Initially, it is established that the grandparents have the right to seek visitation with their daughter. To obtain court-ordered visitation, grandparents must first demonstrate standing based on statutory grounds. In cases where the parents are alive, the grandparents must prove an existing relationship with their grandchild[ren] or, if the parents obstructed it, show sufficient effort to establish one that warrants court intervention.
In situations where the parents have hindered the relationship, grandparents must demonstrate that they have done everything possible under the circumstances to foster a connection with their grandchildren.
During the hearing, evidence was presented indicating that when the daughter was born, her mother and father were still married and residing together. In the early stages of the daughter’s life, the grandparents would see her approximately every other Sunday during family dinners and would also celebrate special occasions together.
After the parents ceased visitations when the daughter was about a year and a half old, the grandmother made numerous attempts to contact the children via phone calls, text messages, and emails, and even sent them various packages. Given these circumstances, it is determined that the grandparents have established a sufficient relationship with the daughter, demonstrating their standing in this case.
However, it is further concluded that the Family Court‘s decision to grant visitation rights to the grandparents lacks a solid foundation in the available records. When assessing the best interests of the children, the nature and quality of the relationship between the grandparents and the children is of primary concern. Other important factors include the grandparents’ ability to nurture the children, their attitude towards the children’s custodians, the reasons for objections to visitation, the children’s preferences, and the position taken by the children’s attorney.
Courts should not easily interfere in familial relationships against the wishes of fit parents. The presumption that decisions made by fit parents are in the best interests of the child is substantial.
In granting visitation to the grandparents, the Family Court primarily based its decision on the belief that the son would benefit from frequent contact with family members who love him, and that the daughter should have an equal level of visitation for the sake of fairness.
While it is indeed commendable to strive for contact with loving family members for these children and others, the records do not support the court’s finding that visitation with the grandparents would serve the children’s best interests. On the contrary, both the mother and father, who were separated at the time of the hearing but united in their opposition to the grandparents’ visitation petition, provided testimony outlining the negative effects of the grandparents’ visitation on the son.
The father testified that the son, who is autistic and has ADHD, struggles with transitions and changes in the environment, often resulting in meltdowns where he may hit himself or cry until he vomits. According to the father, when the son experienced meltdowns while in the grandparents’ care, they struggled to handle the situation and eventually gave in to the son’s demands, which contradicted the father’s approach.
The father also mentioned that the son had severe meltdowns after participating in video calls with the grandparents, which was confirmed by the mother. The father explained that he and the mother decided to discontinue visits with the grandparents after discovering a large bruise on the son’s chest shortly after one visit.
The mother testified that the son became upset during video calls when the grandmother told him to ask “Mommy and Daddy when you can come over.” After one call, he hit himself so hard that he broke his glasses, and after another call, he started tearing apart his bedroom wall.
Furthermore, the mother stated that the grandmother undermined her authority in front of the children and, in their presence, claimed that she did not deserve to be a mother.
In addition to the parents’ testimonies, the director of the son’s preschool testified that transitions are extremely challenging for him, and he experiences three or four meltdowns per day, some lasting over 45 minutes. A preschool evaluation report for the son entered into evidence, emphasizing the need for consistency across all settings and active communication about his well-being between caregivers at home and at school.
It is important to acknowledge the grandparents’ desire to spend time with the children and provide them with vacations and activities. They also indicated that they have prepared bedrooms and toys for the children. However, in this case, the son’s difficulties during transitions and interactions with the grandparents were not adequately considered by the Family Court.
Another notable aspect is the apparent tension between the parents and the grandparents. While this dynamic was evident from the parties’ testimonies during the hearing, the grandmother’s pro se appellate brief further demonstrates her acrimonious attitude towards the parents. Although animosity alone is not sufficient grounds to deny visitation, it seems that the Family Court failed to consider this animosity and, more significantly, its potential impact on the ability of both parents and grandparents to cooperatively care for the children, especially considering the son’s unique challenges.
In light of these factors, it is concluded that the Family Court wrongly determined that the grandparents surpassed the substantial presumption that the parent’s wishes represent the best interests of the children.
It is worth noting that the attorney representing the children in the appeal opposes court-ordered visitation and believes that visitation with the grandparents, as agreed upon by the parents, would be a more suitable approach. Additionally, it is observed that the court’s decision to grant one full weekend every month unduly deprives the mother, who only sees the children on weekends, of significant time with them.
Virginia HH. v. Elijah II., – NYS3d – , 2022 WL 17490471 (3rd Dep’t. 2022)
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