Mom faces jail, $14K sanction for contempt of grandparent visitation order

A DeKalb County mother who refused to comply with court-ordered visitation between her children and their paternal grandparents must now serve jail time and pay a $14,000 sanction after the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld visitation and contempt orders on Friday.

The grandparents in D.G. v. W.M., et al., 18A-MI-2115, were awarded visitation time with D.G.’s four children in March 2016 after previously raising the children in their home for several years. Despite that order, the visits between the grandparents and grandchildren generally did not occur, so the grandparents moved to show cause why D.G. should not have been held in contempt.

In response, the trial court ordered that the mother serve 12 days in jail and pay $1,000 in attorney fees. D.G., however, never resumed visits with the grandparents, nor did she go to jail or pay fees.

Then in March 2018, D.G. moved to terminate grandparent visitation, but the trial court in June issued a show cause order against her for contempt. The actions were consolidated, and a guardian ad litem testified that grandparent visitation should continue. The trial court agreed, denying D.G.’s termination motion and issuing a contempt order requiring her to serve 180 days in the DeKalb County Jail and pay $14,000 in attorney’s fees.

On appeal, D.G. argued she presented the trial court with evidence that she and her children opposed visitation, so the court “should have required Grandparents to bear the burden of proving that visitation remained in Children’s best interests.” She further argued that In re Adoption of A.A., 51 N.E.3d 380 (Ind. Ct. App. 2016) —  which held that “the petitioner seeking a subsequent change in a grandparent visitation order bears the burden of showing the order should be modified” — was wrongly decided.

But the appellate court disagreed that A.A. was erroneous, noting D.G.’s arguments on appeal ignored the fact that the GAL testified in favor of continuing grandparent visitation. Additionally, Judge L. Mark Bailey said the change in circumstances that D.G. claimed justified terminating the visitation “were traceable to her own conduct.”

“At the modification hearing, she explained that she had changed her initial belief that visitation was in the Children’s best interests and, over time, her relationship with Grandparents had become toxic,” Bailey wrote. “… She thus invited the trial court to reward her consistent non-compliance. Here, as in In re A.A., there is a failure to acknowledge and differentiate that which is a ‘direct result of [parental] contumacious conduct.”

The court also affirmed the contempt order, noting the trial court was not required to credit D.G.’s testimony that the children were uncooperative with visitation. The appellate panel further found that D.G. was given the opportunity to purge herself of contempt if the grandparents’ counsel could notify the court that she dropped off and retrieved the children for court-ordered visits with their grandparents.

“Mother apparently believes that the stay of incarceration is conditioned upon the Grandparents’ good will toward her and that they may fail to report her future compliance,” Bailey conclude. “We observe that the notification requirement was placed upon counsel, an officer of the court. We do not agree with Mother that this deprives her of a reasonable opportunity to purge herself of contempt.”

A bill currently before the Indiana Legislature seeks to address a situation similar to that described in Friday’s opinion – grandparents’ right to seek visitation when there is an estrangement between grandparents and the grandchildren’s parents. The bill, Senate Bill 106, would give grandparents standing to petition for visitation if they have had “meaningful contact” with the grandchildren, but the grandparents’ relationship with the parents is strained.

Sen. Lonnie Randolph, the East Chicago Democrat who authored the bill, said the legislation is designed to prevent situations in which children are used as pawns to force grandparents to comply with parents’ demands.

The bill would also extend existing grandparent visitation rights to great-grandparents.

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