RALPH R. GRANT and MARY GRANT, [*] Respondents Below, Appellants,
MINDY GRANT and RAYMOND GRANT, Petitioners Below, Appellees.
Submitted: October 18, 2017
Below: Family Court of the State of Delaware, in and for New
Castle County File No. CN15-06398 Petition No. 15-36574
appeal from the Family Court. REVERSED.
C. Gagne, Esquire (argued) and Achille C. Scache, Esquire,
(argued) Giordano, Delcollo, Werb & Gagne, Wilmington,
Delaware for Appellants.
W. Gonser, Esquire (argued), Gonser and Gonser, P.A.,
Wilmington, Delaware for Appellees.
STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA and TRAYNOR, Justices.
Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution
contains "a substantive due process component" that
protects "certain fundamental rights and liberty
interests." One of these fundamental liberty interests
is the liberty interest of parents to make decisions
concerning the care, custody, and control of their
children. The United States Supreme Court has stated
that this interest "is perhaps the oldest of the
fundamental liberty interests recognized" by the
Court. However, this interest is not absolute.
Under certain state statutes, third parties may petition the
court for visitation rights. But to protect parents'
constitutional liberty interest, courts must grant
"special weight" to parents' views on
visitation and their children's best
interests. Although the Supreme Court has not defined
"special weight, " precedent "make[s] it clear
that 'special weight' is a very strong term
signifying extreme deference."
under Delaware's Third Party Visitation statute, 13
Del. C. § 2412 ("Section 2412"), when
a parent objects to a third party's request for
visitation, "the parent's determination of the
child's best interest will prevail unless the nonparent
seeking visitation proves that: (1) visitation is in the
child's best interest; (2) the parent's objections
are unreasonable by clear and convincing evidence; and (3)
visitation will not substantially interfere with the
parent-child relationship by a preponderance of the
in the case before us, grandparents petitioned for
third-party visitation rights, and the parents objected. The
Family Court essentially found the parents' objections
were not unreasonable. The grandparents had attacked the
parents on social media, disparaged their parenting
abilities, demoralized their son (the father), and sought to
meddle in the parents' relationships with their children.
Nonetheless, the court awarded the grandparents the right to
visitation in a "supervised, therapeutic
setting." The court believed that visitation in such
a controlled environment, and under the supervision of a
trained professional, would minimize the parents'
concerns and render their objections "clearly
the record provides no basis for supporting the conclusion
that supervised, therapeutic visitation would adequately
address the reasonable objections of the parents. Further,
the grandparents here presented no evidence to support a
finding that supervised, therapeutic visitation would not
substantially interfere with the parent-child relationship.
for the reasons set forth below, we hold that the Family
Court abused its discretion in awarding visitation to the
grandparents and accordingly, REVERSE.
giving birth to her children, the relationship between Mary
Grant ("Mother") with her in-laws "wasn't
the warmest, " but still amicable. However, while
pregnant with her first son, Mother grew concerned about her
in-laws' seeming desire to interfere with her role as a
parent. For example, Raymond and Mindy Grant
("Grandfather" and "Grandmother"
individually, and "Grandparents" collectively) told
parents, their son Ralph ("Father") and Mother
(collectively, "Parents"), that they intended to
serve as their future grandchildren's confidants. They
invoked the mantra of "whatever happens at
[Grandparents' house] stays [at Grandparents'
house]" and said that they would not tell Parents if the
children confided in them about drug and alcohol
use. After Parents mentioned that they
envisioned their firstborn attending daycare, Grandmother
insisted she would babysit him instead. Mother felt
Grandmother was encroaching on her role as a parent.
their first son was born in 2008, Parents began the tradition
of weekly family dinners with each set of grandparents.
During such dinners, Grandparents ignored Parents and
attempted to persuade their young grandchildren
("Children") to push Parents for more time among
Grandparents and Children. For example, Grandmother told
Children, "Make sure you tell your mommy to bring you
over as soon as possible."
were never satisfied with just weekly dinners, and Father
recalled that they would yell whenever Parents rebuffed
Grandparents' requests to increase their frequency.
Grandparents would "lay into" Father in person and
by e-mails, text messages, and phone calls alleging that
Parents were committing severe child and elder
abuse.Grandparents told Father that Mother was
brainwashing him and blamed her for the state of family
relations. Despite Grandparents' behavior, Parents
maintained their tradition of weekly dinners, but they became
more difficult logistically after their third child was born
last straw came on May 20, 2013, when Mother had to take one
son to the hospital for x-rays, and Mother texted Grandmother
that they would need to take a "rain check" on
dinner because that one son was sick. Grandmother
responded, "We don't deserve
this." Though Parents had previously
contemplated ceasing contact between Children and
Grandparents several times, they finally decided to end all
aftermath of Parents' decision, Grandmother joined
Facebook groups such as "Narcissist Parents Who Abuse
Their Own Children, " "Parents of Estranged or
Alienated Adult Children, " "Grandparents
Without Rights, " and "Prayers for Broken
Families." She posted that she wanted to
"slap" Mother, Father, and maternal
grandparents; that Mother is
"narcissistic"; and that Grandmother
"sent a lot of daggers" towards Mother at one of
the Children's sports games. She also wrote,
"[S]ome days I want to kill everyone. I do take meds
for this rage I feel and it helps." Although
Grandmother believed that these groups were private, she
later learned that anyone could join them. Parents had joined
under a pseudonym to monitor Grandmother's posts to
protect their family.
Father received texts from Grandmother saying that she missed
him. But other times she wrote that she hated him and was
going to write him out of Grandparents' will. In
September 2013, Father went to Grandparents' house to
remove some of his belongings, and Grandfather called him a
"pussy" and said he should change his last name to
Mother's maiden name.
admitted that she enjoyed annoying Mother by showing up at
Children's games over Parents' objections.
Grandparents generally did not approach Children, but they
tried to get their attention. Father asked Grandparents to
leave one game because they had approached Parents'
oldest son and it frightened him. Grandparents refused and
said, "this is on you." Grandparents also
attended the oldest son's First Holy Communion uninvited,
and Grandmother attempted to volunteer at Children's
school to see them before Mother called the school to prevent
testified that she could not envision a situation where she
would consider visitation acceptable, whether supervised or
not. Father echoed Mother: "I
couldn't imagine sending my kids to visit people that
have openly admitted to disliking the way that we choose to
raise our children. I -- I can't see any way, shape, or
form how that would not impact our relationship with our
Family Court found that the "severe wedge" between
Parents and Grandparents stemmed from Grandparents'
expectations for more time with Children and their
"aggressive approach to pushing" for it.
Grandparents' wishes conflicted with Parents' desire
to "have a more structured schedule for contact and to
not permit anyone - Father's parents or Mother's - to
have time with the children without either parent
despite Grandparents' increasingly "inappropriate
behaviors, " including "unfortunate statements by
Grandmother on Facebook, " the Family Court also blamed
Parents for "rapidly chang[ing their behavior] in a very
negative way, going from weekly visits with Grandparents to,
without warning, no contact whatsoever, and forbidding
Grandparents from attending even sporting events for the
boys, " and "telling the children that Grandparents
are not safe people and that they are in fact people about
whom the children should be concerned."
January 30, 2017, the Family Court granted Grandparents'
petition for visitation. It found that, although most of the
best interest factors set forth in 13 Del. C. §
722 favored neither party, "permitting some level of
contact with Grandparents [was] in the best interests of the
children." The Family Court indicated that
Parents' "complete denial of visitation" was
unreasonable in light of arrangements that might alleviate
their concerns and awarded "supervised, therapeutic
visitation." The court believed such visitation would
not substantially interfere with the parent-child
relationship,  even though the court received no
evidence on the subject of supervised visitation. Parents
appealed this decision and, on March 24, 2017, the Family
Court stayed its decision authorizing supervised visitation.
appeal, Parents first contend that the Family Court erred in
its application of Section 2412's requirement that a
third-party seeking visitation must demonstrate that the
parents' objections are unreasonable by clear and
convincing evidence. Second, they argue that the Family Court
also misapplied the statute in granting supervised,
therapeutic visitation. Third, they contend that the statute
providing for modification of third-party visitation orders,
13 Del. C. § 2413, is unconstitutional because
it does not accord deference to the parents. We do not
address this last contention as it was not fairly presented
Scope and Standard of Review
review the Family Court's legal conclusions de
novo. However, we "review the Family
Court's application of the law to the facts and the
sufficiency of evidence supporting its findings for an abuse
of discretion." The Family Court does not abuse its
discretion if its findings "are sufficiently supported
by the record and are the product of an orderly and logical
mentioned, "where a parent objects to visitation, the
parent's determination of the child's best interests
will prevail unless the nonparent seeking visitation proves
that: (1) visitation is in the child's best interests;
(2) the parent's objections are unreasonable by clear and
convincing evidence; and (3) visitation will not
substantially interfere with the parent-child relationship by
a preponderance of the evidence." The court may
grant third-party visitation only if all three statutory
requirements are met. Even accepting the facts as found by
the Family Court, the record does not sufficiently ...