The provisions in Rhode Island law for grandparent visitation are short but very specific. The law is fairly favorable to grandparents, with one major barrier to visitation.
General Provisions of Rhode Island Law
Before Rhode Island grandparents can be awarded visitation rights, the courts must find such visitation is in the best interests of the grandchild. That is standard in all 50 states. In addition, in Rhode Island the court must find the following:
- That the grandparent is a "fit and proper person" to have contact with the child
- That the grandparent has repeatedly attempted visitation during the 30 days preceding the filing of the petition
- That the grandparent cannot visit the grandchild without court intervention.
Therein lies the rub. If grandparents are allowed to see their grandchildren, no matter the quality or frequency of the visits, they do not have standing to sue for visitation.
Moreover, to bring the state into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court case of Troxel v. Granville, the grandparent must rebut the presumption that fit parents act in their child's best interest. Grandparents must show through "clear and convincing evidence" that the parent's decision to refuse visitation was unreasonable.
The requirement that the grandparents provide "clear and convincing evidence" is considered a medium level burden of proof. An easier level would be the one requiring a "preponderance of evidence." A more rigorous level would be requiring proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."
These provisions are found in Section 126.96.36.199, Visitation Rights — Grandparents and Siblings.
In a separate section of the law, 188.8.131.52, grandparents are allowed to sue for visitation if their child who is the parent of the grandchildren in question is deceased. A similar statute, 184.108.40.206, allows for visitation as part of a divorce proceeding under a particular set of circumstances.
Grandparents may sue if their child who is the parent of the child in question has been denied visitation or has failed to exercise his or her right to visitation.
Rhode Island often appears in lists of states that allow grandparents to sue for visitation even if the grandchildren in question live in an intact family. In most states, grandparents have no standing for a visitation suit if the parents of the children are still together. The Rhode Island statutes do not explicitly exempt intact families, but it appears that such cases would not meet the specifications detailed above.
Visitation Following Adoption
Adoption cuts off visitation rights in Rhode Island. In many states this provision applies only to "outside" adoptions, not to adoption by a stepparent or other family member. In Rhode Island, however, the law prohibits post-adoption visitation regardless of the circumstances of the adoption. This principle has been upheld in several court cases, notably In re Nicholas (1983).
Relevant Court Cases
Probably due to its small size, Rhode Island has had only one notable court case dealing with grandparents' rights, Puleo v. Forgue. The parents in this case were divorced. The mother was the custodial parent, and her parents were in almost daily contact with her child, their grandchild.
When the mother passed away, the father came for the child, and the grandparents sued for visitation. Their request was initially granted. In a later court action, a psychologist interviewed the child, who expressed reluctance to see her grandparents, probably because of the animosity between them and her father. Due to the stress that had obviously been created, the grandparents' visitation was denied as not being in the best interest of the child. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island upheld the decision.
It must be noted that Puleo v. Forgue was decided in 1993, well before the U.S. Supreme Court case of Troxel v. Granville (2000). This decision, widely perceived as disastrous for grandparents, caused doubts about the constitutionality of most grandparent visitation laws. The constitutionality of Rhode Island's laws hasn't really been tested.
Future court cases may further define grandparents' rights in Rhode Island in light of Troxel v. Granville.
Other than Puleo v. Forgue, most Rhode Island cases regarding grandparent visitation have been limited to family court and have not been appealed. Thus they do not appear in the literature, nor do they significantly impact subsequent cases.