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Grandparents’ Rights Inch Forward With New Visitation Law

According to The Sun Sentinel 

The 2015 grandparent rights bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott this month. Some had hoped it would allow grandparents to tell the family courts why they should be able to see their grandkids.

New Florida visitation law still leaves most grandparents legally stranded.

A new Florida law is being trumpeted as the first advancement in grandparent visitation rights in decades.

Despite this measure, which goes into effect July 1, grandparents still have almost no legal standing in Florida when it comes to visiting their grandchildren — even if those youngsters lived with them for years while their parents struggled with addiction, divorce or other problems.

“Sometimes, we get calls from grandparents whose children are going through a divorce. We have to tell them that in Florida they basically don’t have rights,” said Joel Feldman, a Boca Raton family law attorney for 36 years. “The only thing they can do, we tell them, is somehow convince their son or daughter to move to a state where the laws aren’t so strict.”

The statute change, however, is limited to a very select group: families where the grandchild’s parents are both dead, missing, or in a persistent vegetative state. It also applies if one parent meets any of the previous requirements and the other parent has been convicted of a felony.

Otherwise, grandparents remain blocked from having their visitation legal petitions considered in court, as Florida rulings have consistently upheld that parents have the right to control who has access to their children.

That leaves thousands of grandparents like Betty, of Palm Beach Gardens, legally and emotionally stranded.

The mom took the teenager out of state after Betty’s son died in November at age 35. Betty said the girl had lived in her home since infancy.

“Right now, I feel like I won’t get to see my grandchild until she’s 18 and legally can make her own decisions,” Betty said. “I have to accept that.”

Even if Betty would have qualified to ask for visitation under the new law, she still would face another obstacle: Her grandchild no longer lives in the state, so Florida’s statutes wouldn’t apply. Any visitation rights granted to grandparents living out of state won’t apply to grandchildren residing here.

While the new statute doesn’t directly affect many grandparents at this point, Abruzzo hopes to broaden its scope in future legislative sessions.

The legislator became interested in changing the grandparent rights statute three years ago after hearing about Yvonne Stewart, an Orlando grandmother whose daughter disappeared and remains missing. The daughter’s fiance, the only suspect named by police in the case, has refused to let Stewart see the couple’s twin children since the incident, according to reports.

It’s also a personal issue for Abruzzo: He lived with his grandparents from infancy until age 18. “I can’t imagine a circumstance under which I would have been taken away from them,” he said.

Kinship care advocates agree the new law at least is a good start. Florida may have more grandparents than almost anywhere else in the country, given 19 percent of its population is age 65 and older — the highest rate in the nation. Almost three-fourths of seniors are estimated to be grandparents.

“We realized it would be something that would not satisfy most grandparents. But the key is we can start from here,” said Maisie Ross, an extension agent for the University of Florida’s Cooperative Extension Service in Palm Beach County.

She also leads the Grandfamily Resilience and Sustainability group, which supports grandparents and other relatives providing kinship care for children within their families.

Betty is a member of Ross’ group, along with about 140 relative caregivers, most of them grandparents. Some are in their 70s or older, struggling to care for preschoolers whose parents have been sidelined by addiction or crime.

Sometimes, these grandparents have no choice but to adopt their own grandchildren, Ross said, as schools and health care facilities insist they otherwise have no legal authority. If the grandchild’s mother or father doesn’t sign away parental rights, then grandparents face the task of proving in court that their own son or daughter is unfit.

The Florida Supreme Court has steadily chipped away at the state’s originally fairly generous visitation rights passed by the Legislature in 1984.

The high court repeatedly found that allowing grandparental visitation against parental wishes violated a parent’s rights to privacy, guaranteed under a state constitutional amendment.

Marietta Glazer, of Hollywood, said she and her husband were granted emergency custody of their two toddler granddaughters 11 years ago, only because their home life was no longer deemed safe and state officials were moving to place the girls in foster care.

“It seems like the courts and the system look at grandparents negatively, although I hear it’s getting better,” said Glazer, 73.

Glazer and her granddaughters, who today are teenagers, went on to start Bella’s Group. The organization — under the umbrella of Forever Family, a South Florida nonprofit supporting children in foster care — runs social events for kinship care families, does service projects and helps grandparents struggling with rights issues.

While not all grandparents have a child’s best interest at heart when they press for visitation or custody, those that do deserve support, said Glazer.

“People are asking how we can make things better,” she said. “We need to keep what’s right for the kids in mind.”

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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