Sunday, March 25, 2001

Couple says judge violated rights with visitation

Parents argue adopted daughter shouldn't have to see grandmother

The Associated Press

        RACELAND, Ky. — A Greenup County couple says a judge violated their constitutional rights by granting visitation of their two children to their grandparents, who the couple say are abusive.

        In January, Boyd Circuit Judge C. David Hagerman invoked a state law giving judges wide discretion in visitation cases when he ruled that Bennie and Brenda Johnson can see the children of their son, Scott Johnson, and his wife, Amanda.

        Under the court order, 3-year-old Dylan and 16-month-old Ashby were to spend Saturday with their grandparents.

        Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that parents have the right under the 14th Amendment to decide what is best for their children. The 6-3 ruling overturned a Washington law authorizing judges to order that children be turned over to grandparents or other relatives for visits.

        The decision was the court's first on the issue of court-ordered grandparent visitation, but the Washington law was broader than Kentucky's law, which remains in force.

        But about the same time that the Supreme Court issued its ruling, Thomas Howe, Boyd County's domestic relations commissioner, concluded that Scott Johnson's problems with his father grew out of “vindictiveness” and had nothing to do with the fitness of the older man to see his grandchildren.

        Judge Hagerman said he found no reason to believe the children would be harmed and used the state law to uphold Mr. Howe's conclusion.

        During this year's General Assembly session, an effort to modify Kentucky's law failed. Rep. Mike Cherry, D-Princeton, introduced a bill to require “clear and convincing” proof that grandparent visitation is in the best interest of the child. The bill passed the House 50-49 but never reached the Senate floor.

        Rep. Rob Wilkey, D-Franklin, offered an amendment to Mr. Cherry's bill aimed at adoption cases, like the Greenup County couple's. They are spending their third weekend in jail to shield their 9-year-old daughter from her biological grandmother

        The amendment would block visitation rights to grandparents who show little interest in a child before the natural parents lose custody.

        The Greenup couple, David and Melanie Brown, say they are prepared to serve jail time until their daughter, Odessa, turns 18. The Browns have said their daughter does not respond well to the visits, and that the girl no longer wishes to see her grandmother.


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