Group fights for visitation rights

SANDUSKY Marv Keller wears a T-shirt with a photo of smiling baby in a bonnet. "
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

Marv Keller wears a T-shirt with a photo of smiling baby in a bonnet.

"This is my granddaughter at 6 months," the shirt states. "What does she look like now? I don't know -- I can't see her!"

More than a decade has passed since Keller has seen his now 14-year-old granddaughter and 22-year-old grandson. Because of conflicts between Keller and his stepson, he is unable to visit them.

"For the first two years, you cry," he said. "Then you get despondent."

Keller turned his frustrations into action -- founding a localchapter for parents, grandparents and relatives facing similar problems.

The North Coast Children's Rights Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping those denied access to children, meets monthly and is reviewing a test case to go through the Erie County court system that could set a precedent for other cases to come.

Castalia attorney Roger Stark, who is volunteering his time to offer legal advice to the group, said it can be difficult for grandparents to gain visitation rights because of lengthy and complicated court procedures.

Grandparents may file the paperwork themselves, but the paperwork is often denied because the person filing is not typically familiar with the specifics -- making it more likely they will make errors.

"The law in Ohio is not hostile to grandparents -- the procedures are," Stark said.

Stark said Erie County procedures are particularly difficult. Even if all paperwork is filed correctly and on time, gaining a hearing takes at least six weeks.

Besides the initial costs of filing in court, attorneys fees can add up -- ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 by the time the grandparent gets an initial hearing.

Larger counties have specialized departments for the process, allowing filings to be resolved more quickly, Stark said.

The North Coast Children's Rights Council is one of 37 chapters throughout the country.

Formed in 1985, the national CRC works to assure children have meaningful and continuing contact with both their parents and extended family, regardless of the parents' marital status.

"Our motto is: The best parent is both parents," CRC CEO David Levy said. "We want to reduce litigation, reduce conflict so children will continue to have normal contact with mom and dad, and we do that through pursuing more joint custody, access centers (neutral places where children are exchanged between parents) and supervised visitation."

In recent years, 45 access centers have been developed throughout the United States -- many founded by child advocacy groups -- but more are needed, said Margaret Wuwert, national director of access and training for the CRC.

Wuwert said the issue of grandparent visitation is growing.

"These are grandparents whose children are withholding grandchildren from them for whatever reason," she said, "and so many courts won't even address it."