When news broke that Thomas Markle, the estranged father of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, planned to petition California courts for access to his grandchildren, 2-month-old Lilibet and 2-year-old Archie, I immediately thought of the online recovery group for adult children of dysfunctional families that I’ve participated in for nearly a decade. At least once a week, a participant seeks advice about how to handle a legal petition from a toxic grandparent trying to gain access to their minor children.
If Markle were acting in good faith, as opposed to self-interest, he’d have petitioned the California courts quietly, without running to the media in advance.
I don’t have children, but I have skin in this game. I was born into a toxic family — the kind in which emotional, financial and sometimes physical abuse was a legacy passed down through the generations. As Markle continues humiliating his daughter and her family in the media — despite her clear wishes to be free of him — I am reminded why I was relieved that so-called grandparents’ rights laws were not in vogue when I was growing up in the ’80s and the ’90s.
The premise of these laws is that “children need grandparents,” as grandparent advocates put it. However, each state deals with grandparent access laws differently, from short and vaguely written conditions for visitation to long, detailed and specific laws outlining grandparents’ rights. Some of the differentiation might stem from the fact that “grandparents' rights by state legislatures is a fairly recent trend, and most of the statutes granting these rights have been in effect for less than 40 years,” as FindLaw’s legal writers put it.
I understand the concerns upon which these statutes were founded. But these laws presume that grandparents are genuinely concerned for their grandchildren’s welfare, that they desire to have positive and healthy relationships with their children’s children and that they are good influences. This is, of course, the best-case scenario.
In my own family, I never had much of a relationship with one of my grandparents because she was a profoundly difficult person. We’d go long stretches — sometimes years — without seeing her at all, an intentional choice on my parents’ part. As I entered adulthood, my parents’ decision to shield my sibling and me from my grandmother began to make sense. I consider myself lucky that she never took advantage of grandparents’ rights laws to demand access to me. My parents were teenagers when I was born and would not have had the resources, confidence or knowledge to fight such a petition.
That grandparents’ rights laws hold the potential to grant dysfunctional relatives access to minors on the basis of shared DNA is, at best, unsettling. The law is supposed to take into account whether such access is in the best interest of the child, but that’s far from guaranteed. Several people in my online recovery group have said that grandparents were granted access against the parents’ wishes, particularly in situations in which the abuse their own parents had caused them had never been documented and they weren’t able to afford quality legal representation to oppose the grandparents’ petitions.
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I assume that if Markle were acting in good faith, as opposed to self-interest, he’d have petitioned the California courts quietly, without running to the media in advance. But he has a history of selling stories to the media in an attempt to strongarm his daughter and Prince Harry into speaking to him; before her wedding in 2018, he staged paparazzi photographs of himself after his daughter and the prince explicitly asked him to avoid the media for his own protection; later, he released his daughter’s personal letter to him to the media in what appeared to be another attempt to remain in the tabloids at the expense of his daughter’s image and requests for privacy.
After several years of this questionable behavior, he came forward to announce that he’s pursuing legal channels for access to grandchildren he’s never met — a noxious layer of icing on an already bitter cake. His behavior should disqualify him from any access.
Thankfully, California is one of the states whose laws are highly specific about the conditions under which grandparents can petition for access to their grandchildren, and they seem designed to handle requests from grandparents that appear dubious. According to the California courts, Markle will have to prove a pre-existing relationship with his grandchildren “that has engendered a bond.” His daughter and her husband’s rights to make decisions about their children will also be considered. And finally, according to California law, “grandparents cannot file for visitation rights while the grandchild’s parents are married,” with few exceptions.
The premise upon which grandparent access laws are built is tenuous at best. Sometimes, grandchildren are better off having never known their grandparents. If the media reports are to be believed, Meghan and Harry are smart to shield their children from a man who’s done nothing but create drama and heartache for their family. Hopefully the California courts will vindicate Meghan and Harry’s decision to keep a toxic grandparent far from his grandchildren.