The Indiana Senate Judiciary Committee is pumping the brakes on a bill that would allow grandparents and great-grandparents to seek visitation with their grandchildren despite estrangements with the children’s parents, with two notable Indiana bar association groups speaking out against the proposed legislation.
Committee chairman Sen. Randy Head declined to call for a vote on Senate Bill 106 when committee members gathered for their first meeting of the 2019 Legislative Session on Wednesday. The issue, Head said, was that the Indiana State Bar Association had expressed “significant concerns” about the family law legislation. Additionally, the Indianapolis Bar Association sent a representative to Wednesday’s meeting to publicly testify against SB 106 on behalf of the Family Law Section.
Senate Bill 106, authored by Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, would expand Indiana Code section 31-17-5-1 to allow grandparents to petition for visitation if meaningful contact between the children and grandparents has existed, “but, as a result of an estrangement between the parent of the child and the grandparent or great-grandparent, the parent of the child terminated the child’s visits with the grandparent or great-grandparent.” Existing law only allows grandparents to seek visitation if a parent is deceased, the parents are divorced or the child was born out of wedlock, with some exceptions.
Additionally, the bill would extend existing grandparent visitation rights to great-grandparents.
“The key thing in the bill dealt with ‘meaningful contact,’” Randolph told Indiana Lawyer. “… The courts have discretion, and it was hard and difficult to get people to see that when you have an issue like that and the courts take over, judges in their good judgment will utilize their discretion to see what’s in the best interests of the child.”
Former Senate Judiciary Committee chair Brent Steele filed similar legislation in 2010, but the bill did not become law.
Similar concerns have been revived nine years later with Randolph’s bill. In an email to Indiana Lawyer, Katharine Vanost Jones, chair of the ISBA’s Family Law Council, said the council unanimously voted to oppose the legislation for three reasons:
- The bill conflicts with the decision in Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 120 S. Ct. 254 (2000);
- The bill “appears to allow grandparents and great grandparents to intervene in intact families,” and;
- The bill “expands the number of people who have standing to request visitation, diluting the amount of time a non-custodial parent has with the child.”
Likewise, Thomas Green, immediate past president of IndyBar’s Family Law Section, said the legislation would give grandparents standing to potentially disrupt the lives of children who are already appropriately cared for. He further noted that custody disputes could expand from two parents to as many as eight people if every great-grandparent is alive and petitions for visitation.
The net effect of SB 106, Green said, would be to choke the court system and divest parents of their ability to control their children’s influences and raising.
But in his presentation of the bill to the committee, Randolph painted a very different picture – one of a family in which the children are being used as pawns to force grandparents to comply with parents’ demands.
Those situations were the inspiration of Steele’s 2010 bill, Randolph said, recounting the story of one of Steele’s clients being denied visitation with their grandchildren because the grandparents would not give the parents money. Randolph said he, too, has had clients encounter similar situations.
Through SB 106, those grandparents would have standing to petition for visitation despite their poor relationship with the children’s parents. That would be especially important for grandparents who raise their grandchildren for a time before the parents decide to cut off contact.
In response to Green’s testimony, Randolph said he took issue with the fact that the bar associations weren’t viewing his legislation as he did, through the lens of children being used as bargaining chips. Committee chair Head responded by saying he understood the issue engendered passion from both sides, which is why he wanted to hold the bill before calling for a vote.
Tempers flared at one point during the hearing after the testimony of Ron Mitchell, a veterinarian who spoke on the bill. While Mitchell had some concerns about the legislation, he said personal experience led to his support of the estrangement provision.
But at one point during his testimony, Mitchell announced that he had learned that some lawmakers have daughters named Michelle. He asked those lawmakers to consider a situation in which Michelle died, her children were adopted and the adoptive parents would not allow grandparent visitation.
Mitchell continued with that example for several minutes, referencing specific lawmakers and their daughters named Michelle on multiple occasions. At the conclusion of Mitchell’s testimony, Sen. Jim Buck angrily said he had never heard of a witness being permitted to use lawmakers’ family members as examples during testimony.
“They don’t know our family dynamics,” Buck said.
Head responded by apologizing to Buck and all committee members, saying he should have put a stop to that portion of Mitchell’s testimony. Mitchell attempted to respond to Buck’s comments, but Head would not allow him to speak again, as his testimony had already concluded.
SB 106 was originally scheduled to come back before the committee at its next meeting on Jan. 16. However, as of Friday, the bill had been removed from next week’s Judiciary Committee agenda.