HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut's Supreme Court granted visitation rights Thursday to a set of grandparents over the wishes of the child's father who had argued the couple was undermining his parental decisions.
The high court upheld the ruling of a lower court judge, who found that denying visitation would cause the boy real harm.
The case involved a father, James Gavis, of Mansfield, who terminated visitation with the grandparents in June 2016, shortly after his son's mother died and he was granted sole custody.
The court found the grandparents had helped the mother raise the now 10-year-old child, especially during two years when Gavis was in prison, and had a "parent-like" relationship with the boy.
But Gavis argued the court was violating his constitutional rights because the grandparents would not abide by his parental decisions, such as limiting his son's sugar intake and preventing contact with an aunt whom Gavis did not want influencing his son. The aunt was living with the grandparents at the time.
The high court found that while judges must give special weight to the wishes of a custodial parent, they are not bound by those wishes if the parent is not acting in good faith.
"Ultimately it is up to the trial court, as the finder of fact and the arbiter of credibility, to determine the issues relating to the terms and conditions of visitation, including, without limitation, whether the requested terms and conditions reflect a parent's sincerely held belief regarding a fundamental aspect of the child's upbringing or whether they are a pretext to undermine the third-party relationship or the order of visitation," Justice Steven Ecker wrote on behalf of the court.
Gavis' attorney, Mathew Olkin, said he's concerned the ruling, especially requiring someone to prove they are acting in "good faith," puts an undue restriction on what is supposed to be a parent's constitutional right to decide how his child is raised.
"It's natural to see the grandparents as a victim and somewhat sympathetic in this type of situation," he said. "I think it may be forgotten sometimes that parents, just as much, can be expected to care very much about the wellbeing of their own child and can very much feel that they are being victimized if they are ordered to submit to somebody else's decisions as to who their child will be given over to."
Olkin said Gavis is very disappointed, but has not decided whether to appeal the case to the federal courts.
Justine Rakich-Kelly, executive director of Children's Law Center of Connecticut, said the ruling sets important parameters for judge's to follow in the future when it comes to balancing the rights of parents and grandparents.
"I think child courts will have a better understanding of what they can decide and what they should defer to parental authority," said Rakich-Kelly, who had filed a brief supporting the grandparents. "I thought the court hit a perfect note that the parent retains his right to make decisions about important things like education and religion, but once the court has established jurisdiction, it can decide when those decisions are simply designed to interfere with visitation."
A message seeking comment was left with the attorney representing the grandparents.