So you took the gamble and went to court. You spent a lot of money and underwent a lot of stress. You won visitation with your grandchildren, only to find obstacle after obstacle placed in your way.
Many grandparents have won the right to see their grandchildren, only to have those with custody ignore the order. What can be done? How can those grandparent visitation orders be enforced?
Here are some of the strategies that custodial parents use to avoid visitation from grandparents:
- They refuse to answer their phones or to respond to texts or emails.
- They change their phone numbers without notifying the grandparents.
- They are not at home when the grandparents arrive.
- They say that the grandchild is sick.
- They claim scheduling conflicts.
- They say that the grandchild does not want to see the grandparents.
- They move without notifying the grandparents.
Illness is a valid reason for cancelling a visit. Scheduling conflicts are, too, although in such cases the visit should be rescheduled rather than cancelled. But parents who take other actions to avoid grandparent visitation run the risk of further legal action.
When a Grandchild Is Reluctant
Of all the reasons given for cancelling visitation, the allegation that the child does not want to see the grandparent is the most hurtful. Many times parents use this as an excuse. At other times, children are truly reluctant. Young children may have forgotten their grandparents, especially if they have not had contact in a while.
They may have been affected by the family conflict and be hesitant to see members of the "other side" of the family.
Judges in family court are used to hearing that the child does not want to participate in visitation, and it is generally not regarded as a viable reason for missing visitation.
"Parents are presumed to be able to compel their children to see the grandparent," said Karen A. Wyle, an Indiana appellate attorney acquainted with grandparent visitation cases.
Wyle goes on to say that such compulsion could damage the parent-child relationship and take a toll on the child's well-being, adding that "a grandparent who loves his or her grandchild would do well to consider such points."
Ideally, grandparents and parents could work together to make early visits low-stress. Short visits in a familiar environment could later give way to more extended outings.
In a more troubling scenario, a grandchild may be reluctant to see a grandparent because a parent has carried out a campaign of maligning the grandparent. The child may honestly believe that a grandparent is irrational or a threat to safety and well-being. Sometimes the child receives emotional or psychological rewards for joining the campaign against the grandparent, resulting in a scenario that some call grandparent alienation syndrome. This situation is more serious and may have to be addressed through court action.
What the Courts Can Do
Courts do not award visitation lightly. Contact must have been judged in the best interest of the child. The courts, therefore, have an interest in seeing that visitation occurs. Still, when the grandparent takes the custodial parent back to court, a process that has already been expensive and stressful is likely to become more so.
In such cases an additional evidentiary hearing will probably be necessary, Wyle said. Most of the time, it is expedient to use the same attorney who handled the original case.
Further court action should only be taken in response to a pattern of obstructed visitation, not as a result of one missed visit. The grandparent should carefully document each scheduled visit, whether it took place as scheduled and the contacts that occurred between the parties involved.
A parent or custodian of a child who ignores a visitation order can be found in contempt of court, which can result in fines and jail time, although most judges are understandably reluctant to put a child's caretaker in jail. If found in contempt of court, the offender may have to pay the legal fees of the other side.
Judges may also order counseling or mediation to help families resolve their visitation issues.
More Serious Situations
Families have been known to move without notification in order to avoid contact with grandparents. In such cases, grandparents may have to pay to have them tracked down. It's worth considering, however, that if the custodial parent is willing to go to that length to avoid contact, he or she will probably find other ways to avoid visitation.
When a family moves out of state, the new state of residence should recognize the visitation order, but many grandparents have found enforcing their visitation order doubly difficult in such circumstances. Learn more about jurisdiction in grandparent visitation cases.
Know Before You Go
Many grandparents entered their original suit for visitation with the idea that the judge's ruling would be the light at the end of the tunnel, only to find that quite the opposite was true.
"A visitation order is rarely the end of the legal proceedings," Wyle said. "Multiple motions to modify or terminate visitation or to enforce it are commonplace."
The best time to learn about the difficulty of enforcing visitation orders is before going to court in the first place. It's one of many issues grandparents should consider before going to court.
"Any grandparent with the grandchild's best interests at heart should seriously consider all alternatives to litigation, including formal or informal mediation, as well as exercising patience and tact in dealing with the custodial parent," Wyle said.
Some grandparents have found themselves still denied contact even though they have tried the alternatives. "We are denied, tossed aside and exiled without due case, with no trial, with no explanation needed by the system..." writes one grandmother (qtd. in A Precious Bond).
It's likely that such grandparents will continue to seek their day in court.
(Disclaimer: This article is informational in nature and should not be construed as legal advice. Karen A. Wyle was interviewed via email. Her responses are based primarily on her experiences in Indiana. Neither Indiana residents nor others should assume their accuracy or regard them as legal advice.)