Crying Out for Grandparents' Rights, An Illinois Woman Sues Her Daughter for the Chance to Love Her Grandson

updated 07/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's a gorgeous day in Milwaukee, and 7-year-old Christopher Brooks Jr. can't wait to get outside. But moments later the boy is back with a troubled look in his eye; dark thoughts have intruded on his play. "Grandma wants me and I want Mommy," he says, clinging to Karyn, his mother. "It makes me sad. I think everyone should hug and make up."

If only it were that simple.

Since March 1989, Christopher has been caught in the middle of a bizarre legal battle between his maternal grandmother, Dorothy Dillon, 53, and his parents, Karyn and Chris Brooks. One of the first people to take advantage of an unusual Illinois statute that allows grandparents to seek access to their grandchildren even over the wishes of the parents, Dorothy, a divorced executive secretary who lives outside Chicago, is suing her estranged daughter and son-in-law for regular visits with her only grandchild. Dorothy's right to sue, however, may soon be taken from her. The Illinois State Legislature—caught between the contradictory demands of parents' and grandparents' groups—has just voted to rescind the controversial law; the amendment now awaits approval by Gov. James Thompson.

For their part, Karyn, 32, and Chris, 29, insist they are not denying Dorothy visitation, but say they don't want her visits mandated by the courts. "We feel like we are fighting off a hostile takeover," says Chris. Dillon, however, believes the law is her only recourse. In the last 18 months, she says, she has seen Christopher just three times, all on court-ordered visits. "All I want in the whole world is to be with my grandson, hug him, kiss him and tell him I love him," she says. "Now I worry that he thinks I abandoned him. I've racked my brain trying to understand all the hostility my daughter has toward me."

The conflict between mother and daughter dates back to Karyn's childhood—from the time Dorothy divorced her Chicago fireman husband, the late Anton Konopasek, after a tumultuous eight-year union, in 1963. As a single mother struggling to support two daughters—Karyn has an older sister, Katherine, 33—Dorothy held down two secretarial jobs, working days, evenings, even weekends. "My mother had a hard life, and she was always unhappy," remembers Karyn. "She went her way and we went ours. I had no direction and no guidance. I never really had a chance to be a child."

Though Karyn denies it, her mother and sister believe the family dispute stems from these resentments. "My sister is an angry woman who blames my mother for everything, from not giving her braces on her teeth to not paying for music lessons," says Katherine Konopasek, an assistant principal at a suburban Chicago elementary school. Adds Dorothy: "I don't see where I was such a mean mother. But Karyn has a grudge against me, and she's using Christopher to get revenge."

While Katherine was an honor student who went on to earn three master's degrees, Karyn, according to her mother, was a flower child who cut classes and defied authority. At 16, Karyn dropped out of school and moved in with friends. Though she remained in contact with her mother, who attended her 1981 wedding to Brooks (a would-be artist working as a dishwasher), the relationship grew more tense after Christopher was born. Dorothy would frequently stop by the Brookses' Chicago apartment and baby-sit, but seething beneath the surface was Dorothy's discomfort with her daughter's hippie life-style and Karyn's feeling that her mother was "overbearing and demanding too much from our lives." In the spring of 1984, Karyn and Chris moved to a log cabin outside Hannibal, Mo. Dorothy was appalled at the thought of her grandson being raised in primitive conditions, but says she didn't complain. Instead she gave Karyn $500 to help pay for the move.

The sojourn in the woods didn't work. Karyn and Chris came back to Chicago, where their marriage crumbled under the strain of Chris's drinking. After their divorce in 1987, Karyn attended Northeastern Illinois University to prepare for a career as a teacher, and Dorothy seemed to have less time than ever with Christopher, who spent weekends with his father. "I was too busy to keep in touch with my mother," says Karyn, "and when I did call, there were constant judgments and pressuring to see Christopher. I wasn't trying to keep my mother from him. I was trying to get on with my life."

Even though Dorothy felt cut off by Karyn, "I never questioned her," she says. "I just tolerated and tolerated." Finally a desperate Dorothy consulted a lawyer and, on Jan. 3, 1989, sent Karyn a certified letter, warning that she was considering legal action. (An existing Illinois law permitted grandparents to petition for visitation in cases of parental divorce or death.) In March, Karyn and Chris were summoned to appear in domestic relations court. But despite the efforts of a court-ordered mediation counselor, the battle escalated. In May, Karyn and Chris remarried—to avoid suit, according to Dorothy, although the couple say they had been reconciled for months. Whatever the case, the couple were no longer immune to legal action when the Illinois Legislature passed the law in September allowing grandparents to seek visitation even when the grandchild's parents are not divorced. At one point Karyn and Chris tried to settle by offering Dorothy five visits a year; Dorothy, who wants monthly visits, refused.

The continuing feud has cost Karyn and Chris several thousand dollars in legal fees, which they can ill afford: Last January, Karyn lost her teaching job at a private school, forcing the family to scrape by on the $18,000 Chris earns as a security-systems installer. Still, the couple are determined to ride the suit out as a matter of principle. "If we don't take a stand against this law, we are opening up a whole Pandora's box," says Karyn. "Every family has its problems, but when the government and the courts invade your home, it's a different matter." Karyn also has the full support of her parents-in-law. "I'm all for grandparents visiting with grandchildren, but I'm appalled that anyone would put their children under such stress and financial hardship," says Chris's mother, Nancy Brooks, who adds that she sees Christopher mostly "on holidays and special occasions."

Meanwhile the Brookses have pushed ahead with their lives. After moving to Milwaukee last fall, they recently settled into a redbrick bungalow, purchased with a low-interest government loan, where Karyn has planted an herb garden, sewn curtains and set up an attic playroom for Christopher. Ninety miles away, in her immaculate one-bedroom condominium in Morton Grove, Ill., Dorothy waits, not knowing when she will see her grandson again and hoping against hope that the Governor will veto the legislature's decision to rescind the law upon which she has built her case. Both mother and daughter admit they often wonder how things got so bad between them. But neither is willing, as little Christopher suggests, to hug and make up.

—William Plummer, Civia Tamarkin in Chicago

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