By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — When families fail and the law must intervene in the care of children, judges decide which, if either parent, gets custody and who has a right to visit. Tar Heel lawmakers may soon decide if grandparents should have a larger place at the table when those cases are considered.
Grandparents’ Visitation Rights, House Bill 239, was filed earlier this month by William Brisson (D-Cumberland), Julia Howard (R-Davie) and Pat Hurley (R-Randolph) William Brisson and referred to the Committee on Judiciary Subcommittee C.
Brisson had pushed for a study bill on the subject in 2009, saying then that when marriages break up, “feuding and fighting” often leaves the grandparents out of the equation even as they offer love, attention and financial help to their grandchildren.
“That is the last chance of the children, if the grandparents come in and help them financially. And if they are putting money in … getting them through school, then they ought to have some kind of visitation rights,” he said then.
The Legislative Research Commission studied the issue in 1997 and recommended legislation to expand grandparents’ rights, but bills introduced in years since have never gained enough support to pass.
The current bill would allow for an order for custody of a minor child to provide grandparent visitation rights “as the court, in its discretion, deems appropriate” and “in the best interest of the child” and would open the door for a grandparent to sue for visitation at any time except in cases where a child, whose biological parents have had their parental rights terminated, has been adopted by new parents to whom he is not biologically related.
The proposed legislation would have the court consider several factors in determining the child’s best interest including whether there is already a relationship between the grandparent and the child, the willingness of the child to develop such a relationship (if mature enough to make such a decision), reasonableness or lack thereof of the custodial parent in allowing visitation to the grandparent in the past, the mental and physical health of the child and grandparent, whether the visitation will substantially interfere with the right of the parent to exercise parental authority and any other relevant factors the court deems necessary.
Already, according to legislative staff, there are four statutes in North Carolina that allow a grandparent to sue for visitation under certain circumstances. Grandparents can intervene when the question of custody is already before the court or in a situation where the grandparents can prove that circumstances have changed since custody was determined and that grandparent visits are in the child’s best interest.
Grandparents can also seek visitation when a minor child is adopted by a step-parent or relative of the child and a substantial relationship exists between the grandparent and the child. Further, a more general statute would allow grandparents to seek custody in a case where the child’s parent is being deemed unfit.
“We understand that these circumstances don’t fit every case in which a grandparent would like to have more contact with a grandchild, but in the interest of parents’ God-given and constitutional rights to raise their own children, we hope this bill does not advance,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League.
“What some people may not realize is that bills like these that broaden the parameters of legal action are not really empowering grandparents so much as they are relinquishing more power to the courts and government by allowing these institutions to decide what is in a child’s ‘best interest,'” he added. “Anytime we are asking government to make that decision, we are allowing them to supplant the role of parents. And that’s a dangerous road to start down.”
Recognizing the tragic situations that result when families split and grandparents and grandchildren lose their connections to one another, Creech said there is also another aspect to the issue.
“What about situations in which a parent is trying to protect a child from negative grandparent influence?” he asked. “There is no way to make laws to cover all the concerns and demands of grandparents without interfering with a parent’s fundamental right to parent.”