One grandmother denied access to her late son’s children has amassed hundreds of photos to show the court the big role she played in their lives.
October 06, 2009
In the next few weeks, Helena Sheppard will appear before an Ontario family court judge and ask to be granted one wish before she dies – the right to be a grandmother again.
It's a role she revelled in before her son died unexpectedly last year, a loss that was so sudden and shattering she couldn't bring herself to leave home for weeks.
Since then Nana, as she was once lovingly called, has found herself shut out of the lives of her son's two children.
She has been given the cold shoulder at their sporting events, virtually cut out of Christmas and unable to reason with her daughter-in-law at a handful of get-togethers she'd hoped might break the impasse.
Sheppard (not her real name) is battling her second bout of cancer and scared time will run out. She has turned to the courts to intervene, knowing that it's an expensive long shot that could cost her her house.
"I'm not asking the judge for anything more than the same relationship I had before my son's death," she says. That included sleepovers, cookie bakes at Christmas and a schedule of all the children's games.
"I used to stay with them Christmas Eve, but I know that's never going to happen again."
The retired office worker spoke on condition her name and hometown not be identified, for fear of jeopardizing her campaign for more access to her grandchildren. She spends her days researching grandparents' rights on the Internet. She has amassed hundreds of photos to show the court how she has been a big part of her grandchildren's lives from when they were born.
"It's hard to not see the grandkids on top of the pain you carry around from losing your child," she says. "They've already lost their father, now they're going to lose their grandmother, too? By denying them access to me they are losing another loving relationship. And then they will have to deal with yet another death."
Sheppard is by no means the first grandparent to sue in the hope of getting more access to grandchildren in the wake of a child's death or divorce. Among all the heartbreak that plays out daily in Ontario's family courts, "grandparent cases are the saddest," says Toronto lawyer Paul Pellman.
He has seen the issue from both sides during 29 years as a family law lawyer: He and his wife took over raising two grandkids from a daughter who struggled with addictions and mental health issues.
"These are people who have really given their utmost to love and support their family. They are usually very involved people who just want to stay involved."
The disputes can stem from years of bad family dynamics, bitterness over their child's marriage partner, or legitimate concern that the grandparents are unstable, too intrusive or defying the parents' wishes for their own children. In some cases, parents hope to wipe the slate clean and create a new future for their kids by cutting out reminders of the past, Pellman says.
Bancroft grandmother Joanne Hannah, 68, hasn't seen her three grandsons in seven years, since her son and daughter-in-law died under suspicious circumstances. Her son, a respected professional, committed suicide after coming under police investigation in the death of his wife.
Hannah was a big part of the children's lives before the tragedy ripped both families apart. But as the months went on, she says, she was gradually cut out of their lives and so turned to a lawyer for help.
"We spent $30,000 and we got an access order, but it's not worth the paper it's printed on," she says in frustration. The 2003 court order called for monthly four-hour visits and extra time for holidays and birthdays. The guardians obliged for a while, until visits became increasingly strained and then stopped, Hannah says.
The couple refused to discuss their defiance of the court order when contacted by the Star.
"I have pictures and memories of the children which I look at on a regular basis," says Hannah, 68. "I have a book that I write notes to them in. But I just can't afford to go back to a lawyer."
Pellman urges grandparents to try mediation first, with the intervention of family, friends or religious leaders, because litigation can cost $20,000 to $50,000, and the courts aren't always on Grandma's side.
And he warns grandparents that even if they win access, the most they can expect is "a modest relationship" – a few hours a month, maybe an overnight visit and a week of vacation. "They're not going to get invited to bar mitzvahs or baptisms or confirmations."
Joan Louise Brooks has seen ugly court battles start over far less during her 23 years as president of the grandparents' rights group GRAND Society (Grandparents Requesting Access and Dignity). She and Betty Cornelius, founder of the support group Cangrands, have spent years offering advice and pushing for legislative changes to protect grandparents who feel they have become second-class citizens after the divorce, or more often the death, of their child, especially if the bereaved spouse remarries.
Alberta, Quebec, New Brunswick and B.C. recognize grandparents' rights but don't guarantee them. Two attempts at similar legislation in Ontario have failed. Bill 33, which would amend the Children's Law Reform Act to stress the importance of maintaining relationships with grandparents, passed second reading last year but is expected to die.
In particularly bitter disputes, such as the landmark Chapman v. Chapman and Lusher v. Lusher – both involving domineering grandmothers whose interference in the family was thought to be more hurtful than helpful – courts have sided with the parents.
But in most other cases, courts have taken a "cautious pro-contact approach," looking carefully at the facts of each case and what's in the best interests of the children, says University of Toronto associate law professor Martha Shaffer in her 2004 research paper "To Grandmother's House We Go?"
The area of grandparent access is becoming increasingly challenging for the courts, notes Pellman, as judges struggle with the offspring of certain modern relationships – the children of common-law, same-sex and casual-sex partners.
This year, for instance, Pellman represented a gay man who was the sperm donor for two lesbian friends. He and his partner had weekly access and would often take the child to visit his parents. When the mother eventually tried to cut weekly access, the donor took them to court and won.
"The judge was quite impressed with the grandmother's testimony," Pellman says. "She saw the child as her grandson. Even though her son didn't have intercourse, this was a planned pregnancy and he was a daddy. This is going to become a big issue in the gay community where kids can have, potentially, four sets of grandparents."
While that may concern some, Pellman takes a more hopeful view and sees room in children's lives for a whole bunch of relationships.
"I call it the maximization-of-love philosophy. Why shouldn't children be exposed to the most love possible?"