SALISBURY -- Barbara Maner and Kita Stephenson live only a few miles from each other in shady, middle-class suburbs outside this Eastern Shore city. But they might as well be on separate planets; the void between them is Arnold Maner, are suing their daughter and her husband, Jim, for the right to spend time with their two grandchildren. Except for a brief holiday visit in 1994, they have not been allowed to see Katie, 9, and Trey, 6, for two years.
"The last time we saw them was [on] Christmas Eve," says Mr. Maner. "And we knew we wouldn't see them again because everything they talked about was in the past tense."
But the dispute between the Maners and the Stephensons is not just another family feud.
The case has already been heard by Wicomico County Circuit Judge Alfred T. Truitt Jr., who issued a devastating ruling against the Maners last June. Now the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, is expected to hear the case in the spring. The outcome -- along with that of a similar case in Anne Arundel County -- could expand or constrict the right of Maryland's grandparents to see their grandchildren over parental objections.
Beyond its constitutional implications, Maner vs. Stephenson illustrates how unforgiving, even vicious, people of the same blood can be toward each other, especially when their animosities are exposed in the win-or-lose atmosphere of a courtroom.
"We look at this as an act of terrorism, a gun to our head," Kita Stephenson says of her parents' lawsuit. "They are saying, 'You are going to court if you don't turn over the children.' "
Twenty-five years ago no one ever heard of grandparents suing their children over their grandchildren. But today family-law attorneys say conflicts over custody and visitation are on the rise, though most are still settled out of court.
"When we see it," says Baltimore County Judge John F. Fader, who specializes in family law, "it is very, very hot and heavy."
The great majority of these cases are triggered by demands for custody of grandchildren. Fewer involve visitation rights. But both kinds are invariably rich in hostility.
Taken together they reflect what has been happening to family life in America in recent decades. Rising divorce and illegitimacy rates, drug and alcohol abuse, joblessness, desertion, homelessness, spousal and child abuse, AIDS -- these afflictions, singularly and in combination, have fractured millions of American families.
And the only refuge for children, in many cases, is with their grandparents.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 1993, 3.4 million children in this country were living with their grandparents, more than 1 million with no parent present in the home. In Maryland in 1990, 84,434 children were in their grandparents' home, according to the state Office of Planning.
As grandparents began to mobilize to deal with the growing incidence of family disintegration, they found to their shock that they had no legal standing in the courts, no right of access to their grandchildren greater than an uncle's or aunt's.
Their lobbying, mainly through such organizations as the American Association of Retired Persons, resulted in the passage of grandparent visitation laws in every state. The laws do not guarantee visitation to grandparents. What they do, says Patricia DeMichel, legal counsel for the elderly at the AARP, is "open the courthouse door. They can come to court to plead."
Nobody knows how many grandparents are being denied access to their grandchildren. But Linda Kelly, a Calvert County woman who was instrumental in making Maryland's visitation law one of the most favorable to grandparents in the country, says there are "hundreds of grandparents in Maryland unable to see their grandchildren."
"Years ago that would have been unheard of -- denying access of the grandparent to grandchildren," she says. "Now, adults have a dispute and adult parents respond by saying, 'I'm going to punish you by not letting you see the children.' "
Kita Stephenson, 35, cultivates sour memories of growing up in her parents' home. She describes her mother Barbara, 57, as domineering and controlling, her father as weak and indifferent. Mrs. Maner, her daughter says, always favored her brother, and after he got married, favored his brother's wife over her.
After she married, the unpleasantness between herself and her parents, especially her mother, continued. They lived on the same street for a while, but never visited. Her mother, she alleges, derided her in front of her children, favored her young daughter over her son, and criticized her husband, Jim, 39, a lineman for Delmarva Power.
"She refers to Jim as very much blue collar, as if I had married down," she says.
describe their daughter as "difficult" and "self-centered," a troubled child from the beginning, "eaten up with jealousy and hate."