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Published September 11, 2013, 09:44 AM

Demonstrators weigh in on Grand Forks court case over family visitation

Supporters of a couple fighting a judge’s order that their children’s grandparents be allowed visitation rights demonstrated Tuesday in front of the Grand Forks County Courthouse during a hearing inside.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

Supporters of a couple fighting a judge’s order that their children’s grandparents be allowed visitation rights demonstrated Tuesday in front of the Grand Forks County Courthouse during a hearing inside.

“It’s a fundamental right of parents to dictate who is caregiver for their children,” said Trish Suedel.

She’s from Fargo, but grew up in Grand Forks with Cory Bjerke and Naomi Sterf, and organized the demonstration outside the courthouse with a handful of other friends, she said.

Inside, Bjerke and Sterf were being questioned by state District Judge Lawrence Jahnke on why they had not allowed their three children to visit Bjerke’s parents this summer, as the judge had ordered on June 20.

Cory Bjerke’s parents, Robert and Diane Bjerke of Grand Forks, had filed a motion asking the judge to force their son to “show cause,” why the court order had not been followed.

Although they are not married, he and Sterf have been together 19 years and have three children, Bjerke said Tuesday.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees, he said, “that we have the right as parents to raise our children as we see fit,” he said during a break in the hearing.

But last year his parents sued him and Sterf, seeking regular visitation with their grandchildren.

The oldest child, now 16, was in court Tuesday, sitting near her parents on their side of the courtroom and she met in chambers with Judge Jahnke to answer his questions.

Strained relations

It’s case with complicated family relationships.

Sterf said in a court affidavit that while Cory Bjerke has struggled with addiction for years, which led to prison time and treatment centers, he’s been working steadily for several years in floor installations. She’s a registered nurse for Altru Health System, according to court documents.

Diane Bjerke has run a home day care for years and said in a court affidavit that her oldest grandchild — the girl who now is 16 — spent much of her life in her grandparents’ home, partly because of her son’s problems with drugs. At times her grandchildren and her son and Sterf have lived in their home, according to Diane Bjerke and other times while Cory was in prison or in treatment.

Robert Bjerke said he often would take his oldest grandchild on work-related sales calls to food stores, as well as hockey games and tournaments where she played.

He shared his butterscotch sweets that she still calls “grandpa candies,” according to his affidavit filed a year ago.

“My grandchildren are my world,” Robert Bjerke said.

Things changed two years ago when Cory Bjerke was busted in West Fargo on drug-related charges, his parents say. Cory blamed his mother for making an anonymous call to police that prompted the raid, but she denies it, Diane Bjerke said in an affidavit.

Since then, their son and Sterf have thwarted any visits with their grandchildren, Robert and Diane Bjerke claim.

Court order

Jahnke’s order issued June 20 gave the two grandparents designated visitation rights, including many holidays and, for the 16-year-old, the ability to visit them whenever she wishes. But Jahnke also wrote that Cory and Naomi remained in charge of all major decisions about their children, including school and spiritual education.

But his order apparently wasn’t followed as both sides continued squabbling over visitation, according to statements in court Tuesday.

After meeting for two hours with the parties in several closed door sessions, Jahnke said he would defer for 60 days any action on possible contempt of court charges against Cory Bjerke and Sterf “to give time for mediation.”

He urged both sides to “let the past stay in the past,” and resolve the dispute themselves in mediation to serve the best interests of the three children.

If they don’t, he warned: “I will.”

He ordered Cory Bjerke and Sterf in the meantime to allow their three children to visit Diane and Robert Bjerke a day each month during the 60 days.

That’s actually less visitation than he ordered in June.

But Jahnke said he was trying to “throw some cold water on the situation” so that both sides could step back and find ways to get along.

Despite the views of Cory Bjerke and Sterf on parental rights, North Dakota law gives grandparents rights, too, of visiting their grandchildren if a court determines it’s in the best interests of the grandchildren and doesn’t interfere with the parents’ supervision of them, Jahnke said in announcing his ruling.

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