Substantial Harm from Cessation of Grandparent Visitation Challenged in Alamo, Tennessee: In re Gracelyn H.

April 20, 2022 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother has two children who often visited their Maternal Grandfather. The three of them moved in with Grandfather for a few months but moved out because Mother and Grandfather often disagreed about how the children should be cared for.

After Mother and the children moved out, Mother cut off all contact with Grandfather.

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Grandfather petitioned for grandparent visitation. Everyone agreed that Grandfather had a “significant existing relationship” with the children and that Mother opposed visitation. Thus, the only issues were whether ending the relationship between Grandfather and the children was likely to cause them substantial harm and, if so, whether visitation was in the children’s best interest.

Grandfather testified that his home was full of toys and games that the children loved to play with, and the children would always cry when they had to leave. His testimony was generally corroborated by his girlfriend, who worked at one of the children’s schools and observed her acting “differently” after moving out of Grandfather’s home.

Mother testified the children were doing well and had not asked for Grandfather since they moved out. She said the children were doing better now that they were not exposed to arguments between Mother and Grandfather.

The trial court found that Grandfather did not prove the children suffered or were suffering “substantial harm” by being denied contact with him. The only evidence about the children’s welfare showed they “were doing well at home and in school and had suffered no ill effects.” Thus, the trial court found it unnecessary to address whether visitation would be in the children’s best interest.

Grandfather appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

The petitioner in a grandparent-visitation case bears a high burden to prove severe emotional harm. The petitioner must present sufficient evidence to support a finding that the child is likely to suffer harm that could reasonably be categorized as severe, grave, distressing, or extreme.

While “severe emotional harm” and “substantial harm” are not amenable to precise definition, the modifier “substantial” suggests two things:

  • it connotes a real hazard or danger that is not minor, trivial, or insignificant; and
  • it indicates that the harm must be more than a theoretical possibility. While the harm need not be inevitable, it must be sufficiently probable to prompt a reasonable person to believe that the harm will occur more likely than not.

No expert proof is required. Instead, courts must consider whether the facts of the case would lead a reasonable person to believe there is a significant existing relationship likely to cause severe emotional harm to the child if it ends or is severely reduced.

Tennessee courts must avoid assuming that a grandparent-grandchild relationship always benefits the grandchild.

The Court agreed that Grandfather did not prove the likelihood of substantial harm:

Mother stipulated that Grandfather had “a significant existing relationship” with the children, and Grandfather relies on three pieces of evidence to establish that losing the relationship is likely to cause the children substantial harm. First, Grandfather points to evidence that he and the children had a loving relationship before his contact was cut off. Second, Grandfather cites evidence that—since his visitation was cut off—the children “do not ask for [him], do not want to see him, and … don’t miss him.” Third, Grandfather references [his girlfriend’s] testimony that [one child] “began to act suspicious around [his girlfriend]” and “was not eating at school” after moving out of Grandfather’s house.

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After a thorough review of the record, we find the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s [] conclusion that Grandfather failed to prove that severance of his relationship with the children would create a danger of substantial harm to them.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

In re Gracelyn H. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, April 4, 2022).

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Substantial Harm from Cessation of Grandparent Visitation Challenged in Alamo, Tennessee: In re Gracelyn H. was last modified: April 21st, 2022 by K.O. Herston

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