Visitation rights are a thorny area of family law that impact divided families struggling with simmering anger and isolation.

by Rebecca Zung, Esq.

Seventy-one percent. That is the percentage of grandparents in the United States who report that being a grandparent is the single-most important aspect of their lives. For many however, this joy becomes tragedy. For many grandparents, because of divorce or poor relations with a daughter-in-law or son-in-law, or other reasons, they become disconnected from their grandchildren. This separation can cause deep heartbreak for the grandparents, and also prevents the grandchildren from experiencing what could be one of the most enriching and rewarding experiences of their lives.

 The History

Historically, grandparents have always typically stood in line behind the parents when it comes to rights. This premise was made even more crystal clear in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Washington state's grandparent-visitation law, saying it was too broad. The highest court stated that “fit parents” are presumed to act in the best interest of the child and that the state should not “inject itself into the private realm of the family” thereby questioning parental decisions. The ripple effect of this is the assumption that it is the parents―and only the parents―who have the ultimate rights regarding their children.

Issues surrounding this contentious area of family have played out in Utah, Pennsylvania and Colorado, where the courts rejected arguments from the parents that they should control visitation, particularly in special cases. In all three, one or both of the parents had died. These issues revolve around visitation, not full-time care.

If you live in Florida, the news is grim. Florida is one of the most restrictive states when it comes to grandparents’ rights. Florida law provides that grandparents may sue for timesharing with their grandchildren only if the parents are divorced, a parent has abandoned the child or the child was born out of wedlock. This means that if a grandparent is simply estranged or being alienated from the grandchildren, and one of the enumerated scenarios does not exist, then that grandparent may be out of luck as far as getting any assistance with the court in being reunited with their grandchildren.

Alienation

Alienation, parental or grandparental, exists when a child or grandchild has no relationship with that person and there is no valid rationale. For the most part, the rejection is due to the influence of the parent who is aligned with the children and there is no abuse or neglect on the part of the rejected parent or grandparent. In the case of a grandparent, it is often a daughter-in-law or son-in-law who has poisoned the child’s thinking about the grandparent.

 

The process usually begins with the toxic, alienating spouse saying negative things to his/her spouse repeatedly. Daily, monthly and weekly, poison is spewed and eventually a pathway is formed to the brain, such that now a grandparent’s own adult child’s reality becomes so distorted that he or she begins to truly believe that his or her own parent is fatally flawed. It is cult-like thinking.

What Can Be Done?

There are some local support groups being formed across the country. One of them is Alienated Grandparents Anonymous Incorporated, which focuses on the struggle so many grandparents have in being part of their grandchildren's lives. The group, based in Naples, provides support and information, and helps validate the feelings of those suffering some degree of estrangement, alienation or isolation. Alienated Grandparents Anonymous serves to bring alienated grandparents, parents and grandchildren together. They suggest the following strategies for coping:

  1. Do not allow your alienating adult children to control every day of your life.

  2. Take time each day to think about this, but then live your life. Do not allow them to psychologically keep you in defeat mode.

  3. Be with those who do love and care about you. They are very important in your life.

  4. Strive to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy so that you will be there when your grandchildren come looking for you. They have been waiting for you as well. Do not deny them the opportunity of reuniting with you.

  5. Communication opportunities are important. Try any way you can to do so. This will increase the likelihood of your grandchildren communicating with you when they are old enough to do so.

Rebecca Zung, Esq., Law Office of Rebecca Zung-Clough, is the author of “BREAKING FREE: A Step-by-Step Guide to Emotional, Physical and Spiritual Freedom.”