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Each month, over 2,000 young people age out of foster care without having found a permanent family. Within two years of leaving foster care, many of these youth will be homeless, incarcerated or unemployed.

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Grandparent Access To Their Grandchildren:

A Contemporary Issue

by: Judy Atkinson
Posted: January 8, 2004


Few studies have examined the consequences of divorce in the middle generation on the grandparent’s role. Grandparent roles are as diverse as the circumstances of their extended families (Matthews & Sprey, 1984). Grandparents often become a family’s first reserves in times of crisis. Grandparents act as fun playmates for children, role models, and family historians, mentors, and help establish self-esteem and security for children (Blau, 1984; Kornhaber & Woodward, 1981). In 1987, Crawford concluded that the stronger the tie with grandparents, the less likely children was to develop significant psychopathology in later life.

A strong argument for close relationships between grandchildren and grandparents was supported by researchers who found that adults who have had strong relationships with grandparents tend to be much more positive to the value and importance of older citizens (Downs & Walz, 1981). As well, Kivnick (1982) demonstrated that children who are close to their grandparents tend to become more effective grandparents with their own grandchildren, two generations later.

Contemporary society has witnessed the evolution of the family from an extended family unit to the nuclear or modern family unit. It has been proposed that this nuclear family structure poses a barrier which isolates extended kin such as grandparents and enables kinship relationships to be regulated by personal preference and mutual interest (Leahy-Johnson and Barer, 1987). Since the 1970s the divorcing family has been the subject of research, legal reforms, and media attention, the recipient of specialized services and the source of concern regarding the death of the family. The nuclear family has been the focus of this attention, with little effects of divorce on the extended family (Brown, 1982; Duffy, 1982).

One potential aspect of the divorcee is the disruption or severance of the grandparents-grandchild relationship (Myers & Perrin, 1993). Due to the increase in the life expectancy, most children have living grandparents. Coupled with the fact that more than 60% of divorced couples have at least one minor child, the potential for severed contact could be quite substantial (Spanier & Glick, 1981; as cited by Matthews & Sprey, 1984). A study of divorce families in Alberta found that 54.2 % of extended family members reported difficulties in visiting and maintaining contact with their grandchildren, nieces and nephews (Andreiuk, 1994).

In examining post divorce kinship interactions, Spicer & Hampe (1995) concluded that being female and/or having custody was associated with a high level of interaction with blood relatives. The gender of the parent may be less important than the awarding of custody, however, the two factors are closely related since it is customary for mothers to be awarded custody, particularly of minor children (Matthews & Sprey, 1984). Social relations with paternal kin were found to decease for the children of divorce, particularly in the case of an absent father. Findings suggest that the adult child serves as a pivotal link between grandchildren and grandparent (Anspach, 1976).

Twenty years ago, legal action for a grandparent denied access would not have been possible. The courts hesitated to intervene in family situations except in extreme circumstances directly related to the child’s welfare. The courts supported a traditional emphasis on parental rights and autonomy in child rearing (Thompson, Tinsely, Scalora & Barke, 1989). During the 19th century the Supreme Court of Louisiana ruled that the parents obligation to provide access to grandparents was a moral issue, not a legal one, and therefore was not enforceable by the court, and that the court should not intervene unless the parent was unfit (Andreiuk, 1994).

In the past twenty years, changes in Canadian law have enabled grandparents to be granted access to grandchildren over parental objections. Most important, the adoption of the best interest of the child standard as well as revelations of parental authority have been related to the general shift of focus in decisions relating to children (Andreiuk, 1994).

Child access for the third parties is covered under the federal Divorce Act and provincial access legislation. Access may be awarded if it is shown to be in the child’s best interest. Only Quebec, Alberta and B.C. have access legislation that presumes contact with grandparents is in the child’s best interest. This places the responsibility with parents to show serious cause why access would not be in the child’s best interest. Other provinces place responsibility onto the grandparents to prove that denied access will actually harm a child (Andreiuk, 1994). All but three states in the U.S. have laws permitting grandparents to petition for visitation upon death or divorce of adult. This assures the grandparent the right to be heard in court, but it still remains for the court to decide if it is in the child’s best interest to visit with the grandparent (Derdeyn, 1985).

Grandparent visitation legislation has risen quite differently from other domestic relation laws, which generally follows social change. The changes in grandparents visitation legislation is seen as the product of intense political activity by today’s older citizens who are greater in number, healthier and more politically conscious and powerful than in the past (Derdeyn, 1985; Thompson et al, 1989). The formation of grandparents rights groups is a growing phenomenon across Canada and the United States.

This paper serves to explore the circumstances surrounding grandparent-grandchild access difficulties. The impact of denied access to grandchildren is discussed with members of The Association To Reunite Grandparents and Families. The roles of the support group and the avenues of resolution sought by grandparents are also explored.

Currently there are four grandparent groups with many associated chapters that are operating in Canada. The Canadian Grandparents Rights Association, with chapters in B.C., Alberta and Ottawa, The Orphaned Grandparents Association in Edmonton, The Grandparents Requesting Access and Dignity (GRAND), with chapters in Manitoba, Toronto, Ottawa and Fredericton, and The Association To Reunite Grandparents and Families with chapters in Waterloo, Oakville and Durham Region.

In order to address a significant gap in the literature concerning outcomes of court-awarded visitations, the circumstances surrounding reinstated access are investigated, with particular attention surrounding reinstated access are investigated, with particular attention to the relationship between a grandparent and adult child. In view of controversies surrounding the legal involvement in grandparent access, (Derdeyn, 1985) it would seem necessary to evaluate the success or failure of court ordered access arrangements, in order to facilitate court decisions regarding a grandparent-grandchild visitation.


Nine interviews were conducted with members of The Association to Reunite Grandparents and Families. Three interviews consisted of both husband and wife, bringing the total interviewed to twelve. Initial contact was made with the President of the group, who in turn informed the membership about the study. Background information about the group was obtained and meetings were attended before receiving any names of group members willing to participate in an in-depth interview. The members who opted to participate in the study were contacted by phone and the majorities were interviewed in their homes for a period of two hours.

The interview format was loosely structured, utilizing nineteen questions that encompassed; demographic and family history, nature of the involvement with the group, aspects of the grandparent-grandchild relationship before access difficulties, circumstances surrounding access difficulties, the impact of denied access upon the grandparent and the legal aspects of the grandparents situation. While many of the beginning questions were brief and fact based, later questions were open-ended, resulting in reflective and complex answers involving the sharing of large amounts of extremely intimate and painful information.

There were several limitations to the present study. Data obtained was retrospective and only the perspective of the grandparent was obtained. Adult children and grandchildren were not interviewed, and the accuracy of the data could be challenged. The sample size was small and members of a grandparent right group may be not seen as representative of all grandparents who are denied access. This group may in fact be homogenous subset whereby relative youth, energy, political awareness and a previously active level of involvement in grandchildren’s lives have left them to utilize this group as a resource. In spite of these limitations, these grandparents have defined and clarified their own perceptions and experience of access difficulty with their grandchildren. This can be seen as a valuable and necessary initial focus in the study of grandparent-grandchild contact loss.



The mean age of the participants was 56.8, ranging from 47 to 67 years. Of the twelve participants, nine were females, reflecting the preponderance of grandmothers in the organization. Five participants were actively employed, while seven were either retired or not working due to health problems. Five grandmothers were married, with three of their husbands participating in the interview. Four grandmothers were divorced and three were currently single, while one was living with a common-law partner. All participants seemed to enjoy a comfortable, middle class lifestyle, with the exception of the three single grandmothers, who had experienced a post divorce decline in standard of living.

The mean age of the grandchildren was 5.7, ranging from infant to 12 years old. All grandchildren resided within one-hour drive from their grandparent’s home. Eight of the participants identified their adult child as male and a non-custodial parent. Only two female adult children, who were both married and custodial parent. This finding supports a 1995 study by Kruk, which found paternal grandparents more likely to be at risk for denied access in a divorce situation when the mother is the custodial parent. Maternal grandparents seem to be more at risk for denied access in a non divorce situation, where conflict is likely to be between grandparents and both adult child and the partner. One participant identified access difficulties with the children of both her son and daughter. Again reflective of past findings, the son was divorced and the non-custodial parent, while the daughter was married, custodial parent. Four of the adult children remained in their original marriages or relationships, while six of them had separated or divorced. Of the six, five were in new marriages or common-law relationships and one deceased adult son.

The Grandparent-Grandchild Relationship

Grandparents described their relationships with their grandchildren as extremely close before the denied access. All grandparents were regular baby sitters, ranging from daily care to weekend care. Some grandchildren actually resided with the grandparents for periods of time before the access difficulties. One grandchild lived with her grandmother two weeks of every month since birth, one grandchild lived in the basement apartment of her grandmother’s home, one lived in the same apartment building as her grandmother and one had lived with the grandparents for a two-month period just to the denied access. Grandparents commented on how much they did for their adult child, partner and grandchildren. Many had close family relationships, sharing every holiday and having daily or weekly contact. This had made the denial of access even more painful. Grandparents described themselves as a stabilizing factor in their grandchild's life. Many said they offered refuge and unconditional love to their grandchild. They described themselves as companions, teachers and family historians. In turn, grandparents commented that grandchildren offered: joy, love, fun, energy and meaning to there lives. The role of grandparent was considered to be an integral part of their self-identity.

Factors Involved in Denied Access

Grandparents were asked to identify the main reasons why access to their grandchildren was denied. Four distinct circumstances were identified, although in some cases more than one applied. Seven of the grandparents identified parental separation divorce as the primary circumstance in the grandparent-grandchild access difficulties. Denied access occurred simultaneously with some separations and at other times not a new partner arrived on the scene. One particularly heartbreaking case involved complete denial of access to an only granddaughter by an ex-daughter-in-law, after the murder of the participant’s youngest son.

Mental illness was reported as a primary reason for denied access in one case where the marriage remained intact with the son-in-law in denial over his wife’s condition. Both wife and husband saw the grandparents as interfering when they attempted to get proper medical attention for their adult daughter. Mental illness was also reported as the reason for a divorce in another case, although the divorce was seen as the catalyst for denial of grandparent access to grandchildren.

Drugs were involved in two of the cases where the adult child’s relationships remained intact, though rocky. Again, access to grandchildren was denied when grandparents attempted to obtain medical assistance for their adult children. Concern for the safety and welfare of the grandchildren was reported as most overwhelming for the grandparent. Fears increased particularly after access was denied, as they could no longer care for the grandchildren during the times when the parent was incapacitated.

While each of the stories of denied access was unique, certain patterns emerged. In every separation or divorce circumstance, denied access to grandchildren was initiated by an ex-daughter-in-law. 100% of these cases involved paternal grandparents whose son did not have custody of his children. In many cases, the son as denied access as well during a similar period of time or was disengaged from the grandchildren' lives, as in one case where the son relocated out West, or in another instance, through death.

This preponderance of access difficulties by paternal grandparents is noted in the literature and seen as a reflection of divorce rate and court awarded maternal custody of children (Ahrons & Bowman, 1982; Anspach, 1976; Furstenburg, 1981; Kalish & Visher, 1982; Leahy & Barer, 1987; Spicer & Hampe, 1975). In every intact family situation, the denied access involved conflict between the adult child and partner, who objected to what they saw as interference by the grandparents.

Avenues Explored to Restore Contact

Members of the grandparents group are advised to try other avenues before resorting to legal action. Mediation through friends, family, ministers, or mental health professionals is suggested as a first step. However, the most highly recommended and followed procedure is the writing of a heartfelt letter describing the effects of denied access on both grandparent and grandchild.

Seven of the grandparents wrote letters that resulted in three successful resolutions that avoided court involvement altogether. In these cases, grandparents felt that the stated intent to pursue the matter in court if necessary, was the main factor in the resolution of the problem. The data lends support to Gladstone’s (1989) suggestion that grandparents are not necessarily powerless, and in fact may be able to renegotiate contact.

One set of grandparents felt that legal involvement should be avoided at all costs. These grandparents were adopting a patient, non-interfering stance and would only resort to legal avenues if there was a chance that the grandchild would be placed in foster care. Other grandparents felt that disrupted access should be followed by immediate legal consultation. Some felt that family mediation would be helpful while others felt the adult children would not agree to a mediation process. The overwhelming concern was always the best interest of the grandchild and the continuity of contact.

Six of the grandparents interviewed utilized the court system in their attempts to regain access to their grandchildren. Two of these cases are still pending. The four remaining grandparents were all awarded court-ordered visitations of their own, separate from the adult child’s visitation. In one case, after her granddaughters life was in jeopardy, a grandmother returned to court and fought for custody. After a yearlong court battle and much financial hardship, she was awarded full custody of her grandchild in October 1998.

In all of the four courts ordered visitation cases, grandmothers reported successful outcomes. Despite an initial stage of tension between adult child and grandparent, things quickly settled into an arrangement not unlike the pre-existing the denied access. All grandmothers reported friendly relations with the ex-child-in-law and the ability to see their grandchildren whenever they want, not only during assigned access times. These grandmothers are now called upon to baby-sit, attend family functions such as birthday parties and sports events and can even take the grandchildren for weekends and vacations. Flexibility, communication and putting the best interests of the child ahead of hurt feelings were all cited as reasons for the diminished tension and increasingly co-operative arrangements that all had experienced since being awarded court ordered access.

Three of the grandparents who won visitation rights to grandchildren revealed that there was another grandchild that they had been denied access to. In two of the cases, the sons had lived with another woman who had given birth. In the third case, the grandmothers other adult child and husband had denied her access to a grandson, over an argument regarding circumcision. All expressed emotional and physical health problems. The consensus was that they just could not go through it all again. All three had never seen these grandchildren and two did not even know where they lived.

Grandparents described themselves as a stabilizing factor in their grandchild's life. Many said they offered refuge and unconditional love to their grandchild. They described themselves as companions teachers and family historians. In turn, grandparents commented that grandchildren offered: joy, love, fun, energy and meaning to there live. The role of grandparent was considered to be an integral part of their self-identity.

Health Issues

Eleven of the twelve grandparents interviewed reported new physical health complaints and ten grandparents revealed emotional problems leading them to seek counselling. Anxiety, depression, constant worry, insomnia, concentration problems, weight loss, headaches, and other stress-related health problems were reported. Many grandparents described their experience in terms of a grief reaction consisting of numbness, shock, denial, anger, rejection, betrayal, hopelessness and depression.

All grandparents reported worrying about their grandchildren's well being, experiencing fear of never seeing them again, profound sadness, and the loss of a significant role in their lives, which left them feeling "empty, useless and unfulfilled". Many felt angry and victimized by the adult children who they felt had used the children as "pawns".

Benefits of the Group

Most grandparents had learned of the group through an ad placed by the President in the local paper. Initially, they joined for emotional support and step by step practical advice and information. Many reported that the President; Betty Cornelius was the group as one grandparent stated: "Without Betty, I would not have known what to do. Betty took me through every step of the legal procedures and enabled me to go to court and win access without the cost of a lawyer. You do not need money. Just love, determination and a little knowledge. Other cases that are more complex may need the expertise of a lawyer. The group directs all grandparents to hire a lawyer whenever possible."

Many grandparents spoke of the emotional support and friendships of people in the group. Having someone to listen, someone who attended court with them, and hearing the other stories gave hope and empower grandparents awaiting resolution. Some grandparents have become politically active in campaigning for legislation to further grandparents’ rights of access to their grandchildren.


The members of The Association To Reunite Grandparents and Families represent a diversity of experiences, circumstance, opinions and outcomes. Access problems follow divorce, separation, or death of an adult child as well as conflict with the adult child or child-in-law in intact families. This conflict ranges from serious problems involving mental illness, drug abuse, neglect and finances to seemingly trivial issues such as circumcision of a grandchild. A substantial number of grandparents are able to restore contact using a variety of mediation strategies as well as the legal system. Those grandparents who have used these resources reported more positive outcomes than those who did not.

The process of divorce requires major reorganization, resulting in a variety of new, complex family networks. Diverse kinship alternatives exist following divorce and remarriage, with few rules on which relatives are to be included and excluded. As a result of the divorce experience, these altered kinship's systems vary from a very expansive system to a contracted and one-sided system, resulting in many implications for the family (Ahrons & Bowman, 1982; Johnson & Barer, 1987). The present study supports the finding of many contracted and one-sided kinship systems following divorce.

It is important to note that the custodial status is the main factor related to contact loss in separation and divorce cases. Grandparents of the custodial parent enjoy increased involvement with grandchildren, while grandparents of the non-custodial parent are at risk of diminished or denied contact. Present data supports the literature findings that most divorced fathers become non-custodial parents and many lose contact with their children (Kruk, 1995; Matthews & Sprey, 1984; Spicer & Hampe, 1975).

In a 1975 study, Robertson suggests that the most significant aspect of the bond between a grandparent and grandchildren is the fact that this tie is not direct, but mediated by the grandchild’s parents. As long as mothers continue to be awarded sole custody of the children, the maternal grandparents will enjoy a closer relationship with grandchildren while the paternal grandparents will continue to be at risk for diminished or denied access (Myers & Perrin, 1993).

In fact, all post-divorce or separation denied access situations in the present study were initiated by the adult child-in-law, all mothers with sole custody. Many of the fathers of this study group were denied access as well or were absent from their children’s lives for a variety of reasons. Without the adult child link to facilitate visits with their grandchildren, these grandparents had to rely on the adult child-in-law to allow visitations.

The identifications of this subgroup of grandparents who are at risk for contact loss with grandchildren suggest a need for a legal guaranteed of rights to access of grandchildren for grandparents. In Canada, the issue of grandparents’ rights of access to grandchildren has not been given recognition in legislation, with the exception of the provinces of Quebec, Alberta and B.C. In all other provinces, grandparents may only petition the courts for rights of access as interested third parties. In the absence of a specific statue providing grandparents with legal standing to access, there are continuing difficulties in obtaining contact with grandchildren (Kruk, 1995).

The existence of grandparent rights statues in the United States has effectively reduced the need for litigation (Wilson & DeShane, 1982). Many grandparents agree that law reform to further rights of access to grandchildren would likely act as a deterrent to denied access of grandchildren, thereby reducing the need for adversarial procedures. Grandparents who found the threat of going to court effectively in resolving the denial of access certainly agreed that if a legislated the right to access was in place, then perhaps the adult child-in-law would not have prevented access to begin with.

In view of successful outcomes following court ordered access in the present study, it would seem necessary that further studies follow up on court-ordered visitations, evaluating ongoing relationships and identifying problems such as refusal to obey access orders. This would serve to facilitate legal and therapeutic professions in decisions regarding grandparent involvement in the mediation and legal process of divorcing families.

Recent research suggests that grandparents play a significant role in the lives of children, and in fact, ignoring the existence of a grandparent who has formed strong bonds with a child may not represent the best interests of that child (Wilks & Melville, 1990; Kivnick, 1982; Wilson and DeShane, 1982; Downs & Walz, 1981). This study also indicates that the grandparent’s role is an integral part of their self-identity. When the role of grandparent is removed, the physical and emotional effects are severe, resulting in necessary medical and psychological intervention.

It is suggested the expanding variety of family forms present in contemporary society constitute a potential threat to grandparent’s involvement in their grandchildren’s lives. Despite the proliferation of grandparent rights groups, many grandparents experience ongoing difficulties with access to their grandchildren. The long-term impact of contact loss has not been thoroughly explored. When grandparents are removed from a child’s life, access to practical, financial and emotional resources from one side of a child’s kin system is eliminated.

The Grandparents Rights movement is an indication of the struggle of individuals to retain the family unit, in its continually changing and expanding variety of forms, by influencing the formation of legislation to support the continuity of relationships within that unit. Both legal and therapeutic professionals are in a position to advocate on the behalf off grandparents in order to retain their existence within the concept of family.


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The study report was submitted by: Betty Cornelius - President
The Association to Reunite Grandparents & Families
R.R. # 1 Mc Arthurs Mills
Ontario, Canada K0L 2M0

Judy Atkinson, Ontario, Canada, is a college student who prepared this research paper in 1999. She did a wonderful job, receiving 90% on her 45-minute oral presentation and 86% on the written paper.