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A rift in the family: 'Grandparent alienation' described as common, traumatic

Illustration by Troy Becker / Forum News Service

FARGO—Call it the new generation gap, the unhappy distance that sometimes develops between grandparents and grandchildren.

Another term for such situations that is gaining traction is "grandparent alienation."

The founder and head of an organization called Alienated Grandparents Anonymous, which is based in Florida, says many families are grappling with the phenomenon.

"We realized we had discovered a silent epidemic in our country," said Amanda, who founded AGA in 2011 and established the group as a nonprofit in 2012.

Amanda, who declined to share her last name because she said she didn't want to complicate her own family situation, said there can be a number of reasons grandparents become distanced from their grandchildren.

One of the most common, she said, is a "toxic" daughter-in-law or son-in-law who creates a rift between their spouse and his or her parents.

She said AGA provides this advice when promoting alienation prevention:

"If your adult child is dating someone and you may not be particularly fond of the relationship, be very careful what you say. Once your son or daughter repeats that to their boyfriend or girlfriend that will turn that to-be in-law against you and start the process," she said.

She said grandparent alienation is a widespread problem, as evinced by the 50 states and 19 English-speaking countries where AGA has a presence.

Amanda said AGA meetings are a place for those experiencing emotional trauma to share their story with others who understand.

"The No. 1 thing that can help is to attend a peer-led support group," she said, adding that one way to gauge the magnitude of the issue is to bring up the subject at any type of gathering of friends or co-workers.

"You will never find a situation where there isn't someone in that little group who doesn't have it somewhere in their family or someone close to them," she said.

Complex conflicts

Family conflicts that lead to alienation are often complex and long-lived, and there is more than one side to every story, though sometimes all sides don't feel like talking publicly about their situation.

Marcie Johnson, of West Fargo, said she has been struggling with family issues since the early 2000s and over the years there has been heartbreak.

Johnson has three children, but she only has contact with one of them, her youngest, who is about 10 years old.

She has an adult daughter and an adult son she doesn't see — per their decision — and a grandchild she does not know at all.

Making it more difficult, Johnson said, is that at times counselors she went to for help had little experience in such matters and didn't understand what it means to be alienated from a child or grandchild.

So, Johnson has decided to be of help to others who find themselves in similar situations, and she is in the process of setting up a business called Empower Over Alienation. She says it will be a resource for people who are hurting.

"I'm slowly getting to a point I can make this my full-time job," said Johnson, who added that her goal is to hire a counselor and a lawyer who can provide services in a setting that can handle supervised visits.

"I've met so many people in the workforce who are going through this. There are some people who don't know where to go for information, my business can be a source of information," Johnson said.

Johnson's former partner with whom she has the two adult children declined to comment for this story.

Her oldest child, Jordana Flemmer, said that as an adult she has chosen not to be in contact with her mother. She said there are a number of reasons for that decision, including a 2010 incident that happened in Colorado involving a younger brother and her mother that resulted in her mother being charged with abuse.

Johnson acknowledges the incident and said it happened at a time when she was "sleep deprived and wore out." She said her youngest son was about 3 at the time when he squirted a TV with a water gun and the TV shorted out.

Johnson said she took a hand towel from the kitchen and out of frustration smacked her son with it. She said a corner of the towel "came around and caught him in the eye and kind of left a mark."

She said social services consequently took her children out of her home and she was charged with abuse. "I went to court with that ticket," she said. "I found my own anger-management classes, I found my own parenting classes.

"Social services said if there are no incidents for a year then that record of child abuse will be expunged. It was expunged," she said.

Johnson said as part of her efforts to raise awareness about familial alienation she has placed a message on a billboard in the Carrington, N.D., area, which contains this quote: "I don't have to foster a relationship between you and your child."

The quote is ascribed to "local parents" and is accompanied by the words, "stop parental alienation."

Laws offer limited rights

Both North Dakota and Minnesota law provide for some visitation rights for grandparents in certain situations.

In North Dakota, visitation rights may be granted if the court finds visitation would be in the best interests of the child and would not interfere with the parent-child relationship, said Jerilynn Brantner Adams, a Fargo attorney.

Adams said in such cases the court must consider the amount of personal contact that has occurred between the grandparents and the child as well as the child's parents.

Adams, who has represented both sides in such cases, said they are typically very emotional issues for all parties involved.

In one case, Adams was retained by a grandmother whose son had died.

"She (the grandmother) had been denied personal contact with her grandchildren prior to and subsequent to her son's death," Adams said.

"The mother of the children opposed our petition. During the course of the proceedings, my client passed away without getting any meaningful contact with her grandchildren."

Adams said grandparent alienation cases are somewhat rare locally and that she sees perhaps one every year or two.

Minnesota law is similar to North Dakota law but provides very specific situations where a grandparent can bring a petition seeking visitation, according to Leah Warner, who, like Adams, is an attorney with the Vogel Law Firm.

Warner said grandparent visitation may be allowed if it would be in the best interest of the child and doesn't interfere with the parent-child relationship. Visitation is only denied if, after a hearing, it is determined that visitation will interfere with the parent-child relationship, according to Warner.

Darcy Barry, of Barnesville, Minn., said she is estranged from several of her grandchildren and although she has considered taking the matter to court, she worries about the cost.

"It's a very hard thing when you have four grandchildren and you only get to know one of them," Barry said.

"Once in awhile it would be nice to get a picture in the mail that they drew. A school picture. There's none of that," she said.

For more information about Alienated Grandparents Anonymous, visit www.AGA-FL.org.

Dave Olson
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