Tennessee’s highest court is considering what standards a grandparent must meet when a grandparent visitation order is being judicially reviewed.
Emma, born September 4, 2002, is the biological daughter of Beth Copley and Jerry David Rochelle. Emma’s paternal grandmother (Norma Jean Lovlace) and her husband (Neal Lovlace) have been actively involved in Emma’s life and day-to-day care and closely bonded with her. They previously cared for her two days a week and provided assistance at the request of Emma’s parents.
After Emma’s parents divorced in 2004, the Lovlaces filed a Petition for Grandparent Visitation and in 2006 the court found that there was a danger of substantial harm to Emma if she was not allowed some visitation with her grandparents. The court ordered visitation of at least one Saturday per month with a great deal of discretion given to Copley in determining logistics, times, etc. The grandparents complained that Copley refused to allow them the ordered visitation and the court found that she had failed to comply with the order and to provide the required visitation. The court removed Copley’s discretion and set specific times for visitation, and the mother appealed.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals vacated the grandparent visitation order, directing the lower court to reconsider the matter and requiring that the grandparents prove a second time that Emma would be substantially harmed by lack of visitation. The grandparents appealed to Tennessee’s highest court and argued that grandparents, who have already shown a substantial risk of harm to their grandchild if visitation was denied, should not have to reprove that difficult standard at a modification hearing and that they should only be required to prove that visitation was in the best interest of the child.
AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief in support of the grandparents. It highlights the academic research that shows that grandparents are living longer and playing a more significant role in their grandchildren’s lives, and that children benefit by having a relationship with their grandparents. The brief also noted that a court should consider not only the parent’s needs but the child’s needs as well. The brief urges the court to look at the child’s best interest — a less stringent legal standard — when modifying visitation rights.
What’s at Stake
Grandparents are becoming more involved in their grandchildren’s lives, a function of increased life expectancy, economic difficulties facing many families and generational differences that are shifting more responsibility to grandparents. The number of children living with their grandparents or spending a significant part of their day with their grandparents is on the rise. Numerous studies demonstrate that grandparents contribute significantly to the healthy development of their grandchildren. It is important that courts recognize the critical role played by involved grandparents when making decisions about visitation and custody.
Lovlace v. Copley is before the Tennessee Supreme Court.