By STEPHEN VINCENT
In the Utah State Legislature, debate continues to rage over last summer’s Parker Jensen incident and two Utah County legislators’ bills will be near the middle of the debate.
Sen. Parley Hellewell and Rep. Mike Thompson, both Republicans from Orem, have introduced bills that would limit the power of the Division of Child and Family Services in child custody matters.
Jensen, 13, made national news this past summer when his family fled from Utah to Idaho, avoiding a Utah court order requiring him to be treated after he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
Eventually, DCFS backed away as the Jensen family fought the order and helped build support of those critical of the way the agency handles child neglect and custody cases.
Hellewell’s bills could have the furthest reaching consequences for the division. One of Hellewell’s bills, S. B. 103, would change the law giving agencies the right to remove children from their parents.
Under current Utah law, when an agency considers removing children from their parents, it is to consider the welfare and protection of children to be of “paramount importance.”
S.B. 103 removes the “paramount importance” phrase. Instead, the rights of the parent or guardian are to be balanced against the child’s welfare and protection.
Hellewell said the bill is necessary to give parents a chance to win their custody battle with DCFS, a task he said is nearly impossible under the current statute.
“In the past, it’s been that no one had a chance,” Hellewell said. “The parents would say, ‘Why does my attorney always want to plea?” And the attorneys would always say, ‘We have no chance to win.'”
Hellewell doesn’t hesitate to say the Jensen episode is what prompted his bills.
While the Jensen incident was in the media spotlight, Hellewell appeared on TV to discuss the issue, and that led many people to start calling him for help, he said.
“I had heard horror stories in the past,” Hellewell said. “After the Parker Jensen situation, I started getting calls everyday.”
Hellewell said he has traveled the state the past few months, talking to parents and child custody attorneys. This led to two other bills he introduced that he said will help parents in court cases against the DCFS.
Hellewell equates the DCFS with the Salem, Mass., witch hunters.
“We’ve gone from that [the witch trials] to destroying families in the name of children,” Hellewell said. “Everything has gone into protecting them that it doesn’t matter if we destroy parents and kids in the process.”
Another bill Hellewell is working on, but has yet to be assigned a number, would restructure the DCFS.
A key component of the bill is the DCFS ombudsman. Right now, the ombudsman is hired and supervised by DCFS officials. Under Hellewell’s bill, the governor would appoint the ombudsman, who investigates complaints about the division.
Unlike Hellewell, Thompson said the Parker Jensen incident wasn’t the catalyst for his bills.
“I’ve been doing some of these bills every year, just part of bettering the system,” Thompson said.
But like Hellewell, Thompson has sponsored several bills dealing with the removal of children from the home.
One of Thompson’s bills, H.B. 61, requires a state agency to have a warrant, court order or permission from parents before they can enter a home.
Another one of Thompson’s bills, H.B. 197, limits the reasons for why a child can be removed from his home. Thompson’s bill precludes case workers from removing children from a home if the reason is that the parents own a firearm, espouse particular religious beliefs or home school their children.
Thompson said the provisions are necessary to protect parents’ 2nd Amendment and religious freedom rights. He also said the home schooling provision is needed because some child advocacy groups believe home-schoolers are abusive.
“Utah is a family-oriented state,” Thompson said. “We need to do as much as we can to keep families together.”