Committee endorses kinship care law changes but puts two other child welfare measures on hold

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 25 2012 11:13 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative committee approved a bill Wednesday that would require state child welfare caseworkers to apply a "clear and convincing" evidentiary standard before removing a child from a relative's care based on the relative's health or age.

But the House Health and Human Services Committee held two other bills related to child welfare issues. All three measures were sponsored Rep. Christine Watkins, D-Price.

HB241, which would require the state Division of Child of Family Services to provide "clear and convincing evidence" a relative was incapable of providing care, was drafted after one of Watkins' constituents lost custody of a grandchild to whom she was providing care.

Watkins said the grandmother fell asleep during a supervised visit with the child's mother, which was witnessed by a DCFS caseworker. The grandmother had been prescribed medication for a temporary illness that had made her drowsy. The child was later returned to the grandmother's care, however.

Some members of the committee said requiring the state to use a "clear and convincing" standard was problematic since the standard is more frequently applied in criminal matters.

DCFS deputy director Charri Brummer said relatives who are licensed to provide kinship care are required to provide the Office of Licensing a letter from a health care provider regarding their health. "It's my understanding it's renewed on an annual basis," she said.

Brummer said the division's key concern was any change to law that hinder the agency's ability to remove a child from kinship if circumstances warrant, she said.

But others, such as the president of the Utah Eagle Forum spoke in favor of the bill, noting that her organization is aware of caseworkers who have removed children from kinship care because of a grandparents' age.

"They're healthy, but they're old like me," said Gayle Ruzicka.

Watkins concurred, "When you're a grandparent, you're not 35 anymore, but you're still capable of taking care of children."

Meanwhile, the committee held two other bills, one that would have prohibited DCFS and juvenile courts from taking action against a parent or guardian who is using properly prescribed medication.

Some committee members questioned how the proper use of prescription drugs could be determined.

"We have parents that game the system. They doctor shop. They get prescriptions for hydrocodone, so they technically have a prescription, but they're addicted to it. They're hiding behind a back problem or a knee problem that really doesn't exist," said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield.

Watkins said she introduced HB202 after a constituent whose child had been in DCFS custody failed a drug test due to prescription medication she had been prescribed following emergency surgery. Ultimately, the child was returned to the mother.

DCFS director Brent Platt said caseworkers cannot remove a child from his or her parents based on a failed drug test. "These decisions are made by the judge to remove the child. We have to get a warrant."

The committee also voted to hold HB203, which would ask judges to consider whether terminating a parent's parental rights would cause a child to lose contact with members of the child's ethnic group.

Some committee members said the language of the bill may conflict with federal civil rights laws if it is construed one race received preferential treatment over another.

Brummer said DCFS caseworkers are mindful of the importance of a child maintaining ties with their ethnic and cultural ties.

"We're always looking at that. How can we safely maintain those connections," Brummer said.

Email: marjorie@desnews.com

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