Troxel case set tone for Washington grandparents' visitation rights

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a support and informational group for grandparents was founded in Aberdeen in 1999 by Mary Phillips, who has since started a satellite group in Long Beach. She is seen here (right) speaking at the first meeting of the group last week. Also pictured is Martha Fisher, who will be facilitating the group when it meets each Tuesday. For more information, contact Martha Fisher at 642-4400 or Mary Phillips at (360) 532-8600. CHRIS NIELSEN photo

WASHINGTON - Many state legislatures have passed laws giving grandparents the right to take legal action to gain visitation with grandchildren, particularly in the event of divorce or circumstances such as substance abuse, but in 2000 the Troxel case set the tone for grandparents' visitation rights in Washington.

According to Michael W. Bugni, an attorney in Seattle, the Troxel case is truly a landmark case in terms of grandparents visitation rights in Washington.

"I have been practicing since 1983 and handled dozens of cases involving grandparents," said Bugni, who specializes in third-party custody and visitation cases. "To me the ruling was huge. Now, grandparents are without anything. I've had to turn several cases away that I would have taken prior to Troxel."

The Troxel ruling stemmed from a case in Washington involving a man and woman who had two daughters together, but had never married. The man subsequently committed suicide, and the woman later married another man and started a new family.

The deceased father's parents, wanted to continue to have contact with their son's children, and approached the mother about setting up visits. The mother agreed, and proposed a visitation schedule, but the grandparents and other relatives of the dead man wanted more time with the children than the mother was offering and filed suit under Washington's grandparent visitation law.

When the case went to court, the trial judge sided with the grandparents, but the mother appealed the ruling to the Washington state appeals court, which sided with her.

Devastating to grandparents, in its ruling the Washington Court of Appeals held that the grandparents did not even have "standing," the legal term for the right to file suit in the first place. The appeals court read the state law strictly to require that before grandparents could seek visitation, there had to already be a custody petition pending. Reasoning further, the judges held that allowing the grandparents to intervene would amount to unconstitutional "state interference with parents' fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody and management of their children."

Bugni said the Troxel case pertains only to grandparents' visitation rights in the state of Washington, but that it did send a message to other states.

"If you are going to write a grandparent visitation law, you had better write it narrowly, not broadly, because it might be struck down too," he said.

According to Bugni, the biggest impact the Troxel ruling has had is on grandparents suing for custody when there is no divorce.

"What it means is if the natural parents cut the grandkids off from seeing grandma and grandpa, then grandma and grandpa have nowhere legally to turn," said Bugni.

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