The intent was to strengthen the state's child welfare law to offer greater protections for Utah children.
But HB239, sponsored by Rep. J. Brent Haymond, R-Springville, has erupted into a maelstrom during the final days of the Utah Legislature - and the arch-conservative Eagle Forum has vowed to train its formidable lobbying sights on the bill again if Democrats try to restore references to domestic violence.The discussion has turned into one about family rights vs. children's rights and what some perceive to be overzealousness in the Division of Child and Family Services.
It is already a crime to hit a spouse in front of a child in Utah.
On Wednesday, lawmakers stripped a bill that would have amended the state's child welfare code to reflect that law. After a long debate, the Utah House voted to remove more than 10 references to domestic violence from the child welfare code.
The bill passed on a 39-33 vote and is on its way to the Senate.
Democratic Rep. Gary Cox, a West Jordan police officer, proposed an amendment which said that if a victim of domestic violence wasn't willing to protect a child, DCFS could remove the child. That amendment failed.
Gayle Ruzicka said the domestic abuse references amount to a "witch hunt" that would have victimized families twice. "There are so many unanswered questions. This has incredible potential for abuse. We don't believe people should be forced into DCFS."
Lawmakers debated the bill for nearly two hours Wednesday, and sponsor Haymond fended off four amendments from conservative colleagues who wanted to weaken the power of DCFS.
Cox, who Tuesday played a harrowing 911 tape from a girl witnessing her stepfather beating her mother, appealed to representatives to keep references to domestic abuse.
"If you want to pretend this doesn't occur, then fine, step forward and say that. But don't hide from it by changing the wording of a completely good bill."
Conservative lawmakers refused to concede.
"I heard that tape and there was a lot of emotion there," said Rep. Kathy Bryson, R-Orem, "but that's one time. . . . Look what they have to do to get that child back."
"There are more players in this than just the children," said Rep. Bill Wright, R-Elberta. "You've got to consider what you do to the families. When you talk about the health, safety and welfare of a child, we have overridden the rights of a family."
Several suggested DCFS was "out of control" and "yanks kids from homes" without adequate evidence.
Rep. Loretta Baca, D-Salt Lake, challenged that assertion. "I have two children next door who play with butcher knives. I call and nothing happens," she said, giving several additional examples of situations where she felt children should have been removed from the home.
"The family came first in those cases. DCFS tried to work with kids and with the families. They do not just go in and take kids away."
Action on the House floor Wednesday shocked child advocates who believed the rule changes wouldn't garner much controversy.
For the past few years, the child welfare amendment bill has been a "well-steered ship," said Roz McGee, director of Utah Children.
Diane Stuart, domestic violence coordinator for the state, said people may misunderstand the bill or its intention. She said DCFS has been very proactive in creating legislation that would protect children.
But conservatives feared the legislation would give the Division of Child and Family Services too much power to remove children from a home.
Ruzicka said as long as children aren't being physically abused, the government has no right to take them from the home. They may be traumatized by witnessing domestic violence between their parents, but Ruzicka said that is not sufficient reason to take children from the home.
Like similar bills over the past few years, HB239 tinkers with the state's massive child welfare code.
The lengthy bill clarifies court jurisdiction, creates a child welfare ombudsman and authorizes the state attorney general to hire child protective services investigators.
It also was intended to bring the child welfare code into compliance with the state's criminal code. A child welfare oversight committee has studied the amendments since September with little fanfare.