‘Markel Act’ Signed Into Law, Gives Grandparents Visitation Rights
June 24, 2022

 
‘Danny would be proud to know such mountains were moved for the protection of his two beloved sons.’
 
Today, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1119, known by advocates as the ‘Markel Act,’ to protect grandparents and children against alienation from each other in narrow, tragic situations.

Specifically, the bill says that grandparents can petition courts for visitation with their grandchildren where the living parent was found culpable by a criminal or civil court for the other parent’s death.

Inspiration for the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jackie Toledo and Sen. Keith Perry, was the 2014 murder-for-hire of FSU law professor Dan Markel, gunned down in his garage by hitmen, leaving two young sons without a father.

Law enforcement successfully prosecuted three accomplices who they say were hired by the family of Markel’s ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, to execute Markel so that Wendi could move to Miami with the children.

Before the murder, the court denied her petition to move the children away from Markel.

 

Wendi’s brother, Charlie Adelson, was arrested in April for his role in the murder; authorities named both Wendi and their mother Donna as co-conspirators.

While the terms of HB 1119 don’t fully apply to the Markel murder, as there has been no civil or criminal ruling against Wendi (to date), the new law creates an incentive for a parent to allow visitation with grandparents to avoid litigation. It also creates a powerful disincentive for families to see murder as a workable solution to custody disputes.

For the Markel family, the moment is significant.

“We are so grateful to Gov. DeSantis for signing this bill and for the leadership of House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Rep. Jackie Toledo, and Sen. Keith Perry for carrying the effort forward. This effort came out of tragedy, but we are pleased and hopeful that this initiative will benefit other families,” said Ruth Markel on behalf of her family. “Danny would be proud to know such mountains were moved for the protection of his two beloved sons.”

Lobbyists Jeff Johnston and Amanda Stewart with Johnston & Stewart, along with Markel family friend Karen Cyphers, led advocacy efforts to advance the cause.

 

“This type of project means so much to our team, knowing that it can help families avoid suffering and alienation from one another,” said Johnston, “We are grateful to Speaker Chris Sprowls, President Wilton Simpson, and the bill sponsors for their vision, and to Gov. DeSantis for signing the ‘Markel Act’ into law.”

Toledo and Simpson share this sense of purpose and gratitude.

“At a time when many Floridians are together with family, some grandparents remain blocked from seeing their grandchildren,” said Toledo, a Tampa Republican. “I am proud to stand up for our most vulnerable, children and grandparents, in extreme and tragic circumstances with this legislation.”

“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,” said Perry, a Republican from Gainesville. “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.”

Cyphers, partner and director of research at Sachs Media and volunteer with Justice for Dan, was moved to help after meeting Ruth and feeling her heartbreak of being alienated from Dan’s sons.

“The tragedy of Dan’s murder was compounded by this cruel, unnecessary separation — but until now, Florida law gave his parents no recourse toward reuniting with their grandchildren,” Cyphers said. “I hope the Governor’s signing of the ‘Markel Act’ into law brings peace and hope to their family and others.”

Becoming an advocate

Ruth Markel’s journey to advocacy began with the loss of her son, Dan Markel, who was murdered in 2014, and the subsequent alienation from his two young children – with whom she and Phil Markel seek reconnection.

Following the arrests of suspects in his murder, the Markels were unsuccessful in their many attempts to gain visitation or even telephone contact with their grandsons, Benjamin and Lincoln. Ruth quickly learned that Florida is one of the most restrictive states in the nation when it comes to providing grandparents with access to courts to petition for visitation with the children they dearly love.

The Markels are grateful to all of the media and social media allies who have given their family a voice to share their desire to reunite with Benjamin and Lincoln. This support is what led Ruth to the next step in her shift to advocacy.

Ruth, in coordination with Florida lawmakers, lobbyists, and allies, is fighting to amend Florida law to expand the ability for grandparents to petition courts for visitation in special circumstances.

This advocacy includes support for reforms to strengthen Florida’s various victim’s rights laws, and to help give a louder voice to victims involved in the criminal justice system.

 

Speaker-backed legislation could help some grandparents reunite with their grandchildren.
 
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.” 

Peter Schorsch

Link to article on Florida Politics.com

 

 

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