Of all the victims of divorce or separation, paternal grandparents get the least attention. With European courts tending to side with mothers in custody and visitation battles, paternal grandparents often find themselves dealing with two tragedies when their sons are cut off from their children, they too are cut off from the most important people in their lives. For Roman grandmother Irene Rinaldi, 72, the sadness is doubled: two of her sons are separated from their former partners and have little access to their children. This means Rinaldi is estranged from both of her families. By discriminating against dads in custody cases, she says, Italy's courts are "not only depriving the child of its father but also of the father's family. It's as if we died before our time."
Like fathers, paternal grandparents are beginning to demand their rights. Rinaldi, known as Nonna (Grandma) Irene, has been active within the Italian fathers' group Papà Separati. Now she's involved in launching Nonni Separati to push for custody arrangements that allow both parents and both sets of grandparents ample access to children. Similar groups have sprung up across Europe. Britain's Grandparents Association runs a hotline; many of its 3,000 annual callers complain of difficulty contacting their grandkids. The association estimates that over a million children in the U.K. are denied contact with their grandparents. People are usually advised to seek access through mediation with professional help offered by a national network of local centers rather than through legal action. "Even if there's a court order for contact, the mother can decide that the child is unwell or has a dancing class," says Denise Joy of the Grandparents Association. "There are few courts that can enforce these things. They are not going to say that the mother is in breach and put her in prison."
Other groups have been more successful at forcing legislative change. In Spain, a group known as Abumar (an acronym derived from the Spanish for Grandparents in Action) has been making the case for grandparents since 1997. Last year, the Spanish parliament finally approved a law granting grandparents specific visitation rights. "The law says grandparents cannot be prevented from seeing their grandchildren in case of separation or divorce," says Marisa Viñes, 69, president of Abumar and grandmother of six. "It's not a perfect law, but as a start we're satisfied with it."
German grandparents are far from satisfied with the 1998 reform of the Child Act that gave children the right to contact both sets of grandparents but only if it could be demonstrated that this would be in the kids' best interests. "We demand that, even in controversial cases, both sets of grandparents are allowed to keep regular contact," says Rita Boegershausen, spokeswoman for the Federal Initiative for Grandparents (BIGE). Rostock grandmother Hiltrud Adam thinks the law leaves too much power in the hands of mothers. Adam and her husband took care of their grandson for a year after his parents' separation in 1997. Then his mother found a new partner and took the child away. Both his father and his paternal grandparents have since been denied access to the boy. In 2000, the grandparents won a court decision to allow two visits a month, but his mother appealed and Adam says she has not yet had a single visit. Adam and her husband can only see the boy, now 9, if they go to his school and watch as his mom drives him home. "When he sits in the car with her, he very shyly looks in our direction," Adam says. "When she cannot see, he looks at us directly." For grandparents, there can hardly be a sadder sight.