In his first address to the Florida House as Speaker, Chris Sprowls touched on several issues facing Florida and the lawmakers who will guide our state in the coming years. Perhaps most powerfully, Sprowls talked about the role of families, sharing how his own family has inspired and shaped his priorities.
Sprowls spoke of his two grandfathers — both embodiments of the American dream, both formative in the lives of their grandchildren. He spoke of how COVID-19 “came roaring into our lives,” changing everything in its path — family dynamics included.
From the dozens of weekly polls I have fielded and analyzed through this pandemic period, I know that Floridians are struggling immensely with prolonged isolation from their loved ones.
Isolation has been one of the many unwelcome lessons of 2020. So many Floridians have had to face the uncomfortable, impossible decision to stay apart from their own families while COVID-19 remains a risk.
For many who live in assisted living communities, this has been not a choice but a mandate. For others, the choice to gather or remain distant has been a daily, ever-changing calculation of benefits and risks.
For still others, this isolation from family members is not new, and it is total.
My friend Ruth Markel is one of countless grandparents who cannot connect with their grandchildren — not in person, not on the phone, not by video chat, and not in writing.
And not because of COVID-19.
In Ruth’s case, this terrible isolation came because her son, Dan Markel, was murdered, and the mother of his two young sons decided that Ruth and the boys’ grandfather could no longer be a part of their lives.
For over four years, these two boys have been cut off from their slain father’s family — cut off from the love and support of those who knew them well and cared for them deeply. For their part, Markel’s parents and sister have been deprived of the opportunity to watch his children grow, or to connect them with their family roots, or simply to share precious time together.
It would be one thing if Ruth’s story were unique. But the truth is, grandparent isolation is common in Florida.
The state with the nation’s largest percentage of grandparent-age residents has among the nation’s most limited provisions for grandparent rights. In Florida, grandparents have almost no standing to petition courts for a hearing on visitation — not even in cases where murder investigations are ongoing or where other extraordinary circumstances exist.
Efforts to reform Florida’s grandparent visitation laws are underway, with the goal to reinforce and protect the primacy of parental authority while creating narrow, objective criteria in which grandparents may simply access courts. The policy challenge is to find a compromise that upholds parental authority while providing a safety net for families facing complex, tragic circumstances.
Sprowls’ sensitivity to the immense importance of grandparents — including his own dream of taking his future grandkids on their first Florida boat ride one day and his acumen for threading policy needles in general — gives advocates for grandparent rights hope that a solution may be possible.
For the countless Floridians who anticipate the joys of family reunification when the threat of COVID-19 subsides, and for those who face far more daunting challenges, the Speaker’s attention to the unique struggles of Florida grandparents offers a beam of hope that there are better days ahead.
Karen Cyphers, Ph.D., is vice president of Research for Sachs Media Group.