By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: June 23, 2009
The N.H. Supreme Court recently issued a landmark ruling allowing a Seacoast woman to visit her Walpole grandchildren, paving the way for other grandparents in the state seeking visitation rights.
The ruling was a decisive victory for Kathaleen Dufton, though one last hurdle still remains.
Dufton and Terry Shepard Jr., the father of her grandchildren Amber, 8, and Kailee, 9, are at odds over the frequency and duration of her visits with them.
Dufton wants to have the children at her Newington home for two weekends every other month, and for one weekend during the months in between, according to her attorney, Justin Nadeau of Portsmouth.
Shepard and his attorney, Douglas Greene of Keene, are asking that Dufton drive to Walpole, where Shepard, Amber and Kailee live, and visit with them for a few hours one day a month.
After hearing arguments from both sides Monday at Cheshire County Superior Court, David Forrest, a marital master, said he would issue a temporary order following further review of the case.
Marital masters may make recommendations to the court as to how a case should be decided, but the recommendation has no effect until a judge signs it.
Forrest said he wanted Dufton and Shepard to attempt to resolve their disagreement through mediation before appointing a legal guardian to represent Amber and Kailee.
“Mediation may be able to cut through some of the hard feelings here,” he said.
If mediation fails, the legal guardian would step in and help the court determine how much time Amber and Kailee should spend with Dufton.
Forrest also indicated any temporary order he issued would likely allow the children to periodically visit Dufton during the summer so they can enjoy the beach.
“That’s a nice thing for kids,” he said.
Dufton sobbed throughout the hearing as she identified Amber and Kailee in photo albums and spoke about what she described as a very close relationship with her granddaughters.
She said she had only seen the girls once in the last year and that she wasn’t trying to take them from their father, but wanted to continue to be a presence in their lives.
“Last time I saw them they were afraid to walk up to me,” she said. “This is very harmful.”
Dufton was a teenager when she gave birth to Amber and Kailee’s mother, whom she placed for adoption. Vicki Shepard was 26 when she tracked down Dufton. The reunited mother and daughter fostered a strong bond before Shepard died of cancer in 2005, Dufton said.
Terry Shepard began denying Dufton visits with her grandchildren after their mother died, Dufton said.
Shepard was leery of Dufton because he believed she’d interfered in his relationship with his wife and children, according to Greene.
“There was friction between (Dufton and Shepard),” he said.
Vicki Shepard had obtained a restraining order against Terry Shepard, but withdrew the order in the months before her death; and the N.H. Department of Children, Youth & Families had investigated allegations that Terry Shepard was abusive, according to court testimony.
Terry Shepard blamed Dufton for the restraining order and abuse allegations, Greene said, though Dufton denied having a hand in either incident.
In 2007, Shepard argued in Superior Court that Dufton lost her rights as a grandmother when she placed her daughter for adoption. The court disagreed, siding with Dufton, but later reversed its decision in favor of Shepard. That’s when Nadeau stepped in and appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which reversed the Superior Court’s ruling June 3.
The Supreme Court found Dufton should be allowed to visit Amber and Kailee because she is their biological grandmother.
Nadeau said he accepted Dufton’s case and is only charging her only for legal research because he felt strongly about her struggle to visit her grandchildren.
“This case is very personal,” he said outside the courtroom. “It is very close to my heart.”
Nadeau said he attended the same school as one of Dufton’s daughters, and spent time at her home, which he described as a “nurturing environment.”
Dufton and Shepard should be able to settle their differences through mediation and possibly after meeting with a priest, which they both expressed interest in doing, Nadeau said.
“I am very much optimistic that we will be able to come to some sort of resolution,” he said, “because it is in everybody’s interest, especially Amber and Kailee’s, that these families get along.”
Since the Supreme Court decision, Nadeau said he has already heard from three other grandparents who want to spend time with their grandchildren, but have been barred from doing so by the parents.