Grandparents find hope in a bill that would make it easier to seek visitation rights

Babs James hasn’t seen some of her grandchildren for years.

After the children’s parents divorced, Babs and her husband, Scott, were shut out of the children’s lives, she said.

“We have no idea why,” said Babs James, 57, of Granbury. “We’ve only seen them twice in the last six years.

“There’s absolutely nothing we can do.”

James and her husband recently learned about a bill that could make things better for at least some grandparents who are being cut out of their grandchildren’s lives for one reason or another.

Supporters say House Bill 575 by state Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, could help some grandparents keep spending time with their grandchildren, even if the parents get divorced.

“It’s not going to help everybody,” said Steve Bresnen, an Austin-based lobbyist for the Texas Family Law Foundation, which supports the proposal. “This may not be the bill that gets everybody what they’d like to have.

“But it’s a step forward.”

Critics say this bill would let “estranged in-laws” gain access to children even if a parent doesn’t want to allow that.

“The bill expands exponentially the pool of families who can be sued under this law to include virtually every family in the state,” according to a statement by Mason Prewitt, one of the Texas Home School Coalition Association’s “watchmen.”

“It then lowers the legal standards required for in-laws to obtain access to or possession of that family’s children.”

Bresnen said parents maintain significant protections under the proposed law.

“It’s not going to open up the spigot,” he said. “And we aren’t trying to open up the spigot. We are interested in eliminating absurdities under state law.”

Texas rights

“Grandparents play an important role in their grandchildren’s life, and can develop strong bonds that last a lifetime,” according to a statement on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s website.

But the saying has long been that it’s easier for grandparents to get custody, rather than visitation, of their grandchildren.

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

Under those conditions, a grandparent can sue for visitation, but still must prove that the child’s mental health or physical well being will be significantly affected if visitation doesn’t happen. And they’d have to have an expert — perhaps a psychologist or doctor — testify to prove their belief.

“It’s a hard case to prove,” Bresnen said. “That burden is already high.”

The bill essentially says that 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.

“It’s not a threat to the average family,” Bresnen said. “It’s still a difficult thing.”

Critics protest because they fear well-funded grandparents could outlast estranged in-laws to gain access to the children over a parent’s objections.

“Often, these parents lack the financial resources to defend themselves against this extended and costly litigation, making them especially vulnerable,” Prewitt wrote in a summary of the bill, called “A New Threat to Virtually Every Family in Texas.”

“The family survives the litigation as long as they can and has to hope they can outlast the opposition.”

The homeschool coalition has weighed in on this legislation because it addresses issues that deal with the rights of families to raise their children, said Jeremy Newman, the policy director for the group.

The coalition maintains that a parent’s right to raise his or her children shouldn’t depend on how much money he or she has in the bank. And Prewitt said a court “should be allowed to require expert testimony when considering the extraordinary action of forcing a parent to give possession of their child to someone else.”

“The THSC Policy Team and the THSC Watchmen are fighting to keep this bill from passing and we will continue Keeping Texas Families Free,” Prewitt wrote.

The bill has been referred to the House Juvenile Justice & Family Issues Committee.

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

Estranged grandparents

Babs James said she doesn’t know why she has been cut out of the lives of several of her grandchildren.

In the case of the two she has seen twice in the past six years, she and her husband had custody of them while the parents went through a divorce. Afterward, they were no longer able to see them.

Then last year, because of another divorce, three more of their grandchildren were pulled out of their lives.

James said she’s in counseling to deal with not seeing her grandchildren — and the recent deaths of her mother and father-in-law.

“I never even knew this was an issue for grandparents,” she said. “I’ve been wondering what I did that was so bad after 12 years of being close and seeing my grandchildren nearly ever day.”

She said she and her husband have spent thousands of dollars in the courts, arguing that they should be allowed to see their grandchildren. “We got nothing, no results,” she said.

Then she heard about the bill.

“It gave me something to fight for,” said James, who has called more than 100 House members asking them to support this bill. “It would give grandparents a way to continue the relationship they’ve always had with their grandchildren even when the parents do not co-parent well.

“We don’t want to raise our grandchildren. We just want the same relationship with our grandchildren that we’ve had since the day they were born.”

Fighting for family

Kitty Wade has struggled to see her grandchild.

She is helping spearhead the fight for the bill. So far, she has found more than 150 grandparents — known as GIFT, Grandparents Important for Texas — who now support this bill.

The 58-year-old Fort Worth woman said the bill maintains a high bar for grandparents to reach. But it makes it easier for them to gain visitation.

She said she has dozens of grandparents ready to head to Austin to testify when the bill is scheduled for a committee hearing.

Grandparents play a key role in their grandchildren’s lives, she said.

“When families are in turmoil ... the first people they go to normally are the grandparents,” Wade said, referring to state workers. “But at other times, we are insignificant.”

She admits that not every grandparent deserves to have visitation.

“What we want is just for it to be fair,” Wade said. “Let us go before a nonpartisan judge. Let us bring in witnesses who aren’t ‘expert witnesses.’”

She paid to put a billboard up in Saginaw for five weeks last year, noting that “Grandparents have NO rights in Texas!” Her billboard encouraged Texans to reach out to state lawmakers and ask them to “restore grandparents’ rights.”

“I don’t think it’s right that we are used as grandparents to babysit, and take care of the kids whenever you need us, but then the adults fight and we are completely cut out of the child’s life,” she said. “It’s just something I can’t accept.”

Wade said she and other grandparents plan to fight for more rights until they get them.

“If we can help one grandchild be reunited with grandparents, that’s great,” she said. “We’re not going down quiet.”

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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.