30 Laws in 30 Days: New law could help more grandparents receive visitation rights

By Zoie Richey

Editor’s note: This is the 18th in a series of stories about new laws that are taking effect, most of them on July 1.

INDIANAPOLIS — Melba Sutliff’s heart is broken. She misses having her grandson come over and visit.

Sutliff lost the right to see her grandson. Her former son-in-law and daughter had divorced. He remarried shortly before Sutliff’s daughter died and his new wife adopted the child. Now the parents won’t let Sutliff visit him.

“I lost my daughter, and then I lost my grandson,” Sutliff said. “I just don’t know how to explain what it does to you.”

Currently, the state requires grandparents to petition grandparent visitation rights before an adoption takes place. Sutliff, who lives in Hamilton County, was unable to petition for her rights before the adoption, because she did not know the adoption was happening in the first place.

This case led Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, to author House Enrolled Act 1245, which would require adoption attorneys to notify grandparents of pending adoptions. This would allow grandparents the opportunity to petition for visitation rights in the event they didn’t know their grandchild was going to be adopted.

After finding out she could no longer see her grandson, Sutliff took her former son-in-law to court to try to regain her visitation rights. A court ruled she had no standing to seek visitation, because Sutliff filed her petition after the child had been adopted.

“We sympathize with Sutliff’s plight, and we recognize that especially in family law matters more is undoubtedly involved than the legally relevant facts disclose,” reads the ruling from the court of appeals. “But the legally relevant facts are those upon which we must base our decision, and here, those facts lead inescapably the conclusion that Sutliff had no legal right to seek grandparent visitation at the time she filed her petition.”

A footnote in the ruling said one way to avoid similar situations in the future would be to change state law to require grandparent notification.

Karickhoff took the court’s suggestion and authored the new law to do just that.

The law, however, does not change grandparent visitation rights, Karickhoff said. It simply notifies grandparents so they have the chance to petition.

“You want to try to do what’s right for grandparents, but it’s the parents’ right to decide who sees their kids and who doesn’t see their kids,” Karickhoff said.

Sutliff is in favor of grandparents being notified but still has concerns.

“They’re at the mercy of the adoption lawyer to get the information to them in time,” Sutliff said. “And if they don’t, then the law didn’t do any good to begin with.”

For now, she hopes the time she did get to spend with her grandson will remain in his memory.

“It’s just a very sad, unfair situation for him,” she said. “I mean, yes, I would love to see him, but I worry more about him and what this is doing to him in the long run.”

Zoie Richey is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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