Delphine Fuller was pleased to learn yesterday that the Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to clarify the law regarding grandparents' visitation rights in custody disputes by reviewing an appeal case on the issue.
As founder of the Toledo Grandparents Rights Support Group and a grandmother six times over, she has fought for nearly a decade to allow grandparents access to their grandchildren.
But Mrs. Fuller, whose organization offers education and counseling to grandparents involved in custody battles, emphasized that she is not ready to celebrate quite yet.
"We have had so much hope for the last 10 years but so far absolutely nothing has changed," she said.
The state's highest court yesterday began to hear arguments in Brian Collier's appeal of a lower court's decision requiring him to grant visitation rights to the maternal grandparents of his 7-year old daughter. Mr. Collier and his daughter's grandparents have been disputing custody and visitation rights since the death of his girlfriend in 1999.
Carol and Gary Horrid of Wooster, Ohio, were granted visitation rights by the Ohio 9th District Court of Appeals, overturning a lower court's ruling in favor of Mr. Collier, who was never married to the Harrolds' daughter, Renee.
Currently Ohio custody law allows grandparents and other relatives to petition the courts for "reasonable" visitation rights over the objections of parents. But a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision brought the law into question by striking down a similar statute in Washington state.
That confusion reflects the difficulty in determining where the law should come down when parents and grandparents are at odds over access to children after divorces, deaths, adoption cases, and remarriages. All parties concur that the best interests of the child should be the litmus test of a custody decision, but legislators and judges disagree over whether parental decisions always reflect those best interests.
"These are terribly complex issues," said Judge Norman Lewandowski, a veteran of 12 years with the Lucas County Domestic Relations Court, who sees one or more cases involving grandparents visitation rights every year.
"If you sat people down and asked them if children should be allowed to see their grandparents, most people would say, `Yes, of course,'●" Judge Lewandowski said. But when grandparents takes sides in emotional divorce proceedings and turn children against parents, he said, the question is less straightforward.
The Ohio Supreme Court's decision to take the case occurs at a time when visitation disputes are increasing across the board. Between 2003 and 2004 the number of visitation disputes heard by juvenile courts statewide increased by 10 percent, according to the Ohio Supreme Courts annual summary.
Whatever the court decides, Judge Lewandowski is hoping that for the sakes of parents, grandparents, and judges, the law will become less murky. "Vagueness encourages people to prolong litigation," he said.
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