Unlike the 50 states, the District of Columbia has no statutory provision for visitation by grandparents. Grandparents can still file a suit for access, but they have no special status. They will use a process similar to the one a non-custodial parent would follow.
A grandparent's request for visitation would be filed under the statute governing third-party custody. In the District of Columbia, as in some other jurisdictions, visitation with a grandchild is considered to be "physical custody" as the grandparent has physical control of the child.
The statute describes three circumstances in which a third-party can petition for custody. These are:
- The third party wins the consent of the person who has been the child's primary caregiver for the past three years
- The third party has lived with the child and has fulfilled a parental role with the child.
- The third party is living with the child, and a transfer of custody is necessary to prevent harm to the child.
To read detailed provisions for third-party custody, consult DC Code 16–831.02.
The LawHelp.org page on Custody and Visitation may be helpful. It has a self-help form for filing for custody or visitation of a child for whom one is not the biological parent. This form can be used by grandparents who wish to represent themselves in court.
Best Interests of the Child
Once a petition for visitation (physical custody) is filed, the court will apply the "best interests of the child" standard.
The District of Columbia defines the best interests of the child through a long list of considerations, but many of them do not apply to a suit by a grandparent. The court must consider the wishes of the parents. It will also consider the wishes of the child, when the child is able to express those wishes.
The court will also consider how all the parties to the suit interact. A grandparent's suit could be harmed, for example, by a showing of hostile relationships between a parent and a grandparent, as that would be stressful for a child. The court is likely to consider whether the child is well-adjusted in general and whether the child, the parent or the grandparent have any relevant mental or physical issues.
The Impact of Troxel v. Granville
As in all areas of the U.S., citizens of the District of Columbia are impacted by court decisions such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Troxel v. Granville. This 2000 decision is considered to have a negative impact on grandparents' rights, as it stated the principle that "fit parents" have the right to the "care, custody and control" of their children, even if they decide to sever contact between grandparents and grandchildren.
In the absence of an actual grandparent visitation statute, what Troxel means for D.C. grandparents is debatable, but it reinforces the justice system's reluctance to overrule parental decisions about contact with grandparents. Basically, grandparents seeking visitation must prove that the parent is unfit to make a decision about grandparent visitation.
This is a separate concept from the general concept of parental fitness. The grandparents must prove that the parental decision to prohibit their visitation with the child is harmful to the child.
A Relevant Court Case
In the case of Littman v. Cacho (2016), a grandmother who helped raise her grandson was granted custody after the death of the mother. When the father came forward and was awarded custody, the grandmother was granted visitation. When the father did not cooperate with the grandmother in arranging visitation, she filed contempt charges on the father. Subsequently, the trial court reversed its original award of visitation, stating that the grandmother had not rebutted the father's right to make decisions about his child. Upon appeal, the court restored the grandmother's award of visitation, saying that the lower court relied upon an irrelevant case as a precedent when it revoked the grandmother's visitation.
This case is informative in a couple of areas. First, it demonstrates the superiority of a parent's claim on a child, as the father was granted custody although the child had lived all of its life with the grandmother. Second, the fact that the same court first awarded and then revoked visitation demonstrates the precariousness of third-party claims in the District of Columbia.