By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH – A dozen years after the Legislative Research Commission did a study on grandparent visitation rights, the issue is again on the table, this time in the form of House Bill 590, which would establish a 10-member committee to study the concept again.
In addition to examining current laws on custody, visitation and grandparents’ visitation rights, the committee of five House and five Senate members would consider specific circumstances under which grandparents should be granted visits with their grandchildren and whether those visits should be supervised.
Rep. Shirley Randleman (R-Wilkes), the bill’s primary sponsor, told members of the House Judiciary III Committee Tuesday that she realized grandparents’ rights were not a new issue and that studies had been done and unsuccessful bills filed. Nonetheless, she said it was her constituents’ concerns that had led her to propose the legislation.
“… You have one parent who deceases,” said Rep. Randleman, giving members of the committee a scenario. “You have either the fraternal or maternal grandparents there. A lot of times when that surviving parent remarries, then ties are cut with the other grandparents…. Because their family member died, they have no ties with their grandchildren anymore, which, to me, is a very sad state of affairs.”
Bill co-sponsor William Brisson (D-Bladen) said 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.
However, according to an analysis of current law by Committee Counsel Wendy Graf Ray, four North Carolina statues already allow grandparents to legally petition for visitation of a minor child 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.
The analysis made it clear that North Carolina courts have consistently given non-parental visitation statutes a narrow reading and that, even if they meet one of the four criteria, grandparents would still have the burden of proving that visitation is in the best interests of the child. Further, committee members were briefed on a 2000 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court nullified a Washington State third-party visitation law declaring it too broad and an infringement on parental rights.
“It sounds to me like staff is trying to tell us in a tactful fashion that the Supreme Court has already dealt with this issue, that grandparents have no rights and aren’t going to have any rights after a study committee … and that we’d be wasting our time,” said Rep. Bill Faison (D-Caswell) during a five-minute question-answer session on the bill.
The Judiciary III Committee chairman had made it clear that there would not be time for a vote on the issue on Tuesday. A companion bill (S 342) was filed by Sen. Steve Goss (D-Watauga) and referred to the Senate Committee on Rules and Operations.
It is the hope of the Christian Action League that neither bill advance.
“The bottom line is that parents have a God-given and constitutional right to raise their own children as they see fit and that includes whom those children are going to associate with,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “I don’t think we ought to do anything to interfere with that.”
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 simply no way to make legislation to cover all of the concerns and all of the demands for rights that so many grandparents are going to say they ought to have without interfering with a parents right to parent.”