Texas Legislature
11:09 am
Mon April 15, 2013

Committee Debates Extended Family Right To Sue Parents/Child

Originally published on Mon April 15, 2013 12:39 pm

Story as it aired on KUT 90.5 FM

At the Capitol, House Judiciary Committee members will debate a bill that would increase the number of people who have a say over how a child is raised in Texas.

The bill sparking debate is HB 393, filed by State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.  Thompson’s bill would expand the number of people who can sue for visitation rights if they believe a child is being raised in a way that puts his or her well-being at risk. 

Currently, grandparents can only sue their son or daughter-in-law.  Thompson’s bill lets grandparents sue their own child.  The bill also says that two-parent families could be sued, where currently only single parents can be brought to court.  And it’s not just grandparents -- aunts, uncles, and great-grandparents could also seek visitation rights.

Jeremy Newman, a policy analyst with the Texas Home School Coalition, opposes the bill’s expansive language.

"That is a huge exponential increase in the number of families who qualify and we would expect that the number of cases filed and the number of people who were sued will increase exponentially with that expansion," Newman said.

University of Texas Law Professor John Sampson is a family law expert. He’s not worried about a flood of lawsuits.  He says even if the laws change, the economics don’t.

"I wish I had a dollar for every time somebody said if this law passes there’ll be a huge rush of litigation and everybody will be suing," Sampson said. "You can’t sue for free. You can only sue if you’ve got a bunch of money. And so change the law -- yes it makes it easier to sue, but it doesn't make it less expensive to sue."

The Home School Coalition’s Newman says grandparents have sued over non-life-threatening issues like where the child goes to church or school.

"And so we’ve come across multiple situations in which the reason the grandparents filed the suit in the first place was because of the parent’s choice to home school," Newman said.

Steve Bresnen is a lobbyist for the Texas Family Law Foundation, which supports the bill.  He thinks the courts will decide the merits of each case, and that new legislation doesn’t need to specifically address every situation.

"The child has to be being harmed and I don’t think people in the modern era believe a child's being harmed because the child’s being homeschooled," Bresnen said. "I really think that's a throwback maybe to a day when homeschooling wasn't as commonly practiced as it is today."

Bresnen’s group specifically endorses the provision expanding grandparent’s rights to seek visitation to include children with two living parents, rather than just one.

Some family law experts question whether the new law would stand,  pointing to a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court case governing grandparents’ visitation rights -- Troxel v. Granville. In 2000, the Court ruled that third parties can not get access to a child over the objection of his or her parents.  

The House Judiciary Committee is expected to take up debate this afternoon.

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