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Grant v. Grant

Supreme Court of Delaware

November 7, 2017

RALPH R. GRANT and MARY GRANT, [*] Respondents Below, Appellants,
MINDY GRANT and RAYMOND GRANT, Petitioners Below, Appellees.

          Submitted: October 18, 2017

         Court Below: Family Court of the State of Delaware, in and for New Castle County File No. CN15-06398 Petition No. 15-36574

         Upon appeal from the Family Court. REVERSED.

          David C. Gagne, Esquire (argued) and Achille C. Scache, Esquire, (argued) Giordano, Delcollo, Werb & Gagne, Wilmington, Delaware for Appellants.

          Andrew W. Gonser, Esquire (argued), Gonser and Gonser, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware for Appellees.

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA and TRAYNOR, Justices.


         The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution contains "a substantive due process component" that protects "certain fundamental rights and liberty interests."[1] One of these fundamental liberty interests is the liberty interest of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.[2] The United States Supreme Court has stated that this interest "is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized" by the Court.[3] 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.[4] 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."[5]

         Accordingly, 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 evidence."[6]

         Here, 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."[7] 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 unreasonable."[8]

         However, 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.

         Thus, for the reasons set forth below, we hold that the Family Court abused its discretion in awarding visitation to the grandparents and accordingly, REVERSE.

         I. Factual Background

         Before giving birth to her children, the relationship between Mary Grant ("Mother") with her in-laws "wasn't the warmest, " but still amicable.[9] 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.[10] 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.

         Once 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."[11]

         Grandparents 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.[12]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 in 2012.

         The 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.[13] Grandmother responded, "We don't deserve this."[14] Though Parents had previously contemplated ceasing contact between Children and Grandparents several times, they finally decided to end all visits.

         In the aftermath of Parents' decision, Grandmother joined Facebook groups such as "Narcissist Parents Who Abuse Their Own Children, "[15] "Parents of Estranged or Alienated Adult Children, "[16] "Grandparents Without Rights, "[17] and "Prayers for Broken Families."[18] She posted that she wanted to "slap" Mother, Father, and maternal grandparents;[19] that Mother is "narcissistic";[20] and that Grandmother "sent a lot of daggers" towards Mother at one of the Children's sports games.[21] She also wrote, "[S]ome days I want to[] kill everyone. I do take meds for this rage I feel and it helps."[22] 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.

         Sometimes 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.[23]

         Grandmother 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."[24] 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 her.

         Mother testified that she could not envision a situation where she would consider visitation acceptable, whether supervised or not.[25] 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 kids."[26]

         The 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 present."[27]

         However, 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."[28]

         On 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."[29] 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."[30] The court believed such visitation would not substantially interfere with the parent-child relationship, [31] 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.

         On 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 below.[32]

         II. Scope and Standard of Review

         We review the Family Court's legal conclusions de novo.[33] 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."[34] 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 deductive process[.]"[35]

         III. Analysis

         As 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."[36] The court may grant third-party visitation only if all three statutory requirements are met.[37] Even accepting the facts as found by the Family Court, the record does not sufficiently ...

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