It took us 14 hard, long and painful months to get to see our grandson after the divorce. We couldn't even stand to go into stores and look at children's clothes. It just hurt too much. Why should the grandchildren and grandparents pay for mistakes the parents make? Lansing, Mich., grandmother
"The issue of grandparents' rights to visit with their grandchildren," says Gerrie Highto, "is one issue that has, unfortunately, been totally neglected."
With nearly one of every two marriages ending in divorce, grandparents may be pushed aside.
"I know too many grandparents in this position today," said Highto, "simply because of the hostilities of the divorcing couple who use the children as pawns, in an effort to get even with each other."
Highto was one of a number of grandparents testifying last Thursday before the House Select Committee on Aging's subcommittee on human services, chaired by Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.).
Biaggi said he held the hearing, titled "Grandparents -- The Other Victims of Divorce and Marital Dissolution," in response to "a growing national interest" in the subject and to stimulate "a national debate to examine federal and state remedies that should be available to grandparents who want to visit their grandchildren after divorce, death and stepparent adoption."
Witnesses included other congressmen, psychiatrists and lawyers in addition to the grandparents, whose emotional testimony drew a like response from committee members and spectators. "This is the most emotionally charged hearing I've ever sat through," Biaggi said later.
"We are dealing with an issue of monumental importance," Rep. Thomas P. Lantos (D-Calif.) told the committee, adding that he intends to make the issue his "top legislative project" in the coming session of Congress.
"The grandparent-grandchild bond is second only in emotional importance to the bond between parents and children," testified Dr. Arnold Kornhaber, a psychiatrist and coauthor of Grandparents-Grandchildren: The Vital Connection.
Concerning visitation rights, Kornhaber said it is "obvious that grandparents and grandchildren have a right to celebrate their relationship with one another as long as a grandparent is capable of just being with their grandchild."
Kornhaber says his findings indicate that "grandparents rarely commit the same mistake twice . . . they do not hurt their grandchildren."
Richard S. Victor of Oak Park, Mich., an attorney and advocate of grandparents' visitation rights, said the baby boom of the '40s will, in the 1980s and '90s, "provide our society with a greater number of grandparents than we have known in our recent past." But grandparents' rights, he said, "are only one-half of the subject. The converse deals with the rights of grandchildren to be able to visit with, communicate and maintain contact with their grandparents."
Not all grandparents, however, should be able to visit with their grandchildren, said Victor: "There may be many instances where in fact it would be detrimental to a child to be subjected to a visitation with his or her grandparents given the proper factual setting." The basic, underlying theme or factor he stressed is "that the best interests of the child shall control."
Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y.) polled the grandparent witnesses on whether they would agree with a decision against visitation in the best interests of their grandchildren. All agreed, with the stipulation that the decision be made by a mediation panel rather than a single judge.
Harvey and Marcia Kudler were two of the grandparents polled. In 1974, their daughter and her husband separated.
"We took the children Brian, born in 1969, and Vanessa, born in 1972 into our home," says Harvey Kudler. "We took the children and raised them for five years. We were given legal custody -- with the consent of both parents."
Two years later their daughter died, a suicide. The following year, the husband remarried, took the Kudlers to court and was given custody of his two children. The Kudlers' visitation rights were recognized by the court. Three months later, the father moved with his wife and the children to Colorado, where he refused to grant visitation.
The Kudlers took their case to the Colorado courts. The last judge they appeared before, said Harvey Kudler, "told us that Brian and Vanessa had 'new' grandparents and to forget about the children."
The Kudlers' appeal -- asking that their New York visitation rights be honored -- went through the Colorado courts to the Supreme Court. Two months ago, the Court refused to hear their case.
According to Kudler, he and his wife have spent $60,000 in their quest for visitation . . . to no avail. "We have not been allowed to see our grandchildren in more than three years," said Marcia Kudler. "We may not know the law, but we do know what is right."
Lee and Lucile Sumpter are the founders of Grandparents-Grandchildren's Rights, Inc., a national organization "actively assisting involved grandparents in each state to seek adequate laws to protect the visitation rights of grandparents and grandchildren, and to organize active contact groups in each state to work for a national children's rights law."
The Sumpters say they have received "820 letters and telephone calls from grandparents, 94 letters from professional persons and others who are interested in this problem. Eight negative letters have been received from parents and others who resent what we are doing."
Being refused visitation rights, commented Biaggi, grandfather of 6, must be "like dying a little."
"How would you feel," asked Highto, "if your grandchild looked up at you and said, 'Grandma, why can't I sleep at your house any more? What can you say to this loving child after he has spent practically half of his life at your house? Then after a difficult time of trying to answer, he bursts into tears and yells, 'Nobody cares about me.' "
Grandparents, said Highto, "give the gift of self-worth, the gift of caring, the important gift of heritage, the gift of special memories, the gift of sharing experiences and last, but by no means least, the gift of love and acceptance."
Biaggi said the hearing "is just a beginning . . . The issue is plain. The facts speak for themselves . . . This hearing is not the last of it." He said the committee would have to consider "the delicate issue of which level of government should assume responsibility for the enactment and enforcement" of grandparent visitation laws.
The diverse state laws already in force will be referred to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws "for their evaluation and ultimate action."
Biaggi, who was moved to tears several times during the hearing, closed his statement with a poem "written about an 82-year-old grandfather who has been denied the right to see his only granddaughter, Kim."
The first verse: Grandpa, would you walk with me? Or hold me on your knee? I wish that I could talk to you, Grandpa, why can't it be?