By Tadd Yearing, Esq.
We often field calls from grandparents who have been denied access to their grandchildren, and who feel that they are unfairly being left out of their grandchildren’s lives. This sadly arises commonly when the grandparent’s own child, the mother or father of the child has died, and for various reasons the remaining parent has chosen not to permit continued contact with the grandchildren. In some situations, both parents are alive and well and have had a falling out with one or both sets of grandparents where once there was a relationship. This can no doubt be difficult for the grandparents, especially those also grieving the loss of their own child. Where the mother and father are divorced and the grandparent’s child dies, the legal bond creating the “family” as such is not even present, and there is oftentimes acrimony between grandparents and their former in-law arising out of the divorce.
What about the rights of grandparents to see their grandchildren? What about the right of fit parents to raise their children as they deem appropriate? The right of a grandparent to petition for visitation is codified under N.J.S.A. 9:2-7.1. The statute sets forth eight factors for courts to consider in assessing applications for grandparents to have access to the grandchildren. The procedure by which courts are to apply the above statute was detailed in the seminal case of Moriarty v. Bradt, 177 N.J. 84 (2003). In that case, our Supreme Court noted that, though parental autonomy is a fundamental right deeply embedded in the American culture, in certain instances, pursuant to the state’s parens patriae power, that right can, and will, be encroached upon. Id. at 101, 114-115. The polestar, however, is harm to the child should visitation be denied. It is not, as many often confuse it, alleged harm to the grandparent at having been denied access to the grandchildren. This is a critical distinction fundamental to any application for grandparent visitation.
In Moriarty, the court took special note of the trial court’s findings relating to the relationship of the grandparents with the child. The court highlighted specifically the fact that the relationship between the grandparents and the children was extensive and significant. Moreover, the maintenance of this relationship was found to be critically important given the mother’s recent death. Contact with the grandparents was found to provide a link to the children’s mother and that branch of their family. Id. at 119. Significant as well was the attention by the court to expert testimony from a psychologist who found that the visitation plan proffered would effectively allow alienation of the mother’s family by the father. The therapist went on to point out that given the father’s overt hostility toward the grandparents, successful alienation of the children would result in psychological harm to them. Id. at 121-122.
Moriarty made clear the fact that any successful application for grandparent visitation rests on the ability to articulate specific harms to the children. Moreover, these harms need to be able to be proven through the evidence presented at the hearing. Subsequent cases have reinforced and further delineated just what kind of showing must be made, as the ability to articulate an identifiable harm to the child is paramount to justify interference with a parent’s fundamental due process rights. See Rente v. Rente, 390 N.J. Super. 487 (App. Div. 2007); Mizrahi v. Canon, 375 N.J. Super. 221, 234 (App. Div. 2005) (noting that, “Conclusory, generic items … are not a sufficient basis to warrant such an intrusion into a parent’s decision making.”).
In practical terms, a grandparent who has been the caretaker of a child or who has stood in locus parentiat some point prior to being denied visitation with the child is in the best position to establish the kind of bond that, if removed, could cause harm to that child. Unfortunately, most grandparents do not fit this mold. And while there is no doubt that they love and care for their grandchildren, these less involved relationships are not generally of a quality satisfying the burden to trump a parent’s presumptive right to raise their child as they see fit, including to whom the children have access.