SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal before the Utah Legislature would allow parents whose parental rights have been terminated to petition for reunification with their children under limited circumstances.
The bill, SB49, would impact the foster care system by directing the Utah Division of Child and Family Services to study the potential of a plan to reunify parents with their children under certain circumstances, and report its findings to legislators later this year.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee endorsed the bill Thursday afternoon, sending it to the Senate for its consideration.
DCFS executive director Brent Platt said other states have developed processes to reunify families after parents have voluntarily relinquished their parental rights or their rights have been terminated.
"Even if it's a rare situation that works for just a few kids, it's a good thing. It likely won't be as common as some people in this room think it will be but I think we'll be surprised by the opportunities made available by this," he said.
As presently drafted, the bill says petitions for guardianship could be filed if a child has not been adopted within a year of his or her parents' rights being terminated. The other possibility for reunification would be for a child who has been returned to the custody of DCFS by adoptive parents. This change, as proposed by Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, would go into effect in 2014, according to the proposal.
The wishes of the affected children would weigh heavily in the decisions, Platt said. A number of other states have similar laws, he said.
Gayle Ruzicka of the Utah Eagle Forum spoke in favor of the bill saying that she has worked with families that would benefit from a means to reunify.
"I've seen children in the system who are desperate to go home, longing to go home," she said.
Harper's bill creates "an incredible opportunity that hasn't existed before," she said.
Hallie Obermiller, who was in foster care for nine years and not adopted before she aged out of the system at 18, said she doubts there are many parents who relinquish their rights or have had them terminated who would be able to turn around their lives and solve their problems.
"I've been in contact with my parents since I turned 18. They haven't changed at all. They went back to their old ways," she said in an interview prior to the legislative meeting.
Obermiller, 19, said both of her parents were addicted to drugs and in and out of jail. She was pressed into taking care of her siblings when she was 5 years old, she said.
Although the children were initially placed with their grandparents, that arrangement ended, too. The children ended up in foster homes. Obermiller's three siblings were adopted but she was not, although she lived in her last foster family from the time she was 12 until she graduated from high school. She considers that couple her parents, she said.
Obermiller said the child welfare system gives parents an opportunity to reunify with their children before parental rights are terminated.
"If they give them that chance and opportunity to try to get their kids back and they don't do it then, what makes anyone think they can do it at all?"
Platt said if even 2 to 5 percent of the children who enter DCFS's custody caseload each year would be affected by the policy change, it would be significant for those 30 to 40 children to be reunified with family.
Beyond the social and emotional ramifications of a child losing their parents, so-called "legal orphans" forfeit continued financial support from their biological parents, LaShanda Taylor wrote in the 2010 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law in 2010.
"Because these young adults have high instances of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, depriving them of child support, inheritance and familial support is particularly problematic," she wrote.
Laws that allow "looking back to move forward" can be in the best interest of children, according to Susan M. Getman and Steve Christian, authors of the American Humane Association journal article, "Reinstating Parental Rights: Another Path to Permanency."
"Youth long for family connections. Some birth mothers and fathers who, years earlier, had struggled and failed to keep their children safe, subsequently losing their parental rights, have improved their personal circumstances, achieved stability and strengthened their parenting abilities.
"Children, once young and vulnerable, have grown older and more competent in their own right. When both youth who have not been adopted and their birth parents are desirous of reunification, these statutes afford them a venue for consideration," Getman and Christian wrote.
Obermiller said she remains skeptical that most birth parents whose parental rights have been terminated can alter course to the point their children would be open to reunification.
"I know parents like to think they can change for their kids but a lot of them don't," Obermiller said.
"Some of them were just not meant to be parents."