Grandparents’ Petition for Visitation Rights Denied
New Jersey is rare among states in that grandparents can seek visitation with their grandchildren even when both parents are alive and remain married. However, the grandparents must argue a strong case to the court proving that a lack of visitation would harm their grandchildren—a case that few grandparents can successfully make. A recent New Jersey Appellate Division opinion denied an application by grandparents to receive visitation time with their grandchildren after the parents cut off all contact. Learn about the case below, and speak with an experienced New Jersey family law attorney with any questions about New Jersey grandparents’ rights.
Background on C.C. and D.C. v. M.H. and S.H.
The case, titled C.C. and D.C. v. M.H. and S.H., centered on the fraught relationship between maternal grandparents and their daughter and son-in-law. The grandparents and parents were not on speaking terms at the time that the first grandchild, Heather, was born in 2013, which the court’s opinion explained was due to the daughter’s anger with her parents over how they treated her husband. However, the four repaired their relationship by the time the daughter was returning to work after Heather’s birth. The grandparents provided daycare for Heather two days a week. Despite another dispute that caused a rift in their relationship, the grandparents eventually watched the couple’s second child, Eric, after his birth. The children were enrolled in a preschool program for the other three days a week.
In September 2015, the grandparents funded a vacation to Disney World for the parents, grandparents, and children. During this trip, a disagreement arose that eventually resulted in the parents cutting off all contact with the grandparents. The children were enrolled in their preschool program on a full-time basis, no longer allowing the grandparents to babysit the two children. They cut off all contact by September 2016.
Grandparents File Petition for Visitation Rights
After several attempts to restore communication with the young family, the grandparents filed an application for visitation rights and application for emergent relief in November 2016, claiming that immediate and irreparable harm could come to the grandchildren if they were not allowed to see their grandparents. The application described the grandparents’ “loving and caring relationship with their grandchildren since birth,” the financial support they provided, as well as the help with transporting the children to doctors’ appointments and social events. They added that it was “likely that the children could suffer harm should contact be denied.” The grandparents also explained that their dispute with the parents had nothing to do with the children, but was related only to how the grandparents disliked how their daughter was treated by her husband. The grandparents submitted a report to the court from a psychologist who explained that “loss of contact with the grandparents has an adverse effect on grandchildren’s emotional health,” and that preventing grandparents’ access to grandchildren “should be considered an emergency and possible evidence of child abuse.” The initial application for emergent relief was denied, and the trial court instead ordered a hearing where each side could present evidence.
At the hearing, the parents presented evidence supporting their assertions that the grandchildren were not distressed over their grandparents’ absence from their lives and that the grandparents sometimes exhibited verbally abusive behavior and seemed to be suffering from mental illness. The parents explained that, if Heather asked about why her grandparents were not watching her like they used to, the parents said that the grandparents were sick, which did not seem to distress Heather. The parents disputed the grandparents’ degree of involvement in their children’s lives as being that of “typical grandparents” and that they had never been more involved than is a “babysitter who helps with the children.” The parents argued that the psychologist’s report should carry little weight, as he had never met either the parents or children, basing his report solely on what he had heard from the grandparents. The grandchildren’s aunt and grandparents’ other daughter even submitted a declaration explaining that her niece and nephew were not distressed at their grandparents’ absence, and that her parents had “a long history of cutting off family members and at times, communicating in verbally abusive ways.”
The Court Denies Visitation
The trial court denied the grandparents’ application. The judge pointed out that grandparents seeking visitation had to make a strong showing that the grandchildren would be harmed if they were not permitted to have contact with their grandparents. Without strong evidence to this effect, the court explained, “the State could not constitutionally infringe upon parental autonomy.” In reviewing the evidence, the trial judge felt that the grandparents had not proved any identifiable harm that had or would occur as the result of the grandparents not seeing their grandchildren. The judge noted that the grandparents had never alleged that the parents were unfit. The grandparents appealed this decision.
The Appellate Division agreed with the trial judge and dismissed the grandparents’ request for visitation. The Appellate Division’s opinion explained that parental autonomy is an important right that the state should not violate without evidence of “serious psychological or physical harm.”
Under New Jersey law, if fit parents do not want their children visiting with grandparents, the grandparents will only be granted visitation if the grandparents prove that it is more likely than not that the child would suffer harm if visitation is denied. This is not the same as proving that visitation is in the child’s best interests. Instead, grandparents are often required to prove that their relationship with their grandchildren is “unusually close,” or that some trauma, such as a parent’s death or a divorce, makes the grandparents especially important to their grandchild.
In this case, the grandparents had not shown the “particular, concrete harm” that they would have needed to show to justify a court ordering visitation time. The opinion noted that the children seemed happy and did not appear to be suffering from any harm due to their grandparents’ absence. The Appellate Division also explained that the psychologist’s report did not support the grandparents’ case, since it was not based on the doctor’s observations or on actual data or evidence from this family’s case. These factors led to the court’s decision to deny the request for visitation.
If you need experienced legal help with an application for child visitation, a child custody dispute, or another New Jersey family law claim, contact the seasoned and professional Union family law attorney John B. D’Alessandro at 908-964-0102.