SALT LAKE CITY — Julie Anderson gulped back tears to explain to state lawmakers why they need to amend Utah's child custody statute.
The Andersons believe had their son, Jared, been awarded custody of his 3-year-old daughter Aubree Jo, the child would not have died in a car accident with her impaired mother behind the wheel. Toxicology tests found Oxycontin and marijuana in Brandi Stilke's system when the single-car accident occurred on Feb. 23, 2011, in Harrisville.
"If we had been a bit more diligent, perhaps, it wouldn't have happened," Anderson told members of House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee Tuesday afternoon.
Anderson testified on behalf of HB88, which would add to Utah's divorce statute a statement that the court may not discriminate against a parent based on age, race, color, national origin, religious preference or gender.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said the bill's intent is to ensure courts carefully consider the circumstances of both parents in the cases of divorce, dispatching the antiquated notion that the mother is better choice.
Aubree Jo's mother had a long history of drug use, Anderson said. Even though her son had a full-time job and Anderson had quit her job to care for her granddaughter, custody was awarded to Stilke.
The family brought evidence to child welfare and prosecutors to no avail, Anderson said.
The Andersons were told, "unless the mother was in a hospital or a coffin there was nothing they could do," Julie Anderson said. "It was a very chilling premonition of what was to come."
Casey Stallone, a single mother, told committee members that she backed the bill. "As a single mom, I can say I see a lot of sway toward the mother," in awarding custody, she said. "I think the field should be equal, who's the better parent at the time. My hope is there could be an amicable joint custody situation, but protecting the children."
"In my mind, no discrimination is a no brainer," said Dan Deuel, of the American Parental Action League, speaking on behalf of the bill.
Relatives from both sides of Aubree Jo's family addressed the committee. All spoke in favor of the bill. All acknowledged her history of drug use.
Lisa Glenn, Stilke's mother, said she believed Aubree Jo would be safe with if she was with her. "But you don't always know what your kids are doing," she said. The bill "is a way we can remember Aubree in a positive way."
While the committee unanimously endorsed HB88, some lawmakers said they were upset the law needed to be changed to remind judges of issues of basic fairness.
"The court is supposed to be balanced. It seems to be going in the other direction," said Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield.
Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake, said she supports the legislation because it addresses the long-held notion that mothers are perceived to be better parents than fathers.
"I think it has potential not only for changing the system but for changing hearts and minds," she said.
Later this week, the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee will consider a bill that would allow children age 14 and older to tell judges which parent they would rather live with in custody cases.
SB139, sponsored by Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, said the bill would lower the age from 16 to 14. Robles said Tuesday that the bill is part of her ongoing effort to bring "more equity to custody proceedings."
Robles said most 14-year-olds can appropriately express their preferences in custody proceedings. Some states allow children as young as 12 to address judges on the issue, she said.