Do Grandparents Have Rights?

Question

I have a beautiful six year old granddaughter.  I have not seen her in over a year because her mother (my daughter-in-law) and I had a falling out over other family issues.  I am heartbroken that my son and daughter-in-law are punishing me by refusing to let me have a relationship with my only grandchild.  Is there anything that the courts can do to help me?

Answer

Under Washington law, a grandparent may only petition for visitation rights when a child’s parents are already in dissolution, parentage or parenting plan modification proceedings.  Furthermore, a grandparent’s petition for visitation “shall” be dismissed by the court unless the grandparent can prove  “by clear and convincing evidence that a significant relationship exists with the child with whom visitation is sought.”

The reason that this law is so strict relates to the fundamental rights afforded to parents by the U.S. Constitution, and as set forth in a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Troxel v. GranvilleSpecifically, the Court struck down a former Washington state law which allowed “any person” to petition for visitation “at any time” and allowed courts to “order visitation rights for any person when visitation may serve [the] best interests of a child”, on the grounds that the law violated a parent’s right to make decisions regarding “care, custody, and control” of her children under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

In this particular case, the paternal grandparents (the Troxels) of two children petitioned for visitation after the children’s father passed away.  Prior to his death, the father was separated from the children’s mother (Granville) and regularly brought the children to the grandparents’ home for weekend visits.  After his death, Granville told the Troxels that she intended to limit their time with the children significantly.  The grandparents then filed a petition for visitation, and were eventually granted two weekend visits per month, along with two weeks in the summer.  Granville appealed.

Eventually, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Washington’s law “unconstitutionally infringe[d]” on parents’ fundamental right to make decisions about the care, custody, and control of their children – including decisions about the extent to which children have a relationship with other family members.  In so ruling, the Court held that “so long as a parent adequately cares for his or her children… there will normally be no reason for the state to inject itself into the private realm of the family to further question the ability of the parent to make the best decisions concerning the rearing of that parent’s children.”

As a result, Washington State law now strictly limits a grandparent’s ability to seek court-ordered visitation with their grandchildren, although not without controversy or calls for change.

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