A lawmaker wants to shackle what he says is the heavy-handed power the state Department of Child and Family Services uses to take children away from families.
Prompted by this summer's maelstrom of controversy in the Parker Jensen case, Sen. Parley Hellewell, R-Orem, plans to run a number of bills in the 2004 legislative session, including one measure that proposes to restructure the agency to make it more "parent-friendly."
Other lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Thompson, R-Orem, also are expected to introduce several child welfare reform measures likely to pit staunch child advocates against parental-rights groups.
"What happened with the Parker Jensen case was 100 percent wrong," Hellewell said. "The state needs to watch over children who are being abused, there's no question about it, but DCFS has way, way, way too much power."
Daren and Barbara Jensen and their son, Parker, were at the center of a case that drew national attention after they left Utah to avoid court-ordered chemotherapy for the 12-year-old, who doctors said had a cancerous tumor in his mouth that threatened his life.
The Jensens disagreed with the doctors' recommendations for treatment, arguing the chemotherapy itself posed unacceptable health risks.
DCFS sought custody of Parker to force the medical treatment, but it eventually abandoned its efforts in late September.
Felony charges filed against the couple for kidnapping were reduced in a plea agreement.
While the tough questions generated by the Jensen case have started to fade from public discourse, that discussion will be resuscitated on Capitol Hill next month as lawmakers debate a flurry of bills.
Hellewell said he has been meeting with a number of people who have come to him with tales of the agency wielding unnecessary power that intimidates parents and wrecks families.
"The sad thing is that so many of these people didn't have the wherewithal that the Jensens did the money or whatever to fight DCFS."
One woman, Hellewell said, had her child taken away after she fell down the stairs while holding the child. The resulting broken leg, and the fact that she didn't immediately recognize the injury, prompted removal of the child from her custody.
"Some of the stories I have heard are so sad I can't believe it," he said. "The agency is supposed to be family-oriented, but they are destroying families."
Adam Trupp, DCFS's administrator for policy and planning, said officials are willing to sit down and talk about the proposed changes if they better serve the public.
"A restructuring of DCFS might be appropriate, but we need a lot of discussion on it. The issue that we strongly disagree with is that our agency is out of control. We strongly disagree we are not responsive to the needs of families."
Trupp said DCFS is dismayed at the timing of the call for change because it comes when the agency is implementing its own changes in the way it does business.
"We're constantly hearing how we yank kids out of homes for no reason, but the data doesn't support that we are doing that," Trupp said, adding that Utah has one of the lowest rates in the nation for the percentage of children removed from homes because of neglect or abuse.
The state received more than 19,000 abuse reports last year, according to DCFS records. It ultimately removed 1,914 children. Of children removed from home, 35 percent are eventually returned to their parents."I think there has been a feeling from a lot of people that DCFS takes action in too many cases, gets involved in places where they really don't belong," Trupp said. "But for every one of those cases that appear, there are people who are saying the division doesn't get involved enough to protect children, that we need to be more aggressive. The bottom line is that it is a balancing process."
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