In one Gordon County couple’s case, under newly signed HB 1198, Act 702, Jimmy and Sheila Johns, of Sugar Valley, will petition local courts once again to fight for court mandated visitation rights to see their grandchildren, for the first time since 2010.
The Johns’ lost their son Eric due to a tragic accident in 2008, and in two years time, his three children and their mother had moved to Chatsworth, and ended all contact with the Johns’.
On May 1, 2012, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed many new pieces of legislation into law, one of which was HB 1198, Act 702, allowing court judges more flexibility in awarding visitation of grandchildren to grandparents.
“The legislation makes important changes that recognize circumstances where grandparents have been involved as an important part of the child’s life or a child’s parent has died, become incapacitated, or incarcerated. Under these circumstances, the court, in its discretion, may grant visitation in the best interest of the child,” said Attorney James Ledbetter, legal counsel to the Johns’. “Also, the new statute allows the court to direct a custodial parent to notify grandparents of every performance of the child to which the public is admitted, including concerts, graduations, recitals, sporting events or games.”
Prior to the new statute, the Johns’ found out the only rights they had as grandparents was the ability to petition for visitation, and parents decisions on visitation were conclusive.
“People think they have grandparents rights, you think you do, but all you have is the right to petition for it and you can only do that every two years. In that right to petition you have no rights to anything else, but to petition. The judges hands are really tied (with the old statute),” said Sheila. “It is sad that you think there is no way in a blue moon that somebody would take your rights or what you thought were rights, away from you until it happens.”
HB 1198 Act 702 stemmed from an overturned statute in 1995 of grandparents visitation rights, which was deemed unconstitutional because there was no “showing of harm,” to the child, according to James Ledbetter, Jimmy and Sheila Johns’ attorney.
The statute was then changed to place the burden on the grandparents to show harm to the child due to a lack of visitation with grandparents, according to Ledbetter. However, as of May 1, things have changed.
Calhoun native and representative of Georgia House District 5, covering Gordon and Murray Counties, John Meadows, co-authored the newly signed legislation and says the need for the legislation was apparent.
“There were several people that have asked me about it over the years, that have wanted help getting visitation and there was nothing there, this gives the judge a little more flexibility, a few more things to look at when he makes his decision as to whether that should happen,” said Meadows.
Under the new statute, the Johns’ can now petition for visitation rights due to the large involvement in their grandchildren’s lives prior to the death of their son.
“In my case it is the death of my son, so I had the right to file for visitations This will give them more so they can pursue that they are going to be harmed by not having access, especially in our case where they were with us every single day. I took them to school, we fed them, we had them over at nights all the time,” said Sheila. .
“The main thing was to keep it constitutional, the judges can look at some other situations to make sure the child is not harmed,” said Meadows.
In the Georgia House, Meadows co-authored and was one of several others who sponsored the bill. In the Georgia State Senate, Charlie Bethel, a friend of Jimmy and Sheila’s son Eric, supported the bill in the Senate.
The legislation passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate, and was signed in law by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal on May 1.
Watching the bill every step of the way, Shelia recalled her excitement when Bethel called her and told her the bill had been signed.
“What really went through my mind? Eric has been with us the whole time,” said Sheila. “My son would not want this. We just want to see our grandkids, and I know our grandkids want to see us.”
According to Leggett, the new legislation is positive reform, alleviating the burden on the grandparents to “show harm” to children for lack of visitation.
“Representative Meadows and others sponsored what I consider to be fantastic legislation, because it recognizes circumstances where a parent has died, and so the court now is allowed to presume harm under those circumstances, which decreases the burden for the grandparent in trying to prove their case,” said Ledbetter.
Though reformative, Ledbetter does anticipate the reform to have opposition and considers the legislation, “a hotbed area of appeals.”
“There will be parents who will be passionate about their children’s lives not being interfered with by others and their say as to their children’s visitation and so forth being controlled by the courts. There will be parents there who will definitely appeal this statute,” said Ledbetter.
Though the future is unclear for the statute, in the meantime, under the new statute, the Johns’ can possibly look forward to a minimum of 24 hours of visitation a month, including mandatory receipt of notice for public events the children might be involved in.
Regardless of what happens in their case, Jimmy and Sheila Johns want the fight to be about the children who they believe, are the ones who suffer the most.
“It should be about the children, not about me, not about mother or daddy, it should be about the welfare of those children. That’s how we feel,” said Sheila.
The Johns’ are sad that they have missed parts of their grandchildren’s lives since 2010, but say they will never stop fighting for rights to see their grandchildren. They have petitioned and scheduled a court date to argue their case under the new statute.