They may not always see eye to eye politically, but pols Christine Watkins and LaVar Christensen seem to have the same vision for tweaking child welfare and parental rights laws this legislative session.
Both veteran lawmakers are working up bills aimed at providing a course correction for a child welfare system they say doesn't do enough to keep children with parents and other kin.
"As a state we are paying way too much money to pull kids out of homes and we should be doing the opposite, being a family friendly state," said Rep. Watkins, D-Price, a former elementary school teacher and principal. "Once you get into this [child welfare] system, it is not family friendly."
Rep. Christensen, R-Draper, an attorney, characterizes his concerns as the "ultimate nonpartisan issue."
"I'm not trying to take away the good that is done, but we have to be as concerned about the abuse of parental rights as we are of situations where children are found to be in extreme danger. I think the pendulum has gone way too far," he said.
It began that swing, Christensen said, in 1993 when the state was sued over a foster care system deemed "one of the most troubled" in the nation. But it's time to "evaluate if we are better off because of it," he said.
Christensen said the Division of Child and Family Services' (DCFS) budget has quadrupled since then to nearly $160 million a year, with too much of that money dedicated to supporting children after they've been removed from their homes rather than providing services that might help keep a family intact. Utah receives some $47 million in federal funds to subsidize adoptions of children from foster care, money that can't be used on prevention or reunification services. That puts "artificial pressure" on the system to facilitate termination of parents' rights, Christensen said.
An audit of DCFS released a year ago showed the number of children served in foster care increased 38 percent over the past decade. Over the same period, in-home services that make it possible for children to stay home while problems are addressed have decreased 40 percent. The audit said foster care is likely to last longer and is more expensive than in-home service, which it said research has tied to better outcomes for children. In fiscal year 2010, DCFS spent nearly $113 million on foster care and adoption assistance services, a figure that includes personnel costs and payments to providers. It spent slightly less than $7 million on in-home services.
Christensen said one case in particular illustrated for him the need to prod DCFS to focus more on family preservation. It involved a 26-year-old woman who got involved in drugs through a boyfriend, who later abused their 2-year-old child. As the state began to investigate the man, he committed suicide. The woman's parents cared for their grandchild for 18 months; the child was then placed with a paternal aunt. The grandparents are trying to regain custody, Christensen said.
"The state says, 'We're under such time pressure we can't wait for you to pull it together,' so it makes a permanent decision that forever more you're stripped of your natural right as a mother," he said. "It is like a foreclosure department."
Christensen said he believes parents are getting short shrift, in part because a law he sponsored years ago strengthening their rights is located in a different section of the code than the law that outlines when parental rights may be terminated.
"I want to take that prior legislation, which I believe has been overlooked in sad and tragic ways, and merge those together," he said. "The termination of parental rights is still moving ahead 600 times a year and that shouldn't be happening. If parents are struggling, let's help them. And only in the most extreme cases irreversible cases that cannot be corrected, cannot be remedied would you find someone unfit and take their child from them."
He also wants the courts to look more to a child's extended family for support, and he plans to enhance language that calls on the state to do "everything possible to strengthen, unite and preserve families" a point on which his agenda mirrors that of Watkins'.
Watkins has several bills already on the docket and others in the works, all generated by problems brought to her attention by constituents. Among them: HB241 would require DCFS to have "clear and convincing evidence" before it could remove a child from a relative's care based on age or health-related problems alleged to be incapacitating.
Watkins took up the issue after hearing about a woman in her 50s who was caring for grandchildren, ages 3 and 6, when their mother lost custody due to drug use. A caseworker wanted to remove the children from the grandmother's care because she dozed off while waiting for the children during a supervised visit with their mother.
"Grandma said, 'Yep, I did fall asleep but I've been so busy working with them and catching them up,' " Watkins said. "Because of that one incident, they wanted to take those grandchildren away and put them in foster care."
Instead, after Watkins and other family members got involved, the state agreed to place the children with another relative, she said. Watkins also is sponsoring HB202, which would prevent DCFS from taking action against a parent or guardian who tests positive for a properly prescribed and used medication. That problem surfaced in another case involving a grandparent, she said. A caseworker claimed a grandmother wasn't capable of being a caretaker because of prescribed medication, which she had taken for more than a decade. To DCFS' credit, the decision was reversed after it was brought to the attention of local and state directors, Watkins said.
Among the 2012 bills
Rep. Christine Watkins, D-Price, is still working on bills that would require the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to provide a brochure to parents outlining their rights and resources once they are involved with the child welfare system and to list approved providers on its website. She already has these bills on the session's docket:
HB202 • Would prevent DCFS from taking action against a parent or guardian who tests positive for a properly prescribed and used medication.
HB241 • Prohibits DCFS from removing a child from a foster parent who is a relative on the basis of age or health unless there is clear and convincing evidence the relative is incapable of caring for the child.
Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, plans to introduce a bill that would locate in the same section of the Utah Code language that addresses protection of parental rights and when they can be terminated. He also wants to strengthen sections of the Utah Code that address the state's interest in family preservation and address how requirements attached to federal funds are compromising parental rights.