Today, the Florida House passed a bill with profound meaning for Florida children and grandparents who become estranged from one another after a tragedy.
HB 1119 says grandparents can ask a court to consider visitation rights if their child was killed and their grandchild’s other living parent was found responsible for this death by a civil or criminal court. The bill passed with a vote of 112-3.
The conditions are narrow but powerful, applying to families where a child has lost one parent due to the intentional wrongdoing of the other parent and then suffered another loss by being cut off from their deceased parent’s family. In such cases, under HB 1119 and its companion SB 1408, courts will have the authority to hear petitions for visitation with grandparents.
The bill was inspired in part by the 2014 murder of FSU law professor Dan Markel, who was hunted down and shot in the head by a hitman shortly after dropping his two sons off at preschool.
Prosecutors have publicly identified Markel’s ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, as an alleged “co-conspirator” to the murder, along with her mother and brother. Law enforcement says Adelson’s motive was to relocate to South Florida amid custody battles with Markel. While Adelson family members have not been arrested yet, three others have — the hitman, who was found guilty and sentenced to life; his accomplice, who pleaded guilty and confessed who had hired them; and their intermediary, who faces a retrial in May.
For five years, while the wheels of justice slowly turn, Markel’s parents, Ruth and Phil, have been kept from contact with their grandsons. After authorities released information implicating Wendi Adelson’s family in Markel’s murder, she cut ties. She had already changed the boys’ last name from Markel to hers. Yet under current Florida law, the Markels (and others facing similar tragedies) aren’t granted standing to ask a court to consider their desire for visitation — even if a separate civil court were to rule against their former daughter-in-law in a wrongful-death suit.
“Mr. Markel’s death left behind two little boys who are currently raised and supervised by the very people the FBI and state prosecutors say organized and paid for his contract killing,” said bill sponsor Republican Rep. Jackie Toledo of Tampa. “We need to create a pathway for children and grandparents to be reconnected when circumstances separating them are due to criminal or bad actions on the part of a surviving parent.”
The Senate companion bill, sponsored by Gainesville Republican Sen. Keith Perry, unanimously cleared its committees and heads next to the Senate Floor.
Both bills have bipartisan support. In the House, co-sponsors include Reps. Melony Bell, Daisy Morales, Michelle Salzman, and Cyndi Stevenson, and in the Senate, co-sponsors include Sens. Darryl Rouson and Lauren Book.
“We have profound gratitude for the Florida House, in particular Speaker Chris Sprowls, Rep. Jackie Toledo, and the other co-sponsors, for their vision and leadership,” shared Ruth Markel. “There’s nothing more important to us than leaving a record of how deeply we’ve tried to reconnect with our grandsons. Out of our tragedy, we hope to create something meaningful for other families to visit their grandchildren. Today marks a powerful day in this journey.”
“We are not looking at ways to dismantle the rights of parents,” Toledo told members, “but to correct the problem in law when one parent retains custody even when implicated in the death of their co-parent.”
Justice for Dan, a grassroots group of friends and allies, praises Speaker Sprowls, the bill sponsors, and members for their action, saying, “This bill sends a clear message: murder can’t be a solution to custody battles.”