An attempt to repeal Wyoming’s grandparent visitation rights statute failed Wednesday after a legislative committee struck it down, but lawmakers vowed to revise the effort in the coming months to address “heartbreaking” stories on both sides of the issue.
The law states that a child’s grandparents can sue parents for visitation rights. If a court finds that it’s in a child’s best interests to have visits with his or her grandparents, the court can make parents allow the visits.
State Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, sponsored the repeal and asked the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to advance it to the Senate Floor.
“That was a very heartbreaking loss this morning,” Biteman told Cowboy State Daily after the committee voted down Senate File 161 3-2.
Biteman brought the repeal bill because a Wyoming court imposed what witnesses described as strict and troubling visitation requirements on a family in his district.
‘So They Sued Me’
Nikki Ward’s sons are 7 and 10, she told the committee. Her first husband died, leaving her to care for her children as a single mom.
The husband’s parents demanded visitation rights with the children, and Ward said she complied because she did not want to go to court with them and knew about the grandparent visitation law.
But her late husband’s father has alcohol issues and “major anger problems,” she said, so it was never an easy situation.
Ward would let the grandparents visit the children at her home under her watch and control, she said, but “they didn’t like that, so they sued me.”
Ward said her first attorney was “not … very good” and advised her to give the grandparents the terms they requested, so she settled without a fight.
The grandparents won frequent visitation rights, plus weeklong custody during the Christmas and summer holidays.
After Nikki met and married Andy Ward, he soon adopted her boys. She then tried to fight the court’s order, but things only got worse, Nikki Ward said.
“They decided they were going to take our kids to an Indian reservation to go see her sister who lives there,” said Ward. “Have you guys seen the Indian reservation? It’s scary.”
But when she fought that request, Ward said the judge sided again with the boys’ grandparents, saying they could take them wherever they pleased during their four-hour afternoon visits.
The Wards are hoping the Wyoming Supreme Court will hear their case in the coming months, but in the meantime have spent money, time and “a lot of headache and a lot of sadness” on the battle, Nikki Ward said.
On The Other Side
Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said he empathizes with the Wards and was grateful they brought their story to the committee’s attention.
Their story could be put to good use revising the statute during the interim between legislative sessions, Landed added.
“It’s heartbreaking what you’ve been through,” said Landen to the Wards.
But Landen, who was in the Legislature when the grandparent visitation statute first passed, recalled passionate and heartbreaking stories then “on the other side of the issue” – of grandparents who had been cut out of their grandchildren’s lives without good reason.
High Court Revision
Trial attorneys testified Wednesday on both sides of the issue.
Beth Lance, Cheyenne-based family attorney, said that the Wyoming Supreme Court narrowed the state’s grandparent statute in 2022.
The court ruled in a case that courts must award grandparent visitation only after finding parents unfit to make visitation decisions for their children or finding that the parents’ visitation decisions will be harmful to the children.
Because the high court had “vastly narrowed” the law, Lance said, lawmakers don’t need to change or repeal it.
Cassie Craven, another Wyoming attorney, said the opposite: that the Legislature should repeal the grandparent visitation statute and “start from scratch” to craft a better alternative during the interim.
The law hasn’t been easy to sift through in court, Craven said.
“We’ve kind of given the Supreme Court a mess to deal with,” said Craven.
Another concern is that the law leaves families open to prolonged legal battles and therefore naturally favors whoever has more money, she said.
Parents with young children often are short on money, Craven said.
“The current statute as it stands has not been challenged on those specific grounds, and if it were, I think there’s a good chance it would be overturned,” she said.
‘Got To Fix This’
Sen. Dan Furphy, R-Laramie, said he voted against the repeal because the issue is “tough” all around and he’s seen numerous cases, including a grandparent visitation issues, in his own family.
“We’ve got to fix this situation,” he said. “But to repeal our current statute doesn’t make sense to me at this point.”
Other no votes included Republican state Sens. Cale Case (Lander) and Ed Cooper (Tensleep).
Landen and Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, both voted in favor of the repeal.