The grandparent access facts article came about in 1999 when my group in Oshawa was approached by Judy Atkinsons who wanted to cover our issues as part of her university course. Judy got a A on this! (See Access Benefits Children for a continuation of this report.)
Few studies have examined the consequences of divorce in the middle generation on the grandparent’s role. Grandparent roles are as diverse as the circumstances of their extended families (Matthews & Sprey, 1984).
Grandparents often become a family’s first reserves in times of crisis. Grandparents act as fun playmates for children, role models, and family historians, mentors, and help establish self-esteem and security for children (Blau, 1984; Kornhaber & Woodward, 1981).
Contemporary society has witnessed the evolution of the family from an extended family unit to the nuclear or modern family unit. It has been proposed that this nuclear family structure poses a barrier which isolates extended kin such as grandparents and enables kinship relationships to be regulated by personal preference and mutual interest (Leahy-Johnson and Barer, 1987).
Since the 1970s the divorcing family has been the subject of research, legal reforms, and media attention, the recipient of specialized services and the source of concern regarding the death of the family. The nuclear family has been the focus of this attention, with little effects of divorce on the extended family (Brown, 1982; Duffy, 1982).
One potential aspect of the divorcee is the disruption or severance of the grandparents-grandchild relationship (Myers & Perrin, 1993).
Due to the increase in the life expectancy, most children have living grandparents. Coupled with the fact that more than 60% of divorced couples have at least one minor child, the potential for severed contact could be quite substantial (Spanier & Glick, 1981; as cited by Matthews & Sprey, 1984).
A study of divorce families in Alberta found that 54.2 % of extended family members reported difficulties in visiting and maintaining contact with their grandchildren, nieces and nephews (Andreiuk, 1994).
In examining post divorce kinship interactions, Spicer & Hampe (1995) concluded that being female and/or having custody was associated with a high level of interaction with blood relatives.
The gender of the parent may be less important than the awarding of custody, however, the two factors are closely related since it is customary for mothers to be awarded custody, particularly of minor children (Matthews & Sprey, 1984).
Social relations with paternal kin were found to decease for the children of divorce, particularly in the case of an absent father. Findings suggest that the adult child serves as a pivotal link between grandchildren and grandparent (Anspach, 1976).
Child access for the third parties is covered under the federal Divorce Act and provincial assess legislation. Access may be awarded if it is shown to be in the child’s best interest. Only Quebec, Alberta and B.C. have access legislation that presumes contact with grandparents is in the child’s best interest. This places the responsibility with parents to show serious cause why access would not be in the child’s best interest. Other provinces place responsibility onto the grandparents to prove that denied access will actually harm a child (Andreiuk, 1994).
All but three states in the U.S. have laws permitting grandparents to petition for visitation upon death or divorce of adult. This assures the grandparent the right to be heard in court, but it still remains for the court to decide if it is in the child’s best interest to visit with the grandparent (Derdeyn, 1985).
Grandparent visitation legislation has risen quite differently from other domestic relation laws, which generally follows social change. The changes in grandparents visitation legislation is seen as the product of intense political activity by today’s older citizens who are greater in number, healthier and more politically conscious and powerful than in the past (Derdeyn, 1985; Thompson et al, 1989).
In view of controversies surrounding the legal involvement in grandparent access, (Derdeyn, 1985) it would seem necessary to evaluate the success or failure of court ordered access arrangements, in order to facilitate court decisions regarding a grandparent-grandchild visitation.
A 1995 study by Kruk, found paternal grandparents more likely to be at risk for denied access in a divorce situation when the mother is the custodial parent. Maternal grandparents seem to be more at risk for denied access in a non divorce situation, where conflict is likely to be between grandparents and both adult child and the partner. Again reflective of past findings, the son was divorced and the non-custodial parent, while the daughter was married, custodial parent.
While each of the stories of denied access was unique, certain patterns emerged. In every separation or divorce circumstance, denied access to grandchildren was initiated by an ex-daughter-in-law. 100% of these cases involved paternal grandparents whose son did not have custody of his children. In many cases, the son is denied access as well during a similar period of time or was disengaged from the grandchildren’ lives. (Atkinsons 1999)
This preponderance of access difficulties by paternal grandparents is noted in the literature and seen as a reflection of divorce rate and court awarded maternal custody of children (Ahrons & Bowman, 1982; Anspach, 1976; Furstenburg, 1981; Kalish & Visher, 1982; Leahy & Barer, 1987; Spicer & Hampe, 1975).
Grandparents who feel that the stated intent to pursue the matter in court if necessary, was the main factor in the resolution of the problem. The data lends support to Gladstone’s (1989) suggestion that grandparents are not necessarily powerless, and in fact may be able to renegotiate contact.
Despite an initial stage of tension between adult child and grandparent, things quickly settled into an arrangement not unlike the pre-existing the denied access. All reported friendly relations with the ex-child-in-law and the ability to see their grandchildren whenever they want, not only during assigned access times. These grandparents are now called upon to baby-sit, attend family functions such as birthday parties and sports events and can even take the grandchildren for weekends and vacations. Flexibility, communication and putting the best interests of the child ahead of hurt feelings were all cited as reasons for the diminished tension and increasingly co-operative arrangements that all had experienced since being awarded court ordered access. (Atkinsons 1999)
Access problems follow divorce, separation, or death of an adult child as well as conflict with the adult child or child-in-law in intact families. A substantial number of grandparents are able to restore contact using a variety of mediation strategies as well as the legal system. Those grandparents who have used these resources reported more positive outcomes than those who did not. (Atkinsons1999)
The process of divorce requires major reorganization, resulting in a variety of new, complex family networks. Diverse kinship alternatives exist following divorce and remarriage, with few rules on which relatives are to be included and excluded. As a result of the divorce experience, these altered kinship’s systems vary from a very expansive system to a contracted and one-sided system, resulting in many implications for the family (Ahrons & Bowman, 1982; Johnson & Barer, 1987).
It is important to note that the custodial status is the main factor related to contact loss in separation and divorce cases. Grandparents of the custodial parent enjoy increased involvement with grandchildren, while grandparents of the non-custodial parent are at risk of diminished or denied contact. Present data supports the literature findings that most divorced fathers become non-custodial parents and many lose contact with their children (Kruk, 1995; Matthews & Sprey, 1984; Spicer &Hampe, 1975).
In a 1975 study, Robertson suggests that the most significant aspect of the bond between a grandparent and grandchildren is the fact that this tie is not direct, but mediated by the grandchild’s parents.
As long as mothers continue to be awarded sole custody of the children, the maternal grandparents will enjoy a closer relationship with grandchildren while the paternal grandparents will continue to be at risk for diminished or denied access (Myers & Perrin, 1993).
In Canada, the issue of grandparents’ rights of access to grandchildren has not been given recognition in legislation, with the exception of the provinces of Quebec, Alberta and B.C. In all other provinces, grandparents may only petition the courts for rights of access as interested third parties. In the absence of a specific statue providing grandparents with legal standing to access, there are continuing difficulties in obtaining contact with grandchildren (Kruk, 1995).
The existence of grandparent rights statues in the United States has effectively reduced the need for litigation (Wilson & DeShane, 1982). Many grandparents agree that law reform to further rights of access to grandchildren would likely act as a deterrent to denied access of grandchildren, thereby reducing the need for adversarial procedures.
In view of successful outcomes following court ordered access in the present study, it would seem necessary that further studies follow up on court-ordered visitations, evaluating ongoing relationships and identifying problems such as refusal to obey access orders. This would serve to facilitate legal and therapeutic professions in decisions regarding grandparent involvement in the mediation and legal process of divorcing families. (Atkinsons-1999)
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