New state office represents parents in welfare cases


    Parents will have their day in court, with the help of a new state office created to represent parents’ rights in child welfare cases.

    Lawmakers created the Office of Parental Defense, which is scheduled to open Tuesday, in response to dissatisfaction over the way state-managed child welfare cases have been handled, specifically the case of 12-year-old Parker Jensen. His parents, Daren and Barbara Jensen fled the state last year in order to avoid court-ordered chemotherapy for their son. The Jensen’s refused to allow chemotherapy for Parker’s cancer, known as Ewing’s sarcoma, when doctors could not find evidence of the cancer in either blood or bone cells. Through court negotiations, the Jensens prevented chemotherapy and now say Parker’s cancer is in remission.

    The case gained national media coverage, spotlighting what lawmakers called a child welfare system stacked against parents. In response, the Utah Legislature passed 15 child welfare bills this year, a move praised by parental rights advocates. Among them was a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson, R-Orem, which appropriated $239,000 for the creation of the Office of Parental Defense. A portion of that sum will cover the salaries of the executive director of that office and an administrative assistant.

    “If we have the right person in the job it will improve the system,” said Sandra Lucas, executive director for the Utah chapter of the Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights.

    Alicia Davis was selected from 38 applicants to fill the position which legislators say will “zealously represent” the interests of parents charged with neglecting or abusing their children.

    Davis said the new office is an important addition to the current child welfare system, and that a single, centralized office will create clear standards for parents’ defense. She said the purpose of the office will be to balance the rights of parents effecting child welfare, and help level the playing field in child welfare cases.

    “I’m really excited about this opportunity; it’s such a new adventure,” Davis said. “There’s nothing like this office anywhere in the country.”

    Davis is a veteran of the Utah court system, having worked in various positions there since graduating from law school. She said she applied for the position as executive director of the Office of Parental Defense because she is passionate about parents’ rights and wanted the opportunity to help centralize parental representation from the county to the state level.

    With the responsibility of running a new office, Davis said the goal of the office will be to do the best they can and learn from those who have been court-appointed attorneys for parents at the county level.

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