In the eyes of the state, Gail Martin is no more than a stranger to her 11-year-old grandson.
Martin said she had hoped to obtain legal custody of her grandson after his parents separated and left him ather house three years ago. But, she said, she has since learned "grandparents stand as much chance of gaining guardianship as your next-door neighbor."
The Pasadena resident and former switchboard operator will ask Maryland lawmakers this afternoon to pass legislation that expands grandparents' rights in custody battles with a child's parents and state social workers.
Martin said she needed custody papers to enroll her grandson in school and apply for health insurance so he could play Little League baseball. However, his mother objected and has recentlymoved him back with her.
Gail Martin's case is not unique, said Linda Kelly, an organizer of the newly formed Grandparents United for Children's Rights. Citing the 1990 Census, Kelly said 101,899 Maryland children live with their grandparents, most of whom do not have legal custody.
"This whole situation probably reflects society's larger problem with drug and alcohol abuse," Kelly said. "That's often why the kids end up with grandparents, not because the grandparents want a second family, but because they want to fill a void in the child's life."
But when the grandparents try to obtain legal custody, the parents frequently object, Kelly said. "They don't want the responsibility of child-rearing, but they don't want to give up the rights either," she said.
In custody proceedings, Maryland law favors natural parents, which is as it should be, Kelly said. But grandparents have no more legal right to pursue guardianship than a total stranger,she said.
"The law does not recognize that grandparents have an inherent interest in the well-being of their grandchildren," Kelly said.
The bill, sponsored by Dels. George W. Owings, D-Calvert, and Charles W. "Stokes" Kolodziejski, D-Carvel Beach, would amend the state law to elevate the status of grandparents to something less than a parent but more than a stranger. The bill goes before the House Judiciary Committee at 1 p.m.
"This legislation wouldn't grant automatic custody," Kelly said. "It would simply open the door of the courtroom. We would still have to rely on the judiciary system to act in thebest interests of the kids."