Under Rhode Island law grandparents and relatives have the right to petition the Family Court to visit with a grandchild and other relatives. Frequently it occurs that during or after a divorce grandparents or relatives have been shunned by one spouse. Additionally, visitation with a family member or grandparent is sometimes curtailed when one of the child's parents has died.
In the first scenario (i.e. following a divorce or in other situations where parents simply will not allow a child to visit with grandparents), the grandparents can petition the Family Court to be allowed to see the child, i.e. for visitation rights. During or after divorce they can intervene in the proceeding and seek "reasonable visitation rights of the grandchild to the grandparent." R.I.G.L. §15-5-24.2. Thereafter the court can make orders to enforce the visitation rights. The statute requires that notice of any further petition for change of custody or visitation shall be provided to the grandparent. This means that grandparents and relatives can continue to be involved in the case after the initial visitation order is entered.
In determining whether the court should grant visitation rights to grandparents and relatives, the Family Court judge must make specific findings regarding whether:
1. it is in the best interest of the grandchild that the petitioner have visitation rights with the child;
2. the petitioner is a fit and proper person to have visitation rights;
3. the petitioner grandparent has repeatedly attempted to visit with his or her grandchild within the last past 30 days and was not allowed to do so;
4. there is no other way that the petitioner is able to visit with the grandchild without court intervention;
5. the petitioner prove by clear and convincing evidence that the parents decision to refuse visitation was reasonable.
Similar provisions apply to siblings and other relatives of a child thus opening the door for many parties to intervene in the Family Court for visitation rights.
In the second scenario (when a child's parent has died), if the surviving parent does not allow visitation to grandparents and other family members, the Rhode Island Family Court has authority to "grant reasonable visitation rights of the grandchild or grandchildren to the grandparent." R.I.G.L. §15-5-24.1. This may occur regardless of whether a divorce, separation, or custody proceeding was instituted prior to the death of the parent. The court also has the authority to make "all necessary orders to enforce visitation rights."
Grandparents and other relatives' visitation rights have become increasingly important over the last several years as a result of numerous societal factors leading to more untraditional family relationships. The issue has also worked its way to the United States Supreme Court. In Troxel v. Granville wherein the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Washington State law allowing any third party to petition for visitation rights notwithstanding the parent's objections. The constitutionality of the Rhode Island grandparents and relatives visitation statutes (R.I.G.L. §15-5-24.1 - 4) have not been challenged subsequent to the Troxel ruling in 2000.
In Rhode Island the issue of grandparents' rights has been litigated to the Rhode Island Supreme Court by one of McIntyre Tate's star litigators, Robert J. Sgroi. In 1993 the Rhode Island Supreme Court in Puleo v. Forgue upheld a Family Court judge's denial of visitation rights when grandparents petitioned for visitation following the death of the child's divorced mother. The court concluded that continued visitation was not in the best interest of the child under the circumstances. The child expressed a desire not to visit with the grandparents and there was great animosity between the grandparents and the surviving father. Since this 1993 case was decided before the Supreme Court decided Troxel v. Granvillein 2000, the Rhode Island grandparents visitation statute may be vulnerable on constitutional grounds. It awaits to be tested.