A bill pending in the Legislature would enhance the lives of many younger Oklahomans by allowing them increased access to people who usually provide acceptance, stability, self-esteem, hope, knowledge, family history and — especially — unconditional love.
House Bill 1520 by Rep. Justin Wood, R-Shawnee, would allow grandparents to request mediation from a district judge as a new method to seek “reasonable visitation rights” with their grandchild. The bill passed the House Judiciary committee by a 16-0 vote. However, in 2012 an identical measure never made it out of a Senate committee. This year, backers hope for a different result.
More than 79,000 Oklahoma children live in homes headed by their grandparents. Yet the moral, fit and caring grandparents who desire visitation rights — but not custody — face a far different reality. Often, when family problems occur, grandparents have difficulties maintaining a relationship with their grandchildren. Complications may arise from divorces, deaths, military deployments, arguments, violent behavior, jealousy, living arrangements, religious disputes or discrepancies in societal values between generations.
Grandparents may have briefly taken over the responsibility of raising the grandchildren, but one or both parents change their minds and want the children returned. When any of these situations occur, grandparents may be left out of the grandchildren's lives completely.
Mediation gives more room for relationship problems with grandchildren to be solved. A new boundary is needed to allow a continuing interaction between the generations. Grandparents often provide a stabilizing force for grandchildren who are living in less than ideal situations.
Under HB 1520, a judge can order visitation if it's in the best interest of the child and there is a showing of poor parental fitness, or if the child could suffer harm without the grandparents being granted visitation. Grandparents must have a pre-existing relationship with the grandchild as well. HB 1520 includes great-grandparents. Wood says mediation can clean up an ugly situation and find a peaceful solution without taking rights away from parents and dragging children though court proceedings.
There is safeguard in the bill: “Under no circumstances shall any judge grant the right of visitation to any grandparent if the child is a member of an intact nuclear family, and both parents of the child object to granting visitation.”
On the whole, HB 1520 is a benefit to all parties and to the state. Anything that has a positive impact on children makes it more likely that they will be productive adults. HB 1520 helps children and grandparents because those grandparents are our connection to the past, and often the key to what shapes our future. Grandparents set the values and standards by which families live, and it's through traditions that are passed along through generations by grandparents that families remain strong and together.
Killackey is a member of the Oklahoma Council on Aging.