In a Birmingham civil case filed in August, both sets of grandparents are suing their son, or son-in-law, for the opportunity to see their grandchildren. The final ruling was to have been made on December 2, but Jefferson County Circuit Judge Bentley Patrick sealed the case from public view the day prior to the final hearing.
Patrick asked a reporter for AL.com to leave Friday’s hearing because the case is sealed.
Patrick stated that while he realized that the case was of public interest because it involved the new grandparents law, there were issues involved in the case that required him to seal it. He mentioned the fact that juveniles were involved in the case.
Patrick also said that while his decision in the case would not be made public, it’s likely that if his decision were to be appealed, the decision would be revealed by the appellate court.
This year, Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law a new grandparent visitation bill that gives some grandparents the right to see their grandchildren, nearly five years after a similar law was deemed unconstitutional. The new law repeals the Alabama Grandparents Visitation Act, which was enacted in 2010.
The new law, which addresses grandparent’s visitation rights, says petitioners must provide clear and convincing evidence to show the court that the children would be harmed without grandparent visitation. The law also sets out specific criteria for grandparents who wish to file a petition against their grandchildren’s parents.
The petitioner, or grandparent, must show a “significant and viable relationship” with the grandchildren they are wishing to visit. To establish that relationship, the law says the child must have lived with the petitioner for at least six consecutive months either with or without a parent present; the petitioner must have been the caregiver to the child for at least six consecutive months; or the petitioner must have had frequent or regular contact with the child for at least 12 consecutive months that resulted in a strong and meaningful relationship with the child. All criteria must have taken place within three years of filing of the lawsuit.
Court records, obtained before the judge sealed the case, show that both sets of grandparents were active in the three children’s lives, and saw the children almost daily. The two sets of grandparents suing are the maternal grandmother and her husband, referred to as the step-grandfather; the paternal grandfather and his wife, referred to as the step-grandmother. Their petitions for visitation were consolidated into one lawsuit against the children’s father.
According to court documents, the defendant and his wife were together for 16 years. She died at home in February, 2014, of undetermined causes. One of the children, who are all minors, found the mother dead.
Filings show the maternal grandmother drove from Huntsville multiple times per week to care for the three children, from 6:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. She and the paternal step-grandmother split days of caring for the children, documents showed. They each cleaned the home, cooked for the children, and transported them to and from school or daycare. Filings state the father said that the maternal grandmother should have a bed in the home so she would not have to make the lengthy drive at night. The maternal grandmother and maternal step-grandfather moved from Huntsville to Birmingham to further care for the children.
A case filed earlier this year has reignited the debate about grandparent’s rights to visit their grandchildren- a topic of discussion for the last five years after a grandparents visitation bill was deemed unconstitutional.
In December, 2014, the grandparents state that the father terminated their visitation rights “without explanation” and only allowed the grandparents to see the children after church on Sunday or on gift-giving holidays, both for short periods of time. During these visits, the paternal grandmother was always present, which filings state “negatively impacts and significantly impairs the interaction” between the grandparents and the children. Denying the grandparents visitation rights is not in the best interest of the children, filings state.
The father reportedly told one of the children that she only has one grandparent- the paternal grandmother. The loss of visitation is not in the best interest of the children, documents said, because of the established and significant relationship all four petitioners had with the children prior to December, 2014. All four grandparents are “ready, willing, and able to provide the minor children with love, affection, and guidance.”
In the petitions, the grandparents ask that they are each allowed to resume regular visitation with the children, that the children are evaluated by a child psychologist and offered counseling services, and that the father be “ordered to attend therapy for his anger management and or have a psychological evaluation.”
Documents from both sets of grandparents stated the father puts his own interests above the best interest of the children, and cited the following reasons: The father “had another woman in his home who was drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes” within two weeks of his wife’s death; the father “ripped away the long and strong relationship” the children had with the grandparents; and the father told the youngest child she only has one grandparent. Filings also show the father has “significant anger issues” because of his verbal treatment and threats to the grandparents, and also because he has “pulled a gun on his best friend.” Documents also state the father has put rubber snakes around his home in order to ward off visitors and frighten the children.
Attorneys for the father asked the judge to dismiss the case early on, but the judge did not. In records filed by the defense, the father claims that the law infringes on his constitutional rights over his children. “The father’s decisions regarding the associations of the children is an exercise of the Father’s fundamental right as a parent, which exists regardless of the state,” a filing by the father’s attorneys stated.
His attorneys, Amber Ladner and Chip Bradford, on Friday filed an appeal of Patrick’s decision to seal the case. They also asked that the lawsuits by each of the step-grandparents be dismissed, and that the cross-claims of the Guardian ad Litem be dismissed.
The appeal states that neither the plaintiffs nor the defense filed a motion to seal the case, and there was no hearing conducted about the matter. The order sealing the case offered no findings or reasons to deny the public access to the case. The Alabama Supreme Court has set procedure for sealing a case, and Patrick did not take any of the steps required, the defense stated.
In the appellate documents, the defense said that a grandparent is defined in Alabama Code as a parent of a parent, whether the relationship is created biologically or by adoption. The step-grandfather and the step- grandmother have no standing to file a petition per that definition, the document states.
The defense also asked that cross-claims by the Guardian Ad Litem against the father be dismissed, because the minor children are not parties in the case.
In a document filed by the Guardian ad Litem, or the attorney representing the best interests of the children, John Bodie, the children are “members of a non-traditional family under the Alabama Policy Institute” because of the death of their mother. Therefore, the traditional definition of a grandparent presented by the defense is not adequate. Under the new law, the children’s grandparents have a right to file a visitation petition because one of the parents is deceased.
Bodie states the children have a constitutional right to associate with their family members, and their fathers actions to limit their contact has deprived the children of that strong, emotional bond. Bodie’s filings also state the children have been injured by the loss of visitation, and the children want to see their grandparents.
In a document filed by Bodie, he stated at least three United States Supreme Court Justices have recognized that children have relationships that deserve constitutional protection.
Attorneys and parties in the case could not comment on the case due to the seal.
AL.com reporter Kent Faulk contributed to this report.