Grandparents Group Aims To Protect Rights

Gro Helps People Seeking Custody, Visitation Rights

April 12, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Pat Selway has a beautiful 6-month-old granddaughter.

At least, that's what people tell her. She has never laid eyes on the child.

Selway's teen-age son became a father last September. The young woman moved in with the Selway family.

Just before the baby's birth, the couple split up and the young woman went home to her parents, who decided they would raise the child, Selway says. They want no contact with the baby's father or his mother.

"I don't know if (my granddaughter) had a good Christmas," says Selway. "I don't know if she's ever had the flu. Neighbors who have seen her will tell me she had on an orchid dress and a little orchid headband and I try to picture her."

Selway has banded together with a group of grandparents in similar circumstances in Anne Arundel County. The group, called Grandparents' Rights Organization (GRO), first met in December, and about 30 people have attended monthly since. Nearly 200 people in the countyhave called Selway for information or to share stories, she says.

The county group has chosen to remain independent of national grandparents' rights groups because they wish to delegate precisely where money they raise will go -- to help pay legal fees for local grandparents seeking custody.

For example, Selway is suing for visitation rights, but as a single parent of three, she can barely afford to pay an attorney. "Taking court action is not always affordable for everybody. For me this isn't really easy, but for some people, like elderlypeople on fixed incomes, it's impossible."

The group is planning bake sales and craft fairs to raise money. Members also offer to accompany one another to court and to videotape a visiting grandchild forfree.

Cathleen Vitale, a Crofton attorney who handles custody cases such as Selway's, says the law is clear about cases involving grandparents of couples who were married.

The Maryland annotated code states that grandparents may petition a court for reasonable visitation rights of a grandchild. The court makes its decision based on whatseems in the child's best interest.

However, when the parties involved have never been married, the statute doesn't provide for visitation rights, Vitale said.

Lacking a clear statute, custody attorneys turn to court rulings that may support the rights of the grandparents of non-married parties. A 1984 appellate court ruling concluded that even though the Maryland law addresses the grandparents of married couples, the courts are not precluded from exercising power in other circumstances.

"My argument is that it shouldn't matter if they were married or not married," says Vitale. "If their son or daughter has a child, they are a grandparent."

Vitale believes that a childhas a right to know his or her family, including both sets of grandparents. However, custody cases are not always black and white, the attorney acknowledges.

Parents can deny grandparents visitation rights for any number of reasons, sometimes understandable ones.

"There are cases where the other party has a real fear (of involvement with a former lover and his or her family) because the person had a prior involvement with drugs or alcohol," says Vitale.

Or one parent worries that if he or she allows the other parent or grandparent visitation rights, "they'll run with the kid. You can't minimize the concern," she says. "It's a real fear to them, and sometimes it's justified fear."

Joan O'Sullivan, an attorney who contracts with the Department of Aging to provide legal assistance for the elderly, says a frequent scenario she encounters is grandparents seeking custody of a grandchild after a parent, usually the mother, returns and wants to take the child.

"The mother comes back after five years, and grandmahas already bonded with the child," says O'Sullivan.

Emotions areintense on all sides. One member of the new county GRO, who asked not to be named because her court case for visitation rights is pending, cannot speak about her grandchildren without sobbing. The story is tangled, but resulted in the woman's child and her spouse denying thegrandparents the right to see the grandchildren ever again.

"It'sa big nightmare," says the woman. "These were two little girls that we practically raised. They were my best buddies. It's just a mess. Nobody knows why. It's like somebody died, but they're not dead."

Because state law does not provide visitation rights for grandparents of an intact family (not divorced or separated), she is not hopeful her case will end favorably.

However, Evelyn Barber, who co-foundedGRO with Selway, was successful in a two-year court battle to see a grandchild she had not seen for four years. In this instance, her sonand his wife had divorced and the mother did not want the child, now11, to have contact with his father and grandmother.

In Selway's case, her granddaughter's other family simply wished to give the young mother a fresh start in life by cutting contact with the past -- including Selway's son and Selway herself, Selway says.

"I understand that. But they don't realize they're hurting people. I don't want to interrupt anyone's life. It's almost Easter. I just want to see my granddaughter and say, 'Here's a little Easter basket.' "

If you wish to contact the county GRO, call Pat Selway at 761-1159, or EvelynBarber at 987-1354.

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