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How Far Do Grandparents’ Rights Extend?

Do parents always have priority over grandparents? Our Santa Clara family attorneys, who have worked with many grandparents’ rights and child custody cases, have confronted custody struggles between parents and grandparents in numerous contexts, and a highly contentious child custody case that is currently unfolding in Huntingdon, Tennessee, indicates that there is not always an easy answer to this question. For the last year and a half, Mary Winkler’s children have lived with their father’s parents, and now Mary wants them back. She has served a small jail sentence, and is now free on probation.
Her jail sentence, however, was for shooting her husband to death with a shotgun that she does not remember pulling out of the bedroom closet.

After a jury found Mary Winkler guilty of voluntary manslaughter due to her testimony detailing years of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her preacher husband, she served seven months in jail, including two months in a mental institution for post traumatic stress syndrome. In the state of Tennessee, a parent’s rights may be revoked if that parent “wrongfully” kills the other parent. Yet this law has only existed for several years, providing little legal precedent with which to rule on the Winkler case.
Many family law attorneys and specialists are weighing in on this case, with widely varied opinions about the appropriate course of action. Lynne Gold-Bikin, a Pennsylvania attorney, maintains that Mary Winkler “paid her debt to society” and that “you can’t punish her by taking away her kids.” In Bikin’s eyes, the fact that the children were placed with the paternal grandparent provides an additional point of contention. “Should we take these children away from a loving mother and give them to somebody who hates her?” asks Bikin.
In the judge’s eyes, the answer is, at the moment, yes. Judge Ron Harmon has currently refused to allow Winkler unsupervised visitation with her kids, based on her testimony and reticence on the part of the children. Loyola University child-law specialist Bruce Boyer believes that all signs point to a very difficult fight for Winkler. “I would never say to anybody, ‘You don’t even get a chance to convince me that you could still be a good parent,’…but this woman has got a lot of convincing to do,” he states.