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The Case of the Grandchild's Best Interests

Does a mother have a right to shield her daughter from the child's grandparents — and their generosity?

Drawing of a child being hugged by her grandparents with her mother watching. BUTLER V. HARRIS lawsuit: Grandparents rights.

The court ruled in favor of the grandparents. — Illustration by: Michael Hirshon

The verdict

The case caused a great deal of judicial disagreement. The trial court ruled against Karen, saying that "it is in the best interests of the minor child that the paternal grandparents continue to be involved with [her]," and specified a visitation schedule. The court said the Harrises seemed to "truly love this child and … they want to continue to have that relationship." The trial court felt that there was no "realistic possibility" that Karen would encourage the relationship between Emily and the Harrises without court intervention.

Karen appealed the decision to the California Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court, saying that "a court cannot reject the parenting decision of a fit parent and substitute its view of what is better for the child simply because it believes it is desirable for a child to maintain contact with his or her grandparents." The Harrises appealed this decision to the California Supreme Court.

In August 2004, the California Supreme Court held that the trial court should not have decided what was in the "best interests" of the child. The law recognizes a presumption that the parent will make the best decision for their child. Karen had decided that visitation with the Harrises was not in Emily's best interest. The Harrises, the court said, must prove that Karen is wrong about Emily's best interests if they want visitation.

According to Leanne Harris, with the case headed back to the trial court, Karen decided that, for Emily's sake, the families should work out an agreement. The Harrises had spent more than $100,000 over the years fighting for the right to see their granddaughter.

Emily, now 16, has visited the Harrises over the years. Leanne Harris says they have a strong relationship.

You may also like: Grandparents ride seesaw over visitation rights. >>

Robin Gerber is a lawyer and the author of Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.

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