Grandma, what a big lawsuit you have!

By Shelley McKinney
web posted June 12, 2000

"Don't make me go, Mommy! I don't want to go!" 5-year-old Maria Francisci was wailing to her mother. Kids always hate going to the dentist, don't they? The combination of that scary-looking steel toothpick thing and the buzzing of the tooth polisher can give even adults the willies. And don't get me started on the (*gulp!*) drill...

But Maria wasn't crying because she was going to the dentist: she was crying because she had to visit her grandma.

Dear old grandma...that phrase conjures up an image of a twinkly-eyed, roly-poly, snowy-haired little lady wearing a calico apron and holding out a plate of freshly baked cookies, doesn't it? The image can still be accurate, but sometimes Granny is holding out a subpoena in the other hand. The cookies are for Junior and little Sally. Guess who the summons is for?

In the case of Maria's family, the summons was for her parents, Dan and Valorie Francisci. It had been presented to them two years previously by Valorie's mother, Arlene Mazzoni. Relations had been strained between Arlene Mazzoni and Valorie Francisci since Valorie, who is now 31, was a teenager. Conflict continued even as Valorie reached adulthood, and she asked her mother and her stepfather, Aldo Mazzoni, to go to family counseling with her and Dan in 1992. The Mazzonis refused, so Valorie Francisci estranged herself from them. However, her marriage was a happy one, and the Franciscis were delighted to find out that they were expecting a baby. Maria was born in 1994.

Valorie and her mother came across one another at a family gathering when Maria was six months old. Mrs. Mazzoni made a "critical remark" (the actual remark was never stated) about her infant granddaughter and Valorie decided that she wouldn't expose herself or her daughter to that kind of treatment from her mother again. Unfortunately, the nasty Mrs. Mazzoni wasn't finished with them yet: she filed a suit for visitation rights, telling a court-appointed psychiatrist that she felt Valorie was keeping Maria away as a way of "getting back at her." Both the psychiatrist and Mrs. Mazzoni's younger daughter, Jodi, urged her not to do something as destructive as pitting Maria between warring older generations, but a grandma's gotta do what a grandma's gotta do. Mazzoni won her case after a nine-month legal battle and now she has the "right" (and I use that term while stifling the urge to spit, since I just got my carpet cleaned) to see Maria six times a year, for four hours at a time. Although even that hasn't proved to be enough: after only two visits, Mrs. Mazzoni is considering taking the Franciscis back to court to address a number of complaints, one of them being that Maria doesn't address her as 'Grandmom.'

Before I began to research this article, the phrase 'grandparent's rights' meant that a grandparent needed no compelling reason, such as a birthday or Christmas, to buy a grandchild a $200 pink silk party dress hand-smocked and embroidered with tiny rosebuds by nuns in France, even though the child attends birthday parties held exclusively at Chuck E. Cheese's. As you have by now ascertained, the phrase "grandparent's rights" now means something much more ominous than overindulgence.

Billy Sightes, founder of the Coalition for the Restoration of Parental Rights, explains his organization's view of grandparents' rights, making this issue seem no more threatening to a parent than a toddler playing in a cabinet full of household cleaning supplies. "We...are concerned with the creeping state paternalism which has intruded into the fundamental right of fit parents to direct the right of custody and control their own children. The decade of the 1960's spawned a continuing wave of advocacy groups pressuring their elected representatives for special statutory rights to advance their own agenda. The Coalition believes child-rearing is a fundamental right...neither state legislatures or state courts have the constitutional authority to impose their theories of child-rearing...over that of fit parents."

Talk about your conspiracy theories!...We all know that there are as many advocacy groups out there as there are grandiose lies Al Gore has told about his past. Some of the groups, like MADD, are innocuous and inoffensive; some, like GLAAD (the homosexual rights group that is unrepentantly advocating censorship by attempting to get "Dr. Laura's" new television show taken off the air before the first episode even airs in September) are notorious; some, like PETA, are downright irritating. There is no specific acronym that can be associated with the grandparents' rights groups, although the cause receives sponsorship under the aegis of the AARP, and as one of the largest and most influential lobbies in Washington D.C., that's one powerful string of letters.

If, as Bill Sightes states, there indeed are grandparents (and lobbyist groups) "pressuring their elected representatives for special statutory right to advance their own agenda," they seem to be winning in spades. Just to give you an idea of how broadly some of these advocacy laws have been written by the elected representatives, consider this excerpt of the current law in Florida:

"The court shall, upon petition filed by a
grandparent of a minor child, award reason-
able rights of visitation with respect to the
child when it is in the best interests of the
child if: (e) the minor child is living with both
natural parents who are still married to each
other, whether or not there is a broken re-
lationship between either or both parents of
the minor child and the grandparents."

Laws like this don't even leave room for the time-honored tradition of trouble with the in-laws. This is political correctness at its slimiest, prating on and on about a child's best interests, all while engaging the child's parents in a lengthy and expensive court battle. A grandparent willing to incur the enmity of her grandchild's parents seems like the type to let the child's best interests go hang, as long as she can selfishly get what she wants: This is largely what so many issues of political correctness are about. And it hardly seems worth the bother, does it? Can a relationship really be nurtured in conditions like this?

"Everyone thinks they're acting in the best interests of the child, but it should be the parents who decide what's best...[unless] the court sees some harm to the child if the contact is stopped, but that's rare," said Catherine Wright Smith in an October 3, 1999 New York Times article by Tamar Lewin. Ms. Wright Smith is the attorney representing two mothers who have appealed a grandparent visitation order in separate cases to the Washington State Supreme Court. "In the more common cases, I don't think a grandparent's right for more contact is a good enough legal reason for the government to interfere with a parent's child rearing [decisions]." The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents in both of those cases in December of 1998. None deterred, the grandparents in one of the cases (Granville v. Troxel) to the United States Supreme Court, which will begin hearing arguments this summer. There has been hope expressed that since Chief Justice William Rehnquist is a grandparent, as well as justices Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Ginsburg, there will be a ruling in favor of the older generation.

Ms. Wright Smith's statements were well-said, considering the broadness with which some of these laws are written, such as the one from Florida. Thankfully, Wyoming is one state where common sense reigns and their broad-version grandparents' rights law (#20-7-101a, for those of you who like to know these things) was repealed in 1997 to make it substantially more difficult for a grandparent to pursue litigation against parents on a punitive whim.

Consider the fact that if you or your spouse accepted a job transfer to another state, your child's grandparents could sue you for visitation according to the current laws in most of the United States. Think about that for a moment -- there has been no divorce, nor has there been a death, but there has been a change in location. The new family is intact and happy, but a grandparent, whose nose might be out of joint with the decision of two supposedly autonomous adults, now has the "right" to step in with a judge, a lawyer, and the aforementioned summons and make the parents send a child to visit grandma, if the judge deems that this would be "in the child's best interests." Does this strike any of you as being an outrageous violation of the rights of the parents? Where were all of us when this abuse of governmental authority was happening?

Well, most of us who have young children now were in diapers ourselves. The issue of grandparents' rights formed and began to gain momentum in the 1960's, although most states didn't enact actual visitation laws until the early 1990's. The original advocates of grandparents' rights were the parents of the flower children. This generation was often too busy not inhaling at various universities to remember to use birth control while practicing 'free love.' Babies were born and the new grandparents who raised their children in the post-World War II era were horrified at the mess those children had created. It was bad enough that their sweet daughter Tammy had changed her name to Moonglow and was off smoking hash with some greasy haired, Birkenstock-wearing drifter...when Moonglow showed up with a baby wrapped up in a madras shawl, the new grandparents felt that they needed to take steps to protect the innocent.

The idea of grandparents' rights became more focused in the 1970's with the advent of no-fault divorce. There was nothing to stop a divorced person from taking his -- usually her -- kids and moving somewhere far away; the former in-laws stood the chance of never seeing their grandchildren again, especially if the divorce was not amicable. It's not difficult to understand how upsetting that could be, and some type of legislation -- usually written in broad terms --was passed in all fifty states to help ensure that grandparent-grandchild relationships would not be severed unnecessarily.

Unfortunately, while grandparents were struggling with these changing social conditions, the country itself was moving towards its current stifling climate of political correctness. As our PC culture evolved in the 1980's and 1990's, certain people's vividly developed concept of what their "rights" consist of made them a litigatory menace to society. The new creed for our country became "Gotta problem? Get a lawyer!" And that's when Arlene Mazzoni and the other grandparents in similarly ugly cases began to take to the courts.

We know that our standards and our sense of common decency have descended to a new low when the courts begin to interfere with the decisions two decent married parents make about their own children. There are already so many detrimental ways the government can interfere in the lives of our families. We have seen this primarily as federally funded organizations like Planned Parenthood have given birth control to our minor children without our knowledge or consent. It seems a grave pity that there are some grandparents willing to call out the hounds on intact families who are simply trying to do the best they can to raise their children. If that includes disassociating themselves from a cantankerous relative, as in the case of the Franciscis, our PC culture practically demands that the self-serving relative create havoc, always at the expense of the children.

This, my friends, is the essence of political correctness: never, ever should a person examine and judge himself for stupidity, malice, and wrong motives. It's always better to sue first and claim ignorance of harm done later, when it's too late to make amends anyway, after the children have already suffered.

Thankfully, the United States Supreme Court ruled on June 5, 2000 that the Granville v. Troxel case from the state of Washington was a "constitutional infringement on the mother's right to make decisions regarding the rearing of her children" in regards to the enforced visitation order, according to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She added that her decision in the favor of the parent was due to the "sweeping breadth" of the Washington state grandparents' rights law, "[and] the application of that broad, unlimited power in this case." Justice O'Connor was joined in her opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justices Clarence Thomas and David Souter also wrote concurring opinions. The AARP expressed that it was "gratified" that the Supreme Court had "clearly left the door open for more narrowly drawn grandparents visitation statutes." Even the American Civil Liberties Union was satisfied with the outcome of this case.

Everyone is pleased, it seems, except the people who stirred up this fire in the first place: the grandparents. Here's hoping they find a less destructive and intrusive -- a less politically correct -- way to bond with their grandchildren.

This is Shelley McKinney's first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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