Alienated grandparents seek solace

Published Dec. 26, 2015

GAINESVILLE — Valerie Griffith said she hasn't seen her grandchildren in years, but not for want of trying.

Griffith said her daughter-in-law will not allow it, and her son goes along with his wife to keep peace in the family.

"She doesn't like me," Griffith said. "If you want to know what I think, it's because she's jealous. She doesn't want to share her husband and my grandchildren with me because it's her control mechanism over me. She's a real control freak."

Vern Lewis also said he hasn't seen his grandchildren — or his children, for that matter — for years. When he told his wife that he was gay, she "poisoned" the children against him, he said.

"I sent them gifts, greeting cards. I left them messages, but they were unanswered," Lewis said. "I'd like to develop a relationship with them but my three kids think I ruined their mother's life by getting out of the marriage."

Griffith and Lewis have been attending meetings of a new support group, Alienated Grandparents Anonymous. It is a chapter of a group that started in Collier County in 2011 and has spread nationwide.

They said that not seeing their grandchildren deprives them of a family bond and can take an emotional toll on all involved, particularly the grandchildren.

Another source of frustration is the law. Generally, grandparents say they have no legal right to interact with their grandchildren.

At a recent meeting, Lewis, a grandmother, and two sets of grandparents talked about why they believe they are not allowed to spend time with their grandchildren, discussed possible options they have and attempts they plan to visit the grandchildren.

A couple in the group related that mental health was an issue in their family's situation. The parents split and custody of the children was decided in court.

The grandmother said that she was stopped from saying anything in court that could shed light on family dynamics because of the limited standing that grandparents have in family court.

Nancy Dowd, a University of Florida law professor and former director of its Center on Children and Families, said grandparents, in most circumstances, have no legal right to see their grandchildren.

A key court case in grandparents' rights was Troxel vs. Granville, which originated in Washington state and was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case involved grandparents whose son committed suicide after he left his girlfriend and moved in with them. Eventually, the mother of his children made changes to the visitation routine of their children that the son had when he lived with his parents. The grandparents sued the mother.

Washington had a statute that allowed any person to petition a superior court for visitation rights at any time and authorized the court to grant the rights whenever visitation may serve the best interest of the child.

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The grandparents won initially, but the Washington and U.S. supreme courts ruled the statute unconstitutionally interferes with the fundamental right of parents to rear their children.

Rather than seek recourse in the courts, Dowd said better options for grandparents would be trying to get their children into family therapy or use a mediator in an effort to persuade the children to let their parents visit with the grandchildren.

"Parents are given great deference in terms of the judgments they make for their children. Short of abuse or neglect as a basis for terminating the parents' rights, which is a very high standard, generally, the parents' judgment is going to be supported," Dowd said. "If adult children and their parents can't resolve this, they can explore other methods of conflict resolution rather than the law. They might bring a therapist or a mediator in. It may be there is no resolution and they have to wait until the kids grow up."

Griffith said her daughter-in-law had kept her husband from most other family members, not just her. Griffith said she is frustrated by the lack of legal recourse and has resigned herself to waiting until her grandchildren are 18 years old and can decide for themselves.

And therapy or mediation isn't an option if the parents won't agree to it, she added.

The support group will be helpful for alienated grandparents in letting them know that they are not alone, Griffith said.