The Family

When the bond breaks

Grandparents isolated from their grandchildren by divorce and other disputes are asking courts to ensure their access

Susan McClelland February 28 2000
The Family

When the bond breaks

Grandparents isolated from their grandchildren by divorce and other disputes are asking courts to ensure their access

Susan McClelland February 28 2000

When the bond breaks

The Family

Grandparents isolated from their grandchildren by divorce and other disputes are asking courts to ensure their access

Susan McClelland

The grandmother still adores her 10-year-old grandson. There are photographs of the fair-haired boy on the mantelpiece, refrigerator door and bedroom dresser at the 58-year-old's Fraser Valley home. And the woman, who asked to remain anonymous because her legal battle for access is currently before a B.C. court, keeps a chest of the child’s baby clothes, soothers and toys. Like most grandparents, she boasts about her grandson’s good looks, but when asked about her last visit with him, the woman’s pride turns to grief and worry that the boy will never know about his father’s family. “Fie asked me how come he and my other grandson had the same last name,” she says. “I said it was because their daddies were brothers. He said no, that this wasn’t true.” That last meeting occurred in 1995, a year after the boy’s father died in a workrelated accident. Ever since, the woman says, her attempts to see her grandson have been thwarted by his mother, who claims the child becomes distressed when he sees his grandmother. The older woman thinks otherwise, and although she understands that her daughter-in-law wants to move on with her life, she says it is no reason to cut the boy off from his heritage. “He has the right to know that he has cousins, aunts, uncles and a grandma who love him very much,” the woman says. “There is so much we could offer, including that part of his dad he needs to know.”

Should grandparents have legal rights to see their childrens’ children? That question is being asked in courts around North America—the U.S. Supreme Court, in fact, heard oral arguments last month in a landmark case involving Washington state grandparents who have restricted access to their deceased son’s children. More often, though, the high divorce rate is the main cause for family separations. Experts say that when hill custody is granted to one parent, the grandparents on the other side rarely get to see their grandkids. Understandably, parents’ groups want to block any legislation that interferes with parents doing what they believe is best for their own children, but that leaves many grandparents out in the cold. Irene Hill of Leduc, Alta., hasn’t seen her deceased son’s three children since 1996. “You feel despair and grief,” says Hill, “just as if they have died.”

Experts agree grandparents are important to kids. “They tell a child something about tradition and heritage and that there is someone else in the world who loves them,” says Robert Glossop, executive director of programs for the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa. In the past, access to grandchildren rarely became a public issue because, before the Divorce Act was introduced in 1968, the divorce rate was eight per cent. Families tended to live in the same community, in some cultures even under the same roof, and raised young children together.

That model no longer fits. According to Dr. Arthur Kornhaber, a U.S. psychiatrist and the author of several books on grandparenting, the First real generation of “grand-orphans” came during the 1970s, when a lot of older women returned to the workforce and left their daughters to raise children on their own. As well, after years of working hard, many senior couples choose to move into retirement communities, away from any childrearing responsibilities. “There evolved this idea of individuality,” Kornhaber says, “that mom or dad are supposed to raise the kids, and no one else.” As well, grandparents were nonentities in terms of law, he adds. “If mom dies, and father remarries and takes the kids with him,” Kornhaber says, “then the grandparents are literally legislated out of existence.”

In Canada, one of the first people to take the issue to court was Nancy Wooldridge of Langley, B.C. When her son divorced in the late-1970s, Wooldridge maintained a good relationship with her two grandchildren until her former daughter-in-law remarried. The new husband began vetoing Wooldridge’s requests to visit. So Wooldridge took legal action and in 1982 the Supreme Court of British Columbia granted her legal access to the children. In response to the outpouring of public support for her fight, Wooldridge formed the Canadian Grandparents Rights Association, which has successfully convinced several provinces to allow third parties to sue for access.

But getting to court is cosdy and cases can become as bitter as the worst custody battles. Joan Brooks, president of the GRAND Society, another national support group to help grandparents, is helping an Ontario man who claims to have spent four years and more than $100,000 trying, in vain, to regain visitation rights with his three grandchildren. The legal guardians of the children responded by accusing the man of sexually assaulting all three kids, but he says charges were never laid. “We’re not saying that all grandparents are good and should automatically be given access,” says Brooks. “But somewhere in the whole process, the best interests of the child get forgotten and people resort to all sorts of tactics to deny access.”

Governments are beginning to listen. In a 1998 report, a special joint committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on child custody and access recommended that grandparents be included in pre-divorce parenting plans. It also suggested penalties for people who make false accusations of abuse. “When you think of the breakup of the family, you think primarily of the parents and children,” explained Senator Landon Pearson, co-chair of the committee. “You don’t focus on how many other people are implicated.”

Parents’ groups, however, say that any enforced access infringes upon their right to determine what is best for their own kids. “Every day, parents are being told that they have to take responsibility for their children,” says Rebecca Palmer, founder of the Canadian Coalition for Parental Rights. “And then we are being forced to send kids to places we don’t want them to go.” In 1993, Palmer took sole custody of her then three-month-old daughter when she and the child’s father separated. The father made no attempt to gain custody, but his mother wanted to continue visiting her grandchild. She initiated legal action against Palmer to regain visiting rights, but later dropped the case. Still, Palmer, who is now married and has a second child, lives with the fear that she could be dragged into court at any time. “If parents say something isn’t good for a child,” says Palmer, “people should believe them.” Bernadette MacDonald, a 34-yearold single mother in Chilliwack, B.C., sees things another way. In 1998, her boyfriend died, leaving her to cope alone with their then-three-year-old son. MacDonald, who lives on $ 1,200 a month, became concerned that the child’s paternal grandmother, Beverlee Hendrickson, was trying to gain full custody, and the two waged a bitter legal batde over the child. “She has lots of money and political connections, and I was terrified she would take the child away from me,” says MacDonald.

Hendrickson did eventually win legal access, and now, she spends vacations with her grandson and helps MacDonald out when she can. It may be an uneasy truce, but it’s one many other grandparents would envy.