Advice for Grandparents Who Have Lost Access to Grandchildren

Two paths to regaining contact

Granddaughter and grandmother hugging in backyard garden
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It's one of the most dreadful fates that can befall a grandparent. Sometimes it comes in the form of an angry edict from a parent. Sometimes the visits just stop and phone calls aren't answered. Either way, grandparents must face the music. They've been cut off from their grandchildren. What happens next?

Grandparents who have lost access to grandchildren can take one of two paths. They can attempt to reconcile with the parents, or they can seek legal recourse. Before they decide, however, they need to understand the emotions common to estranged grandparents so that they do not behave irrationally. In addition, they should have a thorough understanding of the status of grandparents.

Understanding Laws About Grandparents Rights

Every one of the United States has statutes about grandparents rights, but that does not mean that all grandparents will benefit from those laws. (In fact, very few of them will.) It is not stated outright in most of those statutes, but the assumption underlying laws about grandparents' rights is this: Grandparents should gain access to grandchildren through their parents and not bother the justice system with their problems.

Obviously, if a parent is deceased, incarcerated, or does not have custody, the parents of that parent may need help from the courts to maintain contact with grandchildren. Even in those cases, the justice system would prefer that grandparents solve their own problems. If the grandchildren live in what is called an "intact family," meaning that the parents are still married or are in a stable relationship, the parents have an almost absolute right to make decisions for their children, and that includes whether or not they should see their grandparents.

Repairing Relationships

Considering these facts, for the vast majority of grandparents, the best solution is to repair relationships with the parents of grandchildren. Some grandparents apologize even if they don't feel that they did anything wrong. They may also refrain from criticism about how their grandchildren are being brought up and resist volunteering advice unless asked. 

Grandchildren do not belong to their grandparents. No matter how much their grandparents love them, and how much they ache to have input about their upbringing, they don't get to make those decisions. The only exception is if the grandchildren are being abused, according to the legal definition of abuse. If children are being abused, and grandparents know about it, legally they must report it, just as any individual aware of the situation must do. Grandparents are not morally obligated to defend the abusers, even when they are their children. Grandparents need only be careful that their love for their grandchildren is not causing them to mistake loving discipline for abuse.

A slightly different circumstance occurs when grandparents feel that parents are abusing alcohol or drugs. It's crucial to determine whether the grandchildren are being endangered and what steps should be taken if they are in peril. Legal counsel may be advisable.

Dangers of Surrogate Parenting

Another pattern that is readily observable follows this pattern. Parents are having a tough time due to substance abuse, economic hardship or psychological problems. They allow the grandparents to step in and become surrogate parents. Sometimes the grandchildren actually live with their grandparents. At other times the grandparents just assume the lion's share of responsibility for them. Then the parents get their act together and reclaim their rights as parents. If the grandparents are not very careful, they may end up being estranged from their grandchildren, because they still feel responsible for them and want to assume the parental role. The parents, desperate to reclaim their parental status, consciously or subconsciously act to remove the grandparents from their lives.

Getting Legal Access to Grandchildren

Sometimes all attempts to reach an amicable solution fail and grandparents wanting access to grandchildren have no options left except for legal ones. Their chances of success vary according to the laws of the state in which the action must be taken. Usually, grandparents who have been involved in their grandchildren's lives also have a better chance of success. To this end, grandparents should document their interactions with their grandchildren.

Grandparents rights have been significantly weakened since the U.S. Supreme Court case of Troxel v. Granville. Still, some grandparents do gain access to their grandchildren through the justice system. A good understanding of the law, competent legal counsel, and good record-keeping can add up to success in the courtroom.

In Summary

Grandparents who are desperate to gain access to their grandchildren may be open to legal solutions. Still, they should be aware that legal action will almost certainly bring an end to friendly relations between the parents and grandparents. Laws protecting the rights of grandparents exist for a reason. Legal recourse should, however, be considered a last resort for most grandparents.