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Grandparents may get a better chance at visitation rights under proposals in the Florida Legislature

Grandchild and grandparent holding hands
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Proposed legislation in Florida would expand the ability of a grandparent to petition the court for visitation with grandkids.

An effort to further the rights of grandparents to see their grandchildren is back in Tallahassee. While the Florida Legislature has given them a little leeway in recent years, the law remains firmly on the side of parents.

Under current Florida law, a grandparent may be awarded visitation rights under very limited circumstances, such as when both parents are deceased. If only one parent is deceased or incapacitated, it gets more complicated.

A House bill narrowly expands the ability of a grandparent to petition the court for relief.

“The bill will create a point of access to courts for grandparents in cases where their child was killed, and courts have ruled against the surviving parent in a wrongful death claim," said Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, explaining her bill to the House Civil Justice & Property Rights Subcommittee. "However, this bill remains protective of the rights of Florida parents without changing the many factors courts consider in determining visitation.”

A House staff analysis says Florida courts have consistently found that statutes attempting to compel visitation or custody by a grandparent -- based solely on the best interest of the child -- are unconstitutional. The rulings acknowledge that the fundamental right to parent without intrusion by the government has long been recognized by the United States and Florida constitutions.

“A lot of people nowadays have their children raised by the grandparents. It's not uncommon for that to happen, and there are many, many situations where the grandparents have had the children for many years," said Rep. Michelle Salzman, R-Pensacola. "Then the parent comes back from either incarceration, or they've just decided that they're ready to take their children, and they can take them back without any visitation, without allowing those grandparents to see those children ever again."

Salzman says the bill "does not create an umbrella protection for grandparents to stay engaged in the grandchildren's lives," but she calls it "a great step forward.”

The legislation is titled Grandparent Visitation Rights, but it’s unofficially known as the Markel Act.

Since the murder of Florida State University law professor Dan Markel in 2014, his parents have pleaded for help from state lawmakers. They say they haven’t been allowed to see their son’s children since shortly after his death.

The bill easily passed the subcommittee. A companion bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, where Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, was initially the main sponsor. After the meeting, Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, was added as a co-sponsor.

“We first started expanding and recognizing the rights of grandparents in certain instances to see and visit their grandchildren in 2014," said Rouson. "(In) 2015, House Bill 149 passed and Governor Scott signed it, which was an expansion of grandparents' rights. This good bill seems to build upon that opening.”

“As a father of 5 and a grandfather of 8, I take this very personal,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “I am extremely pleased to see us look out for the wellness of these children and the opportunity for these relationships to be nourished no matter what shape families are in. They need to see their granddad once in a while.”

So far, the legislation is moving without opposition, but the Senate bill has two more committees to get through, and the House bill has one more stop.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.