JANUARY 10, 01:34 EST

Grandparents' Visiting Rights
AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Julie Mehring, mother of a 7-year-old girl, is in jail for her beliefs. Not over politics or religion; she refuses to accept that an Illinois court could order visits between grandparents and grandchildren.

Her jail term is unusual, but not her passion. Wrenching disputes over grandparent visitation rights have become commonplace in courtrooms nationwide, often leaving scars on three generations of a family.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court tackles the issue for the first time, hearing an appeal of a ruling that struck down Washington state's visitation law. The high court's eventual decision could have broad impact, since every state has enacted laws detailing how grandparents can visit grandchildren over parental objections.

It is an issue that has bedeviled legislatures and forced state courts to make Solomon-like judgments. On one hand, parents have a fundamental right to raise their children without state intrusion; on the other hand, legislators empathize with grandparents yearning to preserve ties with their children's children.

``I want to be able to take my grandchildren to the zoo or the park. I want them to be able to get to know me,'' says Patricia Militello of Southgate, Mich.

She and her husband are fighting in court to retain the right to once-a-week visits with the two children of their daughter, Tamara, who died two years ago. Tamara's husband has since remarried and no longer wants his 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter to see their maternal grandparents.

``It's such a difficult issue, but we love those kids so much,'' says Mrs. Militello. ``It just breaks my heart to have any kind of problem with this.''

In southern Illinois, grandmother Ella Mehring won a court order to see Jenna, the 7-year-old daughter of her late son, on the first Sunday of each month.

But Jenna's mom, Julie Mehring, estranged from Jenna's dad before his death, repeatedly defied the order. Except for a five-day Christmas break, she has been in jail since mid-November.

``The state is forcing me to choose between my freedom and protecting my child,'' Julie Mehring said in a statement from jail in Edwardsville, Ill. ``I choose to protect my child.''

Ella Mehring's attorney, Margaret Walsh, says her client is ``a genuinely sweet grandmother'' who poses no threat to Jenna.

``The grandmother is just sick about this,'' Walsh says. ``But she's sticking with it. She feels some good might come of it for somebody else.''

Parental rights were pivotal in the Washington state case that goes before the U.S. Supreme Court for oral arguments Wednesday. The nine justices — six of them grandparents — are expected to issue a decision in the summer.

Washington state's Supreme Court, voting 5-4 a year ago, quashed a lower court ruling that allowed Gary and Jennifer Troxel of Anacortes, Wash., to see their two granddaughters over the objections of the girls' mother. The girls' father, Brad Troxel, committed suicide in 1993.

``State intervention to better a child's quality of life through third-party visitation is not justified where the child's circumstances are otherwise satisfactory,'' the state high court said.

Visitation laws have been struck down or sharply narrowed in a few other states, including Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, but generally have survived court challenges.

Laws vary regarding grounds for visitation. In most states, grandparents must demonstrate that visits are in a child's best interest; in some states they face the tougher task of proving a child would suffer harm without the visits.

Historically, grandparents had no legal standing to obtain court-ordered visits. But the increase in divorces beginning in the 1960s and '70s, coupled with the growing political clout of senior citizens, prompted every state to pass a visitation law in recent decades.

One of the most powerful lobbying groups for grandparents — the American Association of Retired Persons — has filed a brief with the Supreme Court supporting the Washington law.

Rochelle Bobroff, an AARP attorney, says her group hopes the Supreme Court would not raise the threshold so high that grandparents could seek visitation orders only in extreme cases.

``We don't say any grandparent can see any grandchild. It's not about an automatic right,'' she says. ``It's about a chance to go before a court, to get in the door.''

Dozens of aggrieved grandparents, including the Militellos, have been helped through the courtroom door by Richard Victor, a lawyer from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who founded the Grandparents Rights Organization.

He says the Supreme Court, in light of the fast-changing nature of America's families, should ensure that the interests of children and grandparents are considered fairly.

``A woman who divorces her husband or a mother of children whose father has died may no longer be related to the grandparents of her own children,'' Victor says. ``But her children still have a bloodline and heritage to adults who are their grandparents and thus their family.

``Should the parent, one in a chain of three, be given the constitutional sanction to amputate the family unit of the child?''

Among those intervening on the other side — in opposition to visitation laws — is the Coalition for the Restoration of Parental Rights.The group has been particularly vocal in Florida, contending that the state's large population of senior citizens is able to pressure legislators to override parental rights.

``We have all witnessed the effect of the powerful lobby of the grandparent forced-visitation movement and the tremendous amount of damage it causes,'' says the Web site of the coalition's Florida chapter. ``The grandparents who sue for visitation... are not the sweet Granny, baking cookies and apple pies.''

The coalition, and other critics of forced visitation, say some grandparents pursue costly litigation not for their grandchildren's sake but out of vindictiveness toward an estranged son-in-law or daughter-in-law.

Also intervening before the Supreme Court — arguing for an overhaul of visitation laws nationwide — are several women's rights and lesbian rights groups which endorse a brief submitted by the Northwest Women's Law Center of Seattle.

The center's counsel, Cathy Zavis, argues that single mothers should be free to resist unwanted visits from ex-boyfriends or grandparents without being forced into costly litigation. But Zavis says visitation rights should be available to ``de facto parents'' — anyone who played a significant parent-like role in a child's life, whether a grandparent or a co-parent in a same-sex partnership.

``While the grandparent-grandchild relationship may be important and pleasurable,'' she writes, ``it does not inherently rise to the level of significance in the child's life to warrant intrusion into constitutionally protected parental autonomy.

``Only where the grandparent played a de facto parenting role in the child's life is the relationship entitled to constitutional protection.''

Given the pain that can arise from court battles, even experts who support visitation rights urge grandparents to consider alternatives such as third-party mediation.

``Children need both their parents and grandparents,'' says psychiatrist Arthur Kornhaber, author of several books on grandparenting. ``Rarely should litigation take place — and only as a last resort. It ups the ante of misery.''

Copyright 2000 Associated Press.