Few of the issues affecting the elderly are as likely to provoke emotional reactions as the rights of grandparents to visit their grandchildren.
It is safe to presume that in stable marriages there isn’t much of an impediment to visitation if both spouses make an effort to get along with their in-laws. But occasionally, when divorce or death is involved, the relationship between grandparents – or other relatives – and grandchildren becomes a casualty.
Efforts have been made across the US for decades to codify the rights of grandparents to visit with their grandchildren but they have not survived court challenges.
Monday, the Connecticut Grandparents Visitation Rights Task Force met at the Capitol to iron out the ground rules for drafting legislation that will serve grandparents and grandchildren in Connecticut, and also meet the requirements set out by the state and US Supreme Courts. The Task Force is comprised of representatives from the Aging, Judiciary and Children’s committees of the state Legislature, representatives from the Department of Children and Families, and included judges and lawyers who work in related fields.
Atty. Susan Price, the principal attorney in the Office of Legislative Research gave a presentation on two decisions, Troxel vs. Granville that was decided in the US Supreme Court, and Roth Vs. Weston in Connecticut, that have directly impacted grandparents’ visitation rights.
In the Troxel case, which stemmed from a Washington state law, the US Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional and invalid, and further that parents’ rights to raise their children free of interference outweighs grandparents’ rights to visitation.
In the Connecticut case, Roth vs. Weston a widowed father denied requests for visitation from the maternal grandmother and aunt which they challenged, claiming that visitation was in the children’s best interest. They did not allege that the father was an unfit parent.
The father argued that visitation was not in his children’s best interest and provided the trial court with evidence to support his position.
The trial court ruled in the relatives’ favor but the Connecticut Supreme overturned that decision, ruling that Connecticut General Statute 46b-59, the state’s third-party visitation statute, would be unconstitutional unless it required parties to show that they had a parent-like relationship with the child and, that denying visitation would cause the child real and significant harm.
If the third party fails to prove that the child is neglected, uncared-for or dependent courts lack jurisdiction to resolve the dispute.
Atty. Price wrote in a September 11, 2011 research report for the OLR that “once these high jurisdictional hurdles were overcome, the Supreme Court held that the petitioner had to prove his or her claims by clear and convincing evidence, a particularly stringent burden of proof. The Court indicated that these requirements … serve as constitutionally mandated safeguards against unwarranted intrusions into a parent’s authority.”
Members of the task force were divided in their opinions on whether they should draft one piece of proposed legislation that covers all third party visitation, which could includes relatives such as aunts and uncles or siblings, or provided two legislative proposals, with one specifically addressing grandparents.
State Sen. Edith Prague, D-19th District, who chairs the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Aging was especially intent on creating two statutes. Prague said that as a grandparent the issue is of special importance to her. In fact, several members of the panel noted that they too are grandparents but not all agreed that two pieces of legislation are necessary.
The decision on how best to proceed with proposed legislation will have to be ironed out in future meetings. The Task Force is charged with submitting a report on its findings to the Legislature by Feb. 1, 2012.
Even then, the Legislature will hold hearings and take testimony before a final bill is presented for a vote.
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