Judges can deny elders' visits Court OKs blocking grandparent visits to grandchildren

June 07, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The state's highest court ruled yesterday that judges may block grandparents from seeing their grandchildren if it is in the best interests of the children -- no matter what the children's family background.

In the first case of its kind involving a two-parent family, the Court of Appeals ruled that a 1993 statute did not give a Salisbury couple an automatic right to see their grandchildren, ages 10 and 7. The court held that the law gives trial judges wide discretion in such matters and that Wicomico County Circuit Judge Alfred T. Truitt Jr. did not place an undue burden on Arnold and Barbara Maner when he denied them visitation.

Arnold Maner, president of the Wor-Wic Community College in ** Salisbury, and his wife claimed that because the children lived in a two-parent household, Truitt required the Maners to produce evidence of harm to the children from the lack of visitation. That would have been more of a burden than grandparents of children in one-parent households would have to bear, the Maners claimed. But the court said there was no evidence that Truitt set such a requirement.

"In every grandparent visitation case the trial court must examine the totality of the circumstances and determine whether granting the petition would be in the child's best interest," Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy wrote for a unanimous court.

The decision angered the Maners.

"All I can say is I feel very sorry for our grandchildren," said Barbara Maner. "They've already been hurt by all this."

The parents, James and Kita Stephenson, said they were the victims of "financial intimidation" because of the law and the bitterness of Kita Stephenson's parents.

"This was a normal family estrangement, and I was a patsy to my mother for a lot of years. But when there's a law out there like this [allowing visitation suits], it just hurts both sides," said Kita Stephenson, 36.

The Maners were forbidden to see their grandchildren after they and the Stephensons had a falling-out on Christmas Eve 1993. They filed suit July 14, 1994.

Family law experts say hundreds of visitation and custody suits have been filed in recent years across the country by vTC grandparents who are concerned about neglected grandchildren or have been denied visitation. Tennessee and North Carolina appellate courts have ruled against grandparents seeking visitation.

"You may have any number of reasons why parents don't want their children being seen by the grandparents," said Jane C. Murphy, director of the Family Law Clinic at the University of Baltimore Law School.

She said the clinic filed a brief supporting the parents' claims out of concern that the court could be intruding into constitutionally protected areas of privacy and parental decision-making if it granted the Maners visitation rights.

"Maryland, through its courts, should not interfere in the decisions of the parents unless there's evidence that the children are going to be harmed," she said.

The Court of Appeals noted that the Stephensons allow the paternal grandparents to see their grandchildren and that Truitt heard testimony from the parents and grandparents in a daylong hearing before he decided June 13, 1995, to block visitation.

The court's 10-page opinion quoted Truitt, who blasted Barbara Maner in his ruling.

"We are constrained to say that the grandmother appears to be domineering and immature and the grandfather is at best docile and subdued, which indicates some emotional instability on their part," Truitt wrote.

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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