HARTFORD, Conn. — Increasingly, a wrenching dispute is playing out in courts nationwide: balancing parents' constitutional rights to raise their children without interference against grandparents' desire to be involved in those youngsters' lives.
Now, a growing number of grandparents are pushing lawmakers across the country to change state standards they say are too restrictive and ignore the unique bonds many grandparents have with their grandchildren.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide this winter whether it will revisit the issue, which it addressed 11 years ago in a landmark case out of Washington state that makes competent parents' wishes the guiding principle in most disputes.
Although all state laws must meet that constitutional threshold, their efforts have resulted in a patchwork of state court rulings and legislation. They now impose such a variety of conditions that the parties' home states can affect the cases almost as much as the specifics.
Connecticut has become a battleground state in the issue for two reasons: Its protections for parents are among the nation's strictest, and many of its grandparents are very vocal in their push to change it.
A task force will advise the Connecticut General Assembly this winter on whether to change state law to give grandparents more chances to get into court to argue their cases.
"Right now it's the luck of the draw if you're some poor family stuck in a state that doesn't stand behind that grandparent-grandchild bond and attachment," said Susan Hoffman, 59. She founded Advocates for Grandparent Grandchild Connection after losing her California petition for visitation when her adult son signed away parenting rights to her grandson.
The growing movement among grandparents' groups has alarmed many parents and their advocacy groups nationwide, which includes organizers and participants on parentsrights.com.
Many say they are being pilloried by those who wrongly accept stereotypes that all grandparents are loving and supportive. And they say they're being drained financially to defend parenting rights the Supreme Court has already upheld.
Polly Tavernia, 41, said her New York case cost her family almost $10,000 even though her estranged mother's petition was eventually dismissed.
"It was one of the worst things I've ever been through," she said. "It's honestly just horrible to have to worry about someone else making those decisions for you, especially when they don't know the whole story."
All 50 states have laws governing the conditions for nonparent third parties seeking visitation, but it was only in 2000 that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling said none of those laws can infringe on the rights of competent parents.
That includes determining who can spend time with their children, with courts stepping in to order nonparent visitation only under tight circumstances deemed in the child's best interest.
That's where state laws and court rulings have evolved to include conditions that vary widely from one state to the next. The circumstances also vary, from intact two-parent families being sued by grandparents to situations stemming from thorny divorces and remarriages, disputes with one parent after another dies and other cases.
In some states, grandparents can sue for visitation only if they have been cut off by custodial parents. In others, they must show their relationship with the grandchild was similar to that of a parent. In yet others, they must prove with "clear and convincing evidence" that the child will suffer irreversible harm without the visits.
And while some states have a combination of those standards, others have very few and give grandparents far more latitude to present their cases.
That can include deposing their adult children, seeking the parents' medical and financial records and other time-consuming actions. And some state courts have ruled that even if the grandparents lose, the parents can't get their legal bills reimbursed.
Connecticut is not the only state struggling with the issue. In June, Alabama's state Supreme Court struck down its law as unconstitutional because it included grandparent visitation rights over competent parents' objections.
Attorneys in the case have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the issue, backed by officials in Ohio, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan and Washington.
Connecticut, Florida and Arizona are considered among the most parent-friendly based on their laws or court precedents. Others are considered more grandparent-friendly, such as Utah, Kansas and Oklahoma.
For parents and grandparents facing challenges in "unfriendly" states, the stress of family disagreements can be magnified by expensive court proceedings.
LoriAnn Levanto, 43, a social worker from Norwich, Conn., lost her effort to get court-ordered visitation with her grandson after her adult son decided not to be involved in the boy's life and the boy's mother remarried and moved away.
Her grandson is now 4 years old, and, in the two years since she has seen him, Levanto has maintained a journal she hopes he will want when he is 18.
"What's difficult is that many of us grandparents aren't asking for custody, just visitation," she said. "I think the court systems are afraid to open that door, even a little bit, toward grandparents."
The possibility of that door being opened too far alarms many parents, though, particularly those who say they want to shield their own young children from grandparents who have broken boundaries and trust.
Erin Bay, 33, and her husband drive about 90 minutes from their Missouri home to Kansas, where they previously lived, for proceedings in a case involving her parents' request for court-ordered visitation with the Bays' five children.
If she'd moved before the case was filed, Missouri's standards are so different that it likely would have been dismissed by now — but Kansas allows far more latitude for grandparents than Missouri.
Bay said she and her husband denied unsupervised visits because of several serious concerns, especially not wanting their children being around a family member she says sexually abused her.
"There are very real assumptions on the part of society about parents who are involved in this kind of litigation. It feels like our fitness has already been decided by the public because we've been sued by our parents or in-laws, and that's really disheartening," Bay said.
One thing that all sides agree on: The court process is wrenching.
Karen Wyle, an attorney in Bloomington, Ind., who works with parents in such cases, said the grandchildren are the ultimate victims.
"They're in an emotional crossfire," she said. "The courthouse doors should have written on them, 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.' Litigation is not going to heal these families — quite the reverse."