Relative losses

As the courts wrestle with legal issues regarding grandparents' rights, families struggle to keep the peace and protect their children.

November 07, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

A dark-haired, sleepy-eyed 8-year-old who loves to trade Pokemon cards, ride his bike and play Nintendo games, Manuel C. "Manny" Eliopoulos Jr. represents the heart and soul of his father's life.

But twice each month, a car pulls up to his home in the Greektown neighborhood of East Baltimore, and his father has to control his anger. It's time for Manny to go to his grandmother's house in Glen Rock, Pa., a 45-minute drive north. The senior Eliopoulos must comply; the weekend sleep-overs are court-ordered.

"It's like she's my wife," fumes Eliopoulos, 45, a truck driver who has spent more than $35,000 on lawyers fighting the issue. "It gets in the way. He misses things, birthday parties, time with friends."

Inside the car, Charlotte Fowlkes waits for her only grandson. Manny's unmarried mother, Dawn Fowlkes, died when the boy was 3 years old. Manny's visits are the highlight of her month, and she would spend another five years in court if necessary fighting for the right to see him as often as possible.

"All I want to do is be around my grandson," says Fowlkes, 51, who works in Westminster packing and shipping books. "You just have to love him. He's an amazing boy to go through what he's gone through."

Like some Shakespearean tragedy retooled for the 21st century, the case of Manny Eliopoulos and the tug-of-war between his father and grandmother raises the most basic of family issues: What right does a grandparent have to be with a grandchild? And if there is such a right, how should it be weighed against parental autonomy?

In September, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Gary and Jenifer Troxel of Anacortes, Wash., who are seeking visitation rights to their two young granddaughters (the children of their son, who committed suicide). Five years ago, a court ruled in their favor. Washington law grants a grandparent the right to have access to a grandchild when it serves the "best interest of the child."

But a Washington appeals court reversed the decision, ruling that the state had no right to force such visits, except to prevent harm to a child. The state's highest court upheld the ruling, joining it with two similar cases.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the Troxel case early next year and how they will ultimately rule on the case is not known. But the decision is likely to affect every state because all 50 have some form of "Grandparents' Rights" law permitting grandparents to seek court-ordered visits with a grandchild over the objections of a parent.

It is a messy business arising from the American family's dissolution within an equally messy culture where divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, child and spousal abuse, violence and crime have taken their toll. Today, the traditional nuclear family is more the exception than the norm.

Such a concept as grandparents' rights was unknown before the 1970s. But today, the resulting grandparent-vs.-parent litigation has become an increasingly common feature of the family court landscape.

"It tugs at your heart when you see what happens to the kids" who become involved in these disputes, says Richard Jacobs, a veteran family law attorney in Towson. "And it's getting worse."

As in other states, Maryland's grandparents' rights law was written at a time when divorce was on the upswing -- and so was the political clout of senior citizens. Lawmakers heard numerous stories of grandparents barred from a grandchild's life by an angry parent.

The law was subsequently expanded to give grandparents the right to seek visitation -- not just when divorce or death has broken up a marriage -- but any time they are denied it. For example, it might come into play when parents and grandparents become estranged over matters of money, religion or child-rearing practices.

That has proven to be the most controversial aspect of grandparents' rights legislation. Even the influential American Association of Retired Persons has failed to support that expansion as "too controversial," says DaCosta R. Mason, an AARP legislative analyst.

That leaves a troubling scenario: An intact family has to defend itself in court against a mother or father's estranged parents. In some states, aunts, uncles, family friends or anyone else with a substantial past relationship with a child can seek similar relief through the courts.

What happens when a child watches a parental decision overturned by a grandparent? "We want children to feel safe and [this law] can undermine the confidence they have in the parent taking care of them," says Karen Czapanskiy, professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Grandparents' rights advocates fear that the Supreme Court could deal their cause a serious setback if the justices rule against the Troxels; that, they say, would be a tragedy for families where grandparents are a child's best safety net.

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