Texas Politics

Grandparents urge Texas lawmakers for visitation rights to ‘make lasting memories’

Grandparents headed to the Texas Capitol on Wednesday, asking state lawmakers to help them see their grandchildren.

One after the other, they told stories of being shut out of their grandchildren’s lives in cases ranging from fights with their children to bitter custody battles.

Each asked members of the House Juvenile Justice & Family Issues Committee to support House Bill 575, by state Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, which is geared to make it easier for at least some alienated grandparents to see their grandchildren.

“At this stage in my life, I am not interested in raising my grandchildren,” said Sandra King, a Fort Worth grandmother. “All I want to do is love them, share stories with them about family ... (and) make lasting memories.”

Dutton said the bill is geared to change state law “so grandparents will have access to their grandchildren. That’s all it does.”

Critics say this bill would help estranged in-laws gain access to children, even if one or both parents don’t want that to happen, especially if they have big bank accounts.

“Litigation often targets single moms, low income families,” said Tim Lambert, president with the Texas Home School Coalition. “It’s often used as a weapon.”

Texas lawmakers have until the end of their legislative session, May 27, to pass laws.

Texas law

Currently, certain conditions must be met for grandparents to gain visitation rights through the courts. Among them: One of the grandchildren’s parents must be dead, incarcerated, mentally incompetent or out of that child’s life.

If any of those conditions are met, a grandparent may sue for visitation, but he or she must still prove that the child’s physical well being or mental health will be significantly impacted if visitation doesn’t happen. And they would need an expert such as a doctor or psychologist to testify to prove their belief.

Dutton’s proposal basically says one of the child’s parents doesn’t have to be dead, locked up, incompetent or estranged for a grandparent to seek visitation. And the law removes the requirement that an “expert witness” testify. Instead, perhaps a neighbor who saw that a child was unhealthy or depressed could testify.

Critics fear these changes would make it easier for well-funded grandparents to outlast estranged in-laws through the court process to gain visitation to the children, even if parents don’t want to allow that.

The Home School Coalition is among those who oppose the proposed law because it addresses issues that deal with the rights of families to raise their children. The main concern is that a parent’s right to raise his or her children — with or without involvement of grandparents — shouldn’t depend on how much money he or she has in the bank.

Mason Prewitt, one of the coalition’s “watchmen,” submitted testimony from more than a dozen parents opposed to the bill because they are worried about “violations of their own rights as parents.”

Many grandparents talked about how they legally have no standing to see their grandchildren, if their child or in-law prevents them from seeing them.

“It’s not our intention to take custody of our granddaughter,” Lisa Slifko testified. “We just want to see her, spend time with her.”

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.