Smithfield resident advocates broader guardian rights for grandparents

Smithfield resident advocates broader guardian rights for grandparents

SMITHFIELD – Joan LaFauci and her husband used to love having their grandkids over for swimming lessons and sleepovers in the summer, but those visits began to dwindle in 2015.

LaFauci’s son was divorced and his ex-wife wanted to limit the grandparents’ visitation rights for personal reasons.

“It’s just very, very difficult,” LaFauci said in an interview with The Valley Breeze & Observer.

Now she and other disenfranchised grandparents are backing legislation by Sen. Louis DiPalma and others that would consider six additional factors when assessing whether grandparent visitation is in the child’s best interest.

Currently in Rhode Island, grandparents can petition in court for visitation if: the parent of the grandchild has died, the parent of the grandchild is going through divorce, the parent of the grandchild has been denied visitation, or the parent of the grandchild has not asserted his/her visitation rights.

LaFauci and other grandparents feel the law should be amended so that the individual relationship of the child and grandparent in question is considered with equal weight.

This is made all the more difficult for grandparents because of a 2000 Supreme Court case titled Troxel vs. Granville that overturned a Washington state law that allowed a third party to petition state courts for child visitation rights over the objection of the parent.

The Supreme Court opinion stated that laws allowing grandparent visitation orders to be imposed over parental objection could violate a parent’s constitutional rights. It goes on to state that “special weight” must be given to a parent’s decision whether a third party will associate with his/her child.

Grandparent rights activists like LaFauci feel this language is too broad and gives unilateral weight to the opinion of the parent.

“If we’re working in the best interest of the child, listen to both sides,” LaFauci said.

She met with Sen. Louis DiPalma, who introduced legislation on Jan. 27, 2016 to change laws detailing visitation rights for grandparents.

“I am now also a grandparent,” DiPalma said, “so I can appreciate it even more now.”

Approval of the legislation was bypassed instead for the formation of a commission to further review and make recommendations regarding grandparent rights.

That commission led to Senate bill No. 383 being introduced by senators Erin Lynch Prata, Frank Lombardi, Stephen Archambault, William Conley Jr., and DiPalma.

This bill states that, “it is in the best interest of the grandchild as determined on a case by-case basis that the petitioner is granted visitation rights.”

“The law needs to keep up with the times,” DiPalma said, mentioning that more households are dual income today, requiring a greater role from grandparents as caretakers during work days.

The new bill also asks the judge to consider six additional factors when assessing whether visitation is in the child’s best interest: the nature of the relationship, the amount of time the grandparent and child spent together, the potential detriments and benefits to the child, the potential effect of granting visitation on the parent – child relationship, the preferences of the grandchild, and the reasons that the parent(s) believe that it is not in their child’s best interest to have visitation.

According to the State of Rhode Island General Assembly website, the bill was scheduled to be heard by the Senate Committee on Judiciary on Thursday, March 9, but consideration of the bill was postponed.