Brief Fact Summary. The paternal grandparents brought a petition requesting visitation of their granddaughters. The mother agreed to some visitation, but did not agree to the extended visitation requested. Mother appealed the court’s granting of visitation as unconstitutional.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The court’s presumption that it is normally in the best interest of children to spend time with the grandparent failed to provide any protection for Granville’s fundamental constitutional right to make decisions concerning the rearing of her own daughters.
Issue. Does the Washington statute allowing any person to petition for visitation rights at any time infringe on the liberty interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children?
Held. The statute unconstitutionally infringes on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Nationwide, enactment of nonparental visitation statutes have attempted to recognize that children should have the opportunity to benefit from relationships with statutorily specified persons such as grandparents. The cost of this is a substantial burden on the traditional parent-child relationship. The liberty interest of parents in the care, custody and control of their children is perhaps the oldest fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.
The Washington statute allows any person to petition the court for visitation rights at any time, and the court may grant such visitation rights whenever visitation may serve the best interest of the child. A parent’s decision that visitation would not be in the child’s best interest is accorded no deference, placing the best-interest determination solely in the hands of the judge.
No court found that Granville was an unfit parent. There is a presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children. So long as the parent is fit, there will normally be no reason fro the State to interject into the private realm of the family to question the ability of that parent to make the best decisions concerning the rearing of that child.
The trial court gave no special weight to Granville’s determination of her daughters’ best interests. The court instead placed the burden on her to disprove that visitation would be in the best interest of her daughters. The court must accord at least some special weight to the parent’s own determination.
There is no allegation that Granville sought to cut of visitation entirely. Many other states proved that courts cannot award visitation to third parties unless a parent has denied visitation to the concerned third party. Based on the finding that the statute is unconstitutional, there is no reason to consider if the Due Process Clause requires all nonparental visitation statutes to include a showing of harm or potential harm to the child as a condition precedent to granting visitation.
Dissent. Neither the provision granting any person the right to petition for visitation nor the absence of a provision requiring a threshold finding of harm to the child provides a sufficient basis for holding that the statute is invalid in all its applications. That the Constitution requires a showing of actual or potential harm finds no support in this Court’s precedent. At a minimum, besides the interests of the State and the parent, the interests of the child must be considered. A parent’s rights with respect to her child are limited by the existence of an actual, developed relationship with a child, tied to some embodiment of family. The State has an interest in protecting children against the arbitrary exercise of parental authority that is not in fact motivated by an interest in the welfare of the child. Presumptions notwithstanding, there may be situations where a child has a stronger interest at stake than mere protection from serious harm caused y the termination of visi
tation by a person other than the parent.
Discussion. The Court found the statute unconstitutional because it was overbroad in that any person could petition for visitation at any time, and also the presumption that a fit parent would act in the best interests of the child was not recognized.