Grandparents' Failed Child Custody Push Offers a Cautionary Tale
Under Pennsylvania law, the rights afforded to parents and
grandparents are always balanced against the best interests of the child.
But just because a party holds legal standing to sue for custodial rights doesn't always mean they should.
A recent case I handled for a client of my firm, Scaringi Law P.C., illustrates this point. Sometimes, a grandparent suing for child custody only alienates a grandchild and sours the relationship, rather than bringing the grandparent and grandchild closer together.
I represented the father of a girl in her mid-teens. Her mother had passed away years before, and her father had full custody. After years of growth and bonding, the girl was thriving by all accounts. She had friends. She was involved at her school, and she took part in activities in her community. As the teenager got more involved in her school and social life, she was not as interested in spending as much time with her grandparents. The grandchild began resisting or ignoring her grandparents' entreaties to come and stay with them.
Instead of allowing their grandchild some space, the maternal grandparents sued for custody - demanding their grandchild live with them every other weekend. Worse, the grandparents blamed the father for the grandchild's reluctance and disparaged him in the presence of their grandchild.
The best interests of the child should always come first
If forced to spend every other weekend with her out-of-town grandparents, the teen would be kept away from her home, her friends, her school and all of her activities. In short, the life the girl had built after losing her mother, and the teenage girl's much desired control over her schedule, was now being interrupted and threatened.
The girl blamed her grandparents, and the relationship that had been budding was being undone when the grandparents filed their lawsuit.
A conciliation conference among the parties and a Court-appointed conciliator resulted in no settlement. Neither party would budge. So, the trial was on. At the start of the trial the Judge admonished me saying he was a grandfather and how dare I deny grandparents custodial rights over their grandchild. Although I knew this case was going to be difficult, I quickly realized just how difficult it would become. At first the Judge seemed as if he would not allow the teenage girl to testify. I demanded the teenage child be permitted to testify. The Judge reluctantly agreed.
The teenager bravely testified that she did not want to be subjected to a Court-Ordered custody and that she wanted to decide if and when she would spend time with her grandparents. She testified that although she had been open to visits with her grandparents she was now resolutely against it because her grandparents persisted in their lawsuit.
On day two of the hearing the father and the maternal grandfather took the stand. The acrimony was palpable. We put into the record the several threats the maternal grandfather made to the father. It got heated.
After many other witnesses and at the conclusion of the two-day trial, the Judge issued a Temporary Order granting the grandparents some limited custodial rights. And, the Judge seemed inclined to grant more in his Final Order.
The attorneys then submitted proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. On behalf of the father we submitted a detailed brief setting forth my client's fundamental, natural right to the care, custody and control of his child. We cited many cases and the custody factors set forth in the Custody Act in support of our brief.
After the Judge read our brief, he changed his mind. In his final Order, the Judge agreed with our position, vacated his earlier Temporary Order granting the grandparents' temporary custodial rights, dismissed the grandparents' custody complaint and restored full custodial rights to the father.
Complete victories in custody cases are rare, but we were able to succeed because the best interest of the child was on our side.
The larger lesson
A judge has no power to change a human heart. A judge cannot make a grandchild want to spend time with a grandparent, or even a parent.
This is the lesson of the grandparents' unsuccessful custody fight. I'm sure they love their granddaughter and want what they think is best for her. But in pushing for custody rights and winning a temporary order granting partial physical custody, they badly overplayed their hand. They ended up pushing their granddaughter away.
In the end, the girl came to feel as if her grandparents were suing her. After all, their legal intervention was playing havoc with her life, turning it upside down.
I realize the following advice might seem strange coming from an attorney, but sometimes the best strategy in family law is to be less aggressive. Sometimes filing a custody complaint can backfire.
Prior to the lawsuit, the girl visited the grandparents and they were growing closer. By going to court and suing for more, they ended up getting less. Nothing, actually.
Children aren't inanimate objects to be moved and possessed. And grandparents must be careful. Yes, in certain situations, such as the death of their own child, they have legal standing to seek custody of their grandchild. But in the end, the best interests of the child can and should prevail.
At Scaringi Law, we put the best interests of the child - and grandchild - first in every custody case and we pursue every legal means to achieve this on behalf of the clients we serve and for the children they love.
To learn more about how Scaringi Law attorney Marc A. Scaringi can help you, call him toll-free at 877-LAW-2555 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org