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COMMONWEALTH EX REL. JANICE WILLIAMS v. JAMES MILLER (04/13/78)

decided: April 13, 1978.

COMMONWEALTH EX REL. JANICE WILLIAMS, APPELLANT,
v.
JAMES MILLER



COUNSEL

James J. DeMarco, Philadelphia, for appellant.

No appearance entered nor brief submitted for appellee.

Watkins, President Judge, and Jacobs, Hoffman, Cercone, Price, Van der Voort and Spaeth, JJ. Watkins, former President Judge, did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case. Hoffman, J., concurs in the result. Price, J., dissents.

Author: Spaeth

[ 254 Pa. Super. Page 229]

This is an appeal from an order denying appellant visitation rights with her granddaughter.

Appellant is the maternal grandmother of Sarita Miller, who was born June 14, 1968; appellee is Sarita's father. Shortly after Sarita was born, her father and mother separated, and she and her mother went to live in the home of her mother's maternal aunt, Mrs. Odell Hagans. When Sarita's mother remarried, Sarita continued to live with Mrs. Hagans. On September 30, 1970, Sarita's mother died, and after litigation between appellee and Mrs. Hagans, custody was awarded to appellee on April 20, 1971, with visitation rights granted to Mrs. Hagans. Sometime in 1975 Mrs. Hagans became ill (later in the year she died), and on July 23, 1975, appellant filed the present petition seeking visitation rights for one weekend a month at the home of other of Sarita's maternal relatives in Philadelphia. (Sarita has always lived in Philadelphia; appellant lives in Brooklyn, New York.) Since Mrs. Hagans' death, no maternal relative has had the right to visit Sarita.

The lower court denied the petition, on a variety of grounds: (1) appellant is a stranger to Sarita; (2) enforced visitations away from the home to which Sarita is accustomed may be injurious to her health; (3) appellant waited four years after appellee got custody before she took this step to establish a relationship with Sarita; (4) appellant "abandoned her own daughter [Sarita's mother] as a small child, leaving her in the custody of others to care for" (Lower Court Opinion at 3); (5) appellee "mistrust[s]" appellant, "a feeling which [the lower court] cannot say with certainty is unfounded at this time" (Lower Court Opinion at 3).

[ 254 Pa. Super. Page 230]

The law of this Commonwealth on the visitation rights of grandparents is not clear.*fn* See Commonwealth ex rel. Goodman v. Dratch, 192 Pa. Super. 1, 159 A.2d 70 (1959); Commonwealth ex rel. McDonald v. Smith, 170 Pa. Super. 254, 85 A.2d 686 (1952); Commonwealth ex rel. Flannery v. Sharp, 151 Pa. Super. 612, 30 A.2d 810 (1943); Posin v. Rothkopf, 49 Wash.Co. 4 (1968); Commonwealth ex rel. Goodwin v. Goodwin, 82 Mont.Co. 328 (1963). However, as to custody, we said recently that in a dispute between a parent and a third party, including a relative such as a grandparent, the parent has a prima facie right to custody, which will be forfeited only if convincing reasons appear that the child's best interest will be served by an award to the third party. In re Hernandez, 249 Pa. Super. 274, at 287, 376 A.2d 648, at 654-655 (1977). Since visitation is correlative to custody a similar test should apply when a third party seeks visitation, although the burden on the third party should not be so heavy, for an order granting visitation is a far lesser intrusion, or assertion of control, than is an award of custody.

We recognize that any attempt to state such a test runs the risk of ending with a statement either too nebulous or too rigid. We must, nevertheless, make the attempt, and therefore offer the following: When seeking visitation, a third party must show reasons to overcome the parent's prima facie right to uninterrupted custody. However, the reasons need not be so convincing as in a custody case. In a custody case, the third party must convince the court that it is in the child's best interest to take custody from a parent and award it to the third party. In a visitation case, the third party need only convince the court that it is in the child's best interest to give some time to the third party. As the amount of time requested moves the visit further from a visit and closer to custody, the reasons offered in support of the request must become correspondingly more convincing.

[ 254 Pa. Super. Page 231]

    raining?) Appellee offered no reason of substance for his mistrust; he said only that he thought appellant would "poison [Sarita's] mind" with "lies." N.T. 11. A custodial parent's suspicion of or animosity towards another parent or a third party seeking visitation should not alone warrant denial of visitation; otherwise the custodial parent could always effectively deny visitation simply by testifying to suspicion or animosity. Instead of deferring to suspicion or animosity, the hearing judge must try to determine whether there is any basis for these feelings. Stated more broadly, the judge must appraise whether the relationship between the disputing parties has an adverse effect on the child. See Flannery v. Sharp, supra; LoPresti v. LoPresti, 40 N.Y.2d 522, 387 N.Y.S.2d 412, 355 N.E.2d 372 (1976).

Third, the lower court did not, it seems to us, give sufficient consideration to the unusual facts of this case. In this regard we may take three of the lower court's reasons together: that appellant is a stranger to Sarita; that Sarita does not know appellant; and that appellant waited four years after appellee got custody before filing the writ for visitation. While these reasons have force, the fact remains that Mrs. Hagans had visitation rights under the 1971 decree giving custody to appellee; thus in the person of Mrs. Hagans a maternal relative maintained contact with Sarita. When it became apparent that because of illness Mrs. Hagans could no longer ...


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