Grandparents gathering signatures for initiative to grant visitation rights
For a couple of hours each day, Christine Nichols stands outside of Lowe’s, telling anyone who will listen her story and asking them to sign the petition she is holding.
Nichols, of Richland, is with GROW, or Grandparents’ Rights of Washington State, a group that trying to gather 250,000 signatures to qualify Initiative 1431 for the November ballot.
I-1431 would gives grandparents legal standing to petition a court for visitation rights if they are being unreasonably kept from their grandchildren.
Nichols’ granddaughter had lived her from the time the young girl was an infant until last November, when she was not returned by the father’s family after going to have holiday pictures taken.
Nichols said her daughter, who struggles with mental illness, left her granddaughter with her as a baby and would come in and out of her life sporadically.
“I potty trained her. I taught her A,B,Cs, I taught her to skate and play soccer,” Nichols said. “She is my life.”
But the father’s family has kept the child from Nichols, who has no visitation rights under the law.
“I still have her Christmas presents boxed up and haven’t been able to give them to her,” she said.
In 2000, Washington’s visitation laws were dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled they were too broad and unconstitutionally interfered with parenting rights in Troxel vs. Granville.
In that case, the Troxel’s son committed suicide and the daughter-in-law started withholding the children from the grandparents. A judge granted them visitation, but the daughter-in-law appealed and the Appellate Court sent the case to the Supreme Court.
“The old law said that any third party that had a relationship with the child could petition for visitation,” Paine said. “That included nonrelatives, teachers, coaches and neighbors.”
Visitation rights for any third party, including grandparents, have been in flux every sense.
GROW and its members, like Lori Paine of Puyallup, tried to get those rights restored through the legislature, without success.
Paine hasn’t seen her granddaughter in two years, after she and her daughter had a disagreement.
“She literally ripped her out of my life,” Paine said.
For Paine, Nichols and other grandparents, the need is dire.
“Broken Heart syndrome is real. This is a huge issue,” said Paine.
Washington state is the only state that doesn’t have a law in place that allows grandparents to petition the courts for visitation rights.
Paine agreed that the old law was too broad and said I-1431 is far more specific.
The initiative states that only third party nonparents who are a relative by blood or law may petition the court. In addition, the petitioner must have had a substantial relationship for at least two years, or for half of their life, if they are under two years old.
“They need to prove they don’t have any problems in their background with abuse and they also must show that they child may suffer harm through the absence of them from their life,” Paine said. “It’s not a slam dunk for anyone.”
Paine said the group has about 60,000 signatures so far. And time is of the essence.
They need to collect about 247,000 valid signatures from registered Washington voters by July 2 to get the initiative on the November ballot.