With cheers, tears, jeers and scripture, parents' rights advocates rallied for the second time this month Friday to demand that the state truly protect children by leaving innocent families alone.
A small crowd, which by the end was stirred up enough to pay an impromptu, technically illegal and ultimately fruitless visit to the offices of the attorney general and the governor, gathered in front of the Capitol to blame the state child welfare system for feeding off the economically downtrodden in the name of protecting children and splitting up many families whose only infraction oftentimes is being poor.
Saying the people at the rally are the true but ignored experts on how the system really is, speakers said parents who have been wrongly accused of child abuse and neglect have found their voice in the wake of the Parker Jensen case, and they aren't going to be quiet any longer.
Bonnie Macri, president of Justice, Economic Dignity and Independence for Women who recently has been targeted in a child-abuse investigation said her group has monitored the plight of nearly 300 falsely accused women since April 1999.
The vast majority of cases involve people having their children taken because they are poor and don't meet the personal notion of the ideal family held by "vindictive, ambitious, zealous" attorney general's lawyers and too-young social workers from the state Division of Child and Family Services, Macri said.
"In almost every case, these families could have been helped in the homes" without having their children taken into state custody, she said. "Ultimately, the real victims are always the children."
The state acts too swiftly, too dramatically and can't admit it ever makes a mistake, other speakers said. One mother, who told the crowd she has proof that two of her children were taken July 21, 1998, because she had a dirty house, said the government is making families the newest endangered species in Utah.
The group chanted "give them back" as she finished her remarks.
Other speakers called for a legislative audit of the system and changes in the law so children can only be removed from their homes if a parent has been convicted by a jury of actual child abuse.
Elizabeth Bierly, a mother of four who had two of her children removed three years ago and whose situation prompted the rally, said the system wrongly accused her of medical neglect, took her diabetic but healthy son and let his disease get out of control to the point he had to be hospitalized twice. The Attorney General's Office took her completely healthy daughter without warrant, claiming she was a sibling at risk, Bierly said.
The assistant attorney general in the case has said laws and procedures in Bierly's case were followed to the letter. Caseworkers and supervisors for DCFS say there was sufficient cause to remove the son in the beginning but the situation escalated quickly and possibly unnecessarily into an ordeal for the family and the agencies involved.
Kirk Torgensen, chief deputy in the state Attorney General's Office, said the system, like any other human endeavor, can make mistakes. "I tell people all the time that there can be disagreements about what's best for a child. But at least 98 percent of the time, the system works. And in the two years I've been looking into cases, I have yet to see one where removal wasn't in the best interest of the child."
Other child protection workers say parents who were endangering their children are jumping on the Jensen bandwagon and trying to demonize the only true child advocates the state has.
Setting aside a sign that read, "If the state would have taken Elizabeth Smart it would have been legal," her two grown sons and her daughter's father standing nearby, Bierly told the crowd, sometimes tearfully, that people in the system have admitted that mistakes were made in her case but no one will do anything to rectify the situation and return her children, even though they have the power to do so.
Daniel Newby of the new parents' rights group Accountability Utah said Bierly's case is one of the many "shocking indicators that we have stopped watching the shop for too long." Newby called on Utahns, particularly Utah fathers, to throw out the governor, legislators and every bureaucrat who refuses to stand up and fight for families.
Terry Trease, also of Accountability Utah, said the rallies and movement's momentum will continue to grow because "the government absolutely won't listen to the people."
The loudest endorsement from the crowd came when the final speaker, invoking the New Testament, suggested government operatives who would unjustifiably remove children "tie a millstone around their necks, then cast yourself into the sea."Moving inside, the group attempted to confront Attorney General Mark Shurtleff but were ultimately met with an assistant who attempted to field accusations. Gov. Mike Leavitt's assistant Rich McKeown did the same a few minutes later.