Grandparent Visitation Denied in Morristown, Tennessee: In re Alexis S.

FactsMother and Father are the never-married parents of Child. When Child turned two, Mother and Father voluntarily gave custody of Child to Maternal Grandmother. Five years later, they agreed to a new custody order splitting custody between Maternal Grandmother and Paternal Grandmother.

Two years later, Paternal Grandmother and Maternal Grandmother each petitioned to end the other’s custody.

When Mother petitioned to regain custody of Child to put an end to the grandmothers’ protracted litigation, Paternal Grandparents petitioned to terminate Mother and Father’s parental rights.

Maternal Grandmother intervened in the termination action to request grandparent visitation.

grandparent visitation TennesseeChild’s therapist testified that Child suffered from anxiety and depression because of the animosity between the grandmothers. The therapist attributed Child’s struggles primarily to Maternal Grandmother, who he said exposed Child to “maladaptive, dysfunctional behaviors, morals, and values.” Child reported that Maternal Grandmother said that Paternal Grandmother did not love her, instructed her to “act out” and “be bad” so Paternal Grandmother would not want her anymore and she would get thrown out of school, threatened the safety of the Paternal Grandparents, and told Child to report that Paternal Grandmother hit her. Child’s therapist opposed grandparent visitation “given all the psychological harm that has occurred” to Child when with Maternal Grandmother.

Child’s teachers testified that Child’s school performance improved when Maternal Grandmother’s contact with Child was suspended.

While the trial court found that Maternal Grandmother had a significant existing relationship with Child, it found grandparent visitation inappropriate because Child would suffer less psychological harm from denying visitation than continuing it. Maternal Grandmother’s petition was denied.

Maternal Grandmother appealed.

On AppealThe Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Once a Tennessee court finds a significant existing relationship between a grandparent and the child, it must then find a danger of substantial harm to the child based on the cessation or severe reduction of contact with the grandparent. This finding may be based on one of three circumstances:

  • the child had such a significant existing relationship with the grandparent that loss or severe reduction of the relationship is likely to cause severe emotional harm to the child;
  • the grandparent functioned as a primary caregiver so cessation or severe reduction of the relationship could interrupt the provision of the daily needs of the child and thus cause physical or emotional harm; or
  • the child had a significant existing relationship with the grandparent and loss or severe reduction of the relationship presents a danger of other direct and substantial harm to the child.

Once danger of substantial harm is established, the court must determine whether grandparent visitation would be in the best interests of the child considering the factors in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-307. The best-interest analysis is a balancing analysis.

The Court found no error in the trial court’s assessment of the evidence:

[T]he court recognized the existing emotional ties between Child and [Maternal Grandmother] but also found that Child was more stable and functioned better when she was not exposed to “Maternal Grandmother]. . . . There was ample evidence that [Maternal Grandmother] was a negative influence on Child and caused Child to feel torn between her two grandmothers. This, in turn, affected Child’s behavior at home and school. [Maternal Grandmother’s] actions evinced a hostility toward [Paternal Grandparents] and an unwillingness to foster a close relationship between [Paternal Grandparents] and Child. Thus, the court’s conclusion that Child “would suffer less psychological harm” if visitation were denied than if visitation were continued represents a balancing of the pertinent matters that the statute requires courts to consider.

[W]e find no error in the trial court’s determination that [Maternal Grandmother] was not entitled to grandparent visitation.

The trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

Incidentally, the trial court also terminated Mother’s parental rights, but this termination was reversed on appeal for reasons I don’t find blog-worthy. Paternal Grandparents remain the court-ordered guardians of Child.

In re Alexis S. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, October 29, 2019).

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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