For years, Florida lawmakers and advocates have attempted to thread an almost impossible needle: finding a way to secure access to courts for grandparents who became alienated from their grandchildren in the midst of terrible circumstances such as the murder of their child, while preserving Florida’s exceptionally strong parental rights.
These efforts have seen renewed hope with a new policy solution that meets both criteria — grandparents could gain the right to petition courts for visitation if the child’s living parent is found responsible for the other parent’s death by a criminal or civil court.
HB 1119, sponsored by Tampa Republican Rep. Jackie Toledo and SB 1408, sponsored by Gainesville Republican Sen. Keith Perry, provide a vision for a path forward that would grant access to courts without compromising Florida’s strong commitment to parental rights.
This effort, informally referred to as “The Markel Act” by advocates, says that if the surviving parent of a child has a criminal or civil finding of wrongful death against them, grandparents are given the ability to petition for visitation with a presumption that such visitation should be granted.
“Grandparents and grandchildren should not be penalized when a child’s parent is found culpable in the wrongful death of the other parent. This Act will benefit grandparents and their grandchildren who need their love and support,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls said.
The effort was inspired in part by the story of Florida State law professor, Dan Markel, who was gunned down in his home in 2014, leaving his two young sons fatherless. Almost immediately after the killing, law enforcement said decisively that Markel was “the intended target” of the killing. But it wasn’t until two years later that a series of arrests in his murder were made.
Sigfredo Garcia and Luis Rivera were named as two hit men who drove to Tallahassee from Miami to commit the crime, and Katherine Magbanua was named as the link between the killers and those who allegedly hired them — the family of Markel’s ex-wife, Wendi Adelson.
Prosecutors say the family’s motive was to secure full custody of the boys for Wendi so she could relocate to South Florida, despite firm court rulings that meant Wendi and the boys were to remain in Tallahassee near their father. Rivera, in his guilty plea, confessed that he and Garcia were hired to kill Markel because “the lady wanted her kids back.”
While friends and family of Markel were relieved for a break in the case, the release of evidence that pointed at Wendi’s family came at a cost. Shortly after the three arrests, Wendi cut off all contact between the children and her former in-laws, Ruth and Phil Markel.
“While arrests of family members are anticipated and seem inevitable, the wheels of justice turn slowly, particularly in complex conspiracy cases such as this,” said Justice for Dan, a grassroots group of Markel’s friends who advocate for justice in this case and for his family. “Despite significant evidence released by prosecutors about the Adelson family’s involvement in the murder, and the troublesome reality that these same family members are raising or supervising Dan’s boys, there has been little hope for the Markels to reunite with their grandsons. This is because Florida law is particularly limited when it comes to the ability for grandparents to petition courts for visitation.”
Making a common-sense fix to Florida’s laws to keep grandparents and grandchildren together in tragic circumstances is exactly what Sprowls, Toledo and Perry sought to do.
The terms of HB 1119 and SB 1408 don’t fully apply to the Markels, as there has not yet been a civil or criminal finding against Wendi Adelson. However, advocates praise this proposal for providing families with the opportunity to consider various options to seek visitation with grandchildren, while protecting and affirming parental rights.
“At a time when many Floridians are together with family, some grandparents remain blocked from seeing their grandchildren,” Toledo said. “I am proud to stand up for our most vulnerable, children and grandparents, in extreme and tragic circumstances with this legislation.”
Perry added, “Time spent between grandparents and grandchildren is important and special, fostering the traditions that tie generations together across all seasons of life. But some families in Florida remain separated due to circumstances beyond comprehension. This bill will provide an opportunity for families who have lost so much already to receive the support and affection from those who love and miss them dearly.”
For their part, the Markels express gratitude.
“We are delighted and encouraged that Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls has initiated a just, common-sense solution to expand access to courts for grandparents, inspired in part by the story of our beloved son, Dan Markel. We are grateful to Rep. Jackie Toledo and Sen. Keith Perry for advancing these bills, which if passed, would expand access to courts for grandparents like us, who lost a child and then became alienated from their grandchildren,” said Ruth Markel on behalf of the Markel family.
“While we wouldn’t wish this experience on any others, we know we are far from alone in the desire to reunite with grandchildren in the aftermath of tragedy. Losing a child is unthinkable, and we yearn to reconnect with Dan’s sons, Benjamin and Lincoln, and provide them with the love and support we did for so long. We thank Speaker Sprowls, Rep. Toledo, and Sen. Perry, for their leadership, and remain hopeful that both justice and reunification are in our days ahead.”