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If passed, bills changing visitation rights for grandparents could end up harming grandchildren.


Once again bills have been submitted to the General Assembly to increase visitation rights for grandparents. The premise of the bills sounds simple enough: that grandparents should have the right to see their grandchildren and that, if the right is denied, they should be able to sue the parents, one of whom is their own child, for visitation privileges.

But the issue isn't simple.The bills go beyond the immediate issue of grandparents seeing grandchildren. They would provide grandparents with a legal mechanism - the threat of an expensive lawsuit - to control the lives of their adult children. Worse, granting such rights could place grandchildren in the middle of an adult conflict, one that has less to do with the children's relationship with their grandparents than with the grandparents' relationship with their adult children.

The primary way the legislation would change existing law is that it would give grandparents the opportunity to seek visitation rights with grandchildren whom they had never met. Currently, there must be a pre-existing relationship for visitation to be considered.

This means that a person who, as an adult, severed relations with his or her parents, could not prevent those parents from seeking visitation with any grandchildren, even those born years after contact between the adults involved has ceased.

As most wedding ceremonies acknowledge, a new family unit is created when a woman and man choose to leave their parents' homes and ``cleave only to each other.'

Legally, our society always has acknowledged that a family consists of a couple and any children they have. When children reach the age of majority, they are free to make their own decisions and form their own families.

Yet many cases concerning grandparent visitation that have been made public in recent years involve grandparents who disapprove of their children's choice of spouse or of other highly personal choices made by their adult children.

If parents don't approve of their adult children's actions, it is fair for them to voice concern to their children. But they must never involve grandchildren in information-gathering, opinion-spreading or other activities that can undermine the nuclear family. Unfortunately, many grandparents are unable to refrain from such activities and so cause immeasurable damage.

Caught between warring adults, unable to escape their parents' and grandparents' inevitable questions and comments about each others' actions, the children can't understand the conflict taking place around them, nor can they escape it.

Ultimately, these grandparent visitation bills are anti-family. They give people outside the immediate family unit - the grandparents - the right to force themselves into the nuclear family, where they can subtly attack the decisions of their own adult children and so undermine parental authority.

While it would be wonderful if all families were harmonious, loving, supportive, and nurturing places for children, the harsh reality is that many are not. Moreover, many children can only escape oppressive homes by growing up. As adults, they can start their own families and try to create the homes they longed for as children. If passed, this legislation would make that impossible.

Let's not forget that adults who want to bar contact between grandchild and grandparents grew up in the grandparents' household and may be aware of things not known to those outside the family. Perhaps the grandparents were abusive, neglectful, domineering or emotionally unstable. Why can't the adults protect their children from such problems?

Or maybe an adult child just no longer wants a relationship with the grandparents. Do we want to pass laws that restrict an individual's right to choose with whom to associate?

That grandparents and parents are estranged is deeply tragic. But such situations are among the thousands of tragic situations that don't belong in court.

Families in crisis don't get that way overnight. Many factors, occurring over months or years, contribute: substance abuse, mental illness, unresolved feelings of bitterness or feeling unloved, power struggles or a need to control others. The courtroom isn't the place to work on these problems. They require professional help to sort out.

Grandparents should not be given the right to force themselves into a family that does not wholeheartedly welcome their presence.


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