The child's best interest

Visitation: Emotional case over grandparents' rights underscores difficulties of modern families.

June 12, 2000

OVER THE RIVER and through the woods to grandmother's house, as the old song goes, is a walk in the park compared with the visitation journeys some splintered families face these days.

Breakups often put relatives in a precarious spot; as a result, 48 states, including Maryland, have over the years passed laws giving grandparents visitation rights. But as the Supreme Court ruled last week, these relationships should be framed by parents -- not the courts.

The case before the high court involved neither a messy divorce nor a denial of visitation rights. At issue was the amount of time grandparents could spend with their granddaughters and the broad nature of a Washington state law. It allowed anyone to petition the court for visitation rights at any time when it was in "the best interest of the child."

The justices ruled 6-3 that the law was too broad and infringed upon parents' fundamental right to care for their children. That ruling doesn't strike down grandparent visitation laws. It does, however, underscore the need for perspective.

After breakups, it's up to parents to ensure that children preserve relationships with key family members. That consistency certainly benefits the children. Unfortunately, in such emotionally wrenching decisions, wisdom often proves elusive.

But charging courts to decide the "best interests of the child," as the disputed Washington law tried to do, is unwise. One need only conjure the image of a child shuttled between resentful relatives on a court-prescribed schedule to know that it's not the best way to get to grandma's house.

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