Grandparents rights in Fla. debated after parent is gone - WJBF-TV ABC 6 Augusta-Aiken News, Weather, Sports

Grandparents rights in Fla. debated after parent is gone

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TAMPA, FL (WFLA) -

Five years ago Sharon Blair’s daughter Jennifer died at the age of 29 from an accidental overdose after years of drug addiction. Soon after that, Blair also lost her grandson. He was only seven years old.

“I have a double grief and it’s very painful,” said Blair.

Blair’s grandson didn’t die, but he is lost to her. The boy now lives with his father in Tampa, just miles away from Blair’s home in Pinellas County. Blair says she hasn’t seen him since November 2008.

That’s because the boy’s father won’t allow visitation or any kind of contact, even though Blair says she raised the child for more than five years of his life during the worst part of her daughter’s spiraling drug addiction.

Blair says while raising the boy she tracked down the father, told him he had a son, and encouraged him to take responsibility for parenting her grandson, which he did.

“He gave us his word we would still be able to see our grandson,” Blair said.

Now she feels betrayed by that promise and heartbroken over the separation from her grandson, the only living reminder of her daughter Jennifer.

“If it weren’t for us, he would have ended up in foster care,” said Blair.

The boy’s father, who practices as a family law attorney, didn’t want to comment for this story. 8 On Your Side is not identifying him or the boy to protect their privacy and prevent further family discord.

Blair is one of countless grandparents in Florida who have found themselves cut off from their grandchildren due to family differences and have no right to visit them.

As heartbreaking as that might seem, it’s perfectly legal.

Current Florida Law

There’s an entire chapter in Florida Statutes devoted to grandparents’ visitation rights. But due to numerous constitutional challenges raised in various court cases, it might as well be a blank page because the statute is unenforceable as now written.

Family law attorney K. Dean Kantaras says judges have consistently ruled to preserve the privacy rights of parents to raise children on their own terms.

“We can’t interfere with a parent’s right to raise their children as they wish,” Kantaras said. “You make decisions on who your children interact with and that would include the grandparents.”

Kantaras says case law has gutted Florida Statute 752 which was originally passed in 1984 to help grandparents maintain relationships with their grandkids.

Proposed Legal Reform

Blair hopes a legislative proposal to restore grandparents’ rights now under consideration by Florida lawmakers will begin to change that.

The bill sponsor is Democratic St. Petersburg State Representative Darryl Rouson.

“All of this is about the best interest of the child,” said Rouson.

Rouson’s proposed legislation, House Bill 789 (the Senate version is SB 750) would give grandparents and even great-grandparents, the right to petition the courts for visitation if one parent is deceased, missing or in a vegetative state and the other one has a history of violence or is a convicted felon.

Strictly speaking, Rouson’s bill--even if passed and signed by the Governor—would not open the door to grandchild visitation for Blair.

But it would help another grandmother on Orlando who has endured a similar separation from her own daughter’s children. Yvonne Stewart’s story is the inspiration for this proposed legislation.

Another Grandmother’s Heartbreak

Stewart’s daughter Michelle Parker vanished on November 17, 2011 after dropping off her twin babies with her ex-fiancé, Dale Smith II, the twins father, in a case that made national headlines.

That’s because Parker’s disappearance in Orlando happened the same day she appeared with Smith in a pre-recorded episode of The People’s Court that involved a bitter battle over a lost engagement ring.

During that television program, Parker trashed Smith in front of a national audience.

“He gets pretty malicious and vindictive and he’s a mean person,” Parker said on the TV episode. Hours later she dropped off her twins for visitation with Smith and soon vanished from sight.

Orlando police later named Smith as the suspect in her disappearance and possible murder. But that didn’t stop an Orlando judge from granting Smith full custody of the twins after deciding there is no hard evidence of wrongdoing or any threat to the children.

Stewart said she was stunned by the judge’s decision.

“He gave him the kids and we’re like ‘what just happened,” said Stewart. “He killed my daughter. I have no doubt about that.”

Stewart filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Smith last year.

Neither Smith, nor his attorney would comment for this story. Orlando police say the Parker’s disappearance remains an open investigation with no arrests so far.

Smith moved to Tennessee with that investigation still pending, and has denied Stewart visitation for more than a year.

“It drives you absolutely crazy,” said Stewart. “I didn’t do anything wrong, the kids didn’t do anything wrong. Michelle didn’t do anything wrong.”

Final Push Fuels Hope for Grandparents

Unless Rouson’s legislative proposal gains some last minute momentum in the waning days of this year’s legislative session, Florida law will remain on Smith’s side, and the side of every other Florida parent who chooses—for whatever reason—to distance their kids from their own parents, or in-laws.

“Where does the state stop telling people how to raise their children,” said Kantaras. “I think that’s how you would have to explain it.”

Rouson, who is also a lawyer, thinks his proposal respects the rights of parents as well as grandparents.

“This is not a carte blanche, open season free for all for any grandparent to come in anytime and do what they want done,” said Rouson. “It’s a balancing test.”

This is the second year that Rouson, and Palm Beach Senator Joseph Abruzzo, both Democrats, have tried to win passage for revision of the grandparents visitation rights statute.

Stewart says despite the political minority status of the bill sponsors, she remains hopeful Rouson and Abruzzo will succeed this time around in Florida’s Republican controlled legislature.

She says restoring grandparents’ rights is important for her own family’s sake, as well as for others.

“This will at least make some sense out of Michelle’s disappearance, “Stewart said. “Maybe it will do some good for somebody else.”

HELPFUL LINKS:

State Senator Joseph Abruzzo

State Rep. Darryl Rouson

Grandparents Visitation Rights Bill analysis

Current Grandparents Rights Statute 752 

National Grandparents Advocacy Group

The Florida Bar: Bleeding Grandparents Visitation Rights

Facebook: Michelle Park Missing

The Jennifer Act

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