MANATEE -- "The first meeting I went to, I cried through the whole thing," sighed Kathryn (not her real name), whose daughter pulled her three girls out of contact with their grandparents after a family dispute.
Tiny, well groomed and as stylish as any Floridian shopping at the neighborhood grocery, the not-yet-elderly grandmother lacked only the twinkle in her eye as she turned to her husband. "We feel that she's got some kind of personality disorder and we've been told that from a counselor we went to. We had to try to understand this."
With the deep eyes of sadness, her husband, Gene (not his real name), looked down, holding his hand to his forehead. There was silence.
"I might go to sleep when I go to bed, but I wake up
and then I have a lot of trouble the rest of the night," he admitted. "Last night I woke up at 1 a.m. "
Neither of them completely understand the nature of their daughter's decision to alienate them from their grandchildren's lives. It came after a day with the children and family at an amusement park, when Kathryn followed her daughter's usual pattern of posting photos on Facebook. But something she did caught the disfavor of her daughter, an only child, who immediately took offense and barred both of her parents from any contact with their grandchildren as a result. That was nearly a year and a half ago.
"We did some counseling and they told us it wasn't our fault. But this is our only shot at being grandparents," Kathryn said. "This group, I've really focused on that instead. We drove to Naples to find it the first time. And now I do things that make me feel good."
Since then a local chapter of Alienated Grandparents Anonymous began meeting on the second Thursday of the month at 1 p.m. in Sacred Heart Hall at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church, 12905 State Road 70 E., Lakewood Ranch. The group may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Kathryn and Gene, who once centered their lives around their family, the loss of precious childhood hours with their only grandchildren crushes their dreams of frolicking with their daughter's little ones and having large intergenerational gatherings on holidays and special occasions.
Being a targeted grandparent/parent is excruciating, according AGA leaders. "AGA recognizes that each situation is unique. Alienation is something that no grandparent or parent should face alone. With support, trauma is minimized. Members of a support group can comfort each other on this painful journey. Simply knowing that others are going through the same thing can ease some of the emotional pain and frustration in being a targeted grandparent/parent."
Specifics of each situation differ, but the feelings of alienation give grandparents a common bond. The goals of the group focus on the struggle so many grandparents have in being part of their grandchildren's lives. Grandparents who attend meetings remain anonymous so that everyone will feel free to openly share.
"Parental Alienation Syndrome was named as a condition by Richard A. Gardner in the early 1980s to refer to what he described as a disorder in which an offspring, on an ongoing basis, belittles and insults one parent without justification, due to a combination of factors, including indoctrination by the other parent (almost exclusively as part of a child custody dispute) and the child's own attempts to denigrate the target parent," explained Vickijo Letchworth, an elder abuse advocate with the Shelter for Abused Women and Children in Naples.
The effects of this kind of treatment are not limited to one generation or age. The same emotions and feelings of alienation impact grandchildren and grandparents, regardless of circumstances.
"As in all support groups, the grandparents are supported mostly by the fact they are not alone; others are also going through it as well. In the support group they share different ideas that work in 'getting through,' such as journaling or volunteering in the community. The support group is a safe place they can vent the frustration and sadness," Letchworth said.
In the Manatee AGA group, "Wilma" has committed to becoming certified as a foster parent. This will prepare her to accept custody of her grandchild, should the parent's use of illegal substances ever come to light and give her access to her own kin. Regardless, Wilma said, she intends to get the training and credentials because "there's someone out there who needs me and I'm going to be there for them."
Tall, thin and now weathered by her struggles, Wilma displays a determination that comes from having made a decision not to give up on herself regardless of the outcome of her grandmothering challenges. "It's so real," she repeats out loud in amazement. "When I wake up I take one or two Tylenol, then I try to get back to sleep. Sometimes it works."
In her situation she can physically see her grandchild, but that requires going to where the child lives and witnessing the illegal and unhealthy living situation. That experience just proves too much for Wilma to handle repeatedly.
Elder expert Vickijo Letchworth understands the need of grandparents to balance their own limitations and abilities with those of their grandchildren and with the constraints of society.
"At the very first meeting I attended, I witnessed in the stories a very strong ribbon of power and control throughout the room. The goal of someone abusing a child, or another relative, is power and control over them." Letchworth explained, "There are many dynamics in power and control. The abuser uses any form of control they need to accomplish power over the victim.'
Both a mother and grandmother herself, Letchworth admitted she felt blessed not to be going through this personally. "I am involved professionally from the aspect of the power and control it has shown to present, which is the driving force behind abuse and domestic violence. Sometimes the adult child uses power and control, or the spouse of the adult child uses it, thus controlling access to any outside support, including the positive influence of the grandparents' role in a child's life."
Throughout the meetings, confidentially is maintained to protect participants from further intimidation and "possibly from more alienation if they are in the early stages," Letchworth added.
Florida legislators attempted to enter the grandparent rights arena, but court challenges to the bill have made it ineffective in most cases, according to C. Michael Kelly, P. A., a grandparents' rights attorney.
"There are basically two choices. If the parents are doing an adequate job caring for their children, if they aren't abandoned, if there's no neglect or abuse, under the Florida constitution the law that requires grandparent visitation is seen to violate the parents' right to privacy," he explained.
The parents have a right to decide who is going to see the their children and under what conditions. Florida Statute 39.509 gives grandparents visitation rights in Florida. It reads: "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a maternal or paternal grandparent as well as a step grandparent is entitled to reasonable visitation with his or her grandchild who has been adjudicated a dependent child and taken from the physical custody of the parent unless the court finds that such visitation is not in the best interest of the child or that such visitation would interfere with the goals of the case plan. Reasonable visitation may be unsupervised and, where appropriate and feasible, may be frequent and continuing."
However, this law has been challenged more than three times by cases in which the Florida Supreme Court decided that such visitation violated the parents' right to privacy. In those cases, the grandparents are denied visitation.
"The bad news for grandparents is that normally they don't have a right for visitation. Can parents alienate? Absolutely. They can and they do," Kelly said. "It's unconstitutional because it violates the right to privacy under the Florida constitution of the parents' in an intact family, which includes a parent with a child, even if this is someone you don't like. You can be the parent of a deadbeat dad child, but you still want contact with your grandchild. The parent who is with the child can deny you as the grandparent any contact with the child. Basically, there's not anything they can do with that legally," the attorney said.
Still, "in dependency court, grandparents are often the heroes," he added. "They can come in and take the children and everything's great, thanks to them. A foster parent in everyone's imagination is somebody who's getting paid by the state. Grandparents are also a foster care type of placement if you consider placements to be anything other than parents. In Florida we call it relative placement. Relatives can keep family intact.
"Sometimes the Department of Children and Family Services won't act and the child is being abused, neglected or abandoned. In those instances a grandparent can bring a petition for temporary custody for a relative. Temporary custody means until they turn 18 maybe. It may also mean a year, a month or whatever." Kelly explained, "In those cases they go to family court when a parent objects. In most cases the parents say okay, but they still want the family to take care of the children and they sign consent. If one parent objects, it's a knock-down, drag-out fight. You have to take the kids away from the parents. The state should be doing this and they aren't. That's a tough day in court."
Additional information about AGA can be found online at www.aga-fl.org.