Matt Gade, Deseret News
People gather outside the House of Representatives at the Utah State Capitol.

SALT LAKE CITY — Legislation that would give parents the option of requesting a jury trial to decide whether their parental rights should be terminated cleared a House committee Friday.

The House Health and Human Services Committee voted 5-4 to give HB318 a favorable recommendation.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, said the legislation is intended to uphold parents' fundamental liberty interests guaranteed by the Constitution.

"You have state officials, whether it's the attorney general, the guardian ad litem, (the Division of Child and Family Services) or the juvenile court themselves, they're there repeatedly. This is what they deal with. Then one individual comes in wanting due process of law. One individual comes in wanting to know their constitutional rights will be honored," Christensen said.

"We're trying to strike that appropriate balance. In all other areas, many areas of less importance than this, they have an ability to request a jury of their peers, and this would provide for that," he said.

But others opposed the bill, saying it would further traumatize children whose lives have already been negatively impacted by neglect and abuse.

"This bill is not in the best interest of children. Children will testify in front of juries. There's no way to prevent it. I appreciate the amendment (that says 'a child may not testify in a jury trial under this section'), but I think the reality is that children will testify," said Liz Knight, director of the Office of Guardian ad Litem, which represents children in juvenile court.

"It's very rare that we're terminating on child that is 17 years old. These are young children who deserve permanency. To have them involved in jury trials is not in their best interest," Knight said.

Dan Deuel of the National Parents Organization of Utah said the bill is about protecting parental rights.

"It should not be fast or easy to terminate the rights to his or her child because that parent-child relationship is important and unique. It cannot be severed without providing meaningful due process," Deuel said.

Parents and the state have an interest in preserving family relationships, he said. Creating a process that provides the option for parents to request a jury trial in termination cases is an "integral part of a parent's due process rights in terminating their rights."

Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, said no evidence had been presented to the committee demonstrating there was a problem with the current system.

"I’m concerned we have no compelling data that this a better way," Menlove said.

But Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said HB318 "is an option. I think we've lost sight of that in this discussion. This isn't going to replace the system we have here. It's an option that will likely be used far less than we fear."

According to estimates attached to the bill, enacting the legislation would cost more than $3 million a year because of the additional workload for the courts, the Utah Attorney General's Office, the Office of the Guardian ad Litem, and about $33,000 in initial equipment costs. Court fees for the trials could produce about $36,000 in ongoing revenue, the fiscal note states.