently complained in the New York Times about ``intrusive in-laws'' who try to turn one parent against the other, undermine parental authority, and tend to create family chaos instead of promoting unity.

It was this type of situation that gave Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey (D) pause when he first indicated he would veto a grandparents' rights bill that had been passed by the state legislature. Governor Kerrey changed his mind, however, reportedly after talking with a couple who were cut off from their grandchil dren following their son's divorce. Previously, they had had a close and productive relationship.

The legislation that Nebraska's chief executive eventually signed into law allows grandparents to seek a court order for visitation in cases where the parents are divorced or getting a divorce, where one parent is deceased, or where the parents are unmarried but paternity has been established. There must also be clear and convincing evidence that a beneficial relationship with the grandchild exists, or has existed; that the relationship with the grandparent would not harm the parent-child relationship; and that the grandparent has no recourse outside the court because other efforts to resolve the situation have failed.

These stipulations seem reasonable. They give the court options to extend visitation only where such action would be healthy for the child and thus bolster, rather than harm, the entire family.

In the best of situations, however, it would be well to keep the court from intruding on decisions which should be made by family members without the prodding of an injunction.

Also, it was almost inevitable that once courts began to formalize grandparents' legal rights, there would also be moves to establish grandparents' legal responsibilities.

This has already happened in Wisconsin, where legislation was passed late last year that holds parents of underage, unwed mothers to be fiscally responsible for supporting their grandchildren if other private financial resources are not available.

Wisconsin's law is the first of its kind in the United States. However, state Rep. Marlin Schneider, the bill's author, reports interest in similar legislation elsewhere, particularly in California, Minnesota, and Texas.

The so-called grandparent liability clause, taking into consideration ability to pay, assesses grandparents for support of their grandchildren until the unwed minor parents turn 18. Refusal to pay could result in up to two years in jail and a maximum fine of $10,000.

The law is tied to a requirement for pregnancy counseling. And one of its objectives is to relieve the welfare system of some of the burden of child support for offspring of unwed teens. So far, there has been general compliance. Reportedly, it has been legally challenged only once.

A Thursday column

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