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House passes bill to allow jury trials for parental rights termination cases

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SALT LAKE CITY — Parents facing termination of their parental rights could opt for a jury to decide the case under legislation approved Monday by Utah House of Representatives.

Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, sponsor of HB318, said the legislation's intent is to uphold parents' fundamental liberty interests guaranteed by the Constitution.

Once a child is removed, "it's permanent," Christensen said.

While acknowledging that parental rights termination proceedings involve serious ramifications for parents and children, Christensen said, "We've got to balance this and get it right. And it's not right currently."

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, cautioned that HB318 "is one of the major policy issues we will face during the session."

Presently, juvenile courts handle parental rights termination proceedings.

Nelson, who is an attorney, said he respects the role jurors play in the judicial system, but experienced judges are better equipped to handle parental rights termination cases.

"The common person off the street does not have the expert legal training to deal with these kind of issues," he said.

Others, such as Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said the Legislature had already created a task force to study the courts this legislative session, and this issue could be studied as part of that.

"This is a major policy decision. We shouldn't make this decision lightly," Arent said.

Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, opposed the bill because already-traumatized children could be forced to testify and be cross-examined in jury trials. Parents' due process right would take precedence, she said.

"We need to consider our responsibilities as legislators in protecting children," Menlove said.

But Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said government's power to remove children from their homes and terminate parental rights "is a terrible power."

"It's a power we have to wield more carefully than anything else," Hutchings said.

For people to have faith in their government, wherever they live, they must "empower a sense of trust and belief in the rule of law. I believe this is a great step in that particular direction," he said.

According to estimates by legislative fiscal analysts, enacting HB318 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 such as adding jury boxes to juvenile courtrooms.

Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, said the issue is not about money.

"The issue is volatility," McIff said.

In the five other states that have this option, the vast majority of juries terminate parents' rights, he said.

"Anyone who thinks a jury is a safe bet in terms of parental rights doesn’t understand the jury process," said McIff, a retired district court judge.

He described the proposed change as "high-risk."

"As much I appreciate my good friend who sponsors this — he has a heart as big as elephant's — it’s just not good public policy in my view," McIff said.

Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, supported the bill, saying, "I do believe this is an appropriate swing of this pendulum."

Christensen said he believes the logistical issues posed by opponents of the bill can be overcome.

"If all we need is 12 folding chairs (to accommodate jurors), we can do this," he said.

Sometimes families just need more time to resolve the issues that brought them to the attention of child welfare authorities in the first place, Christensen said.

He described the case of a mother who, had she been "given just a little longer, that never would have happened." The mother is now a registered nurse and can care for others but not her own child, Christensen said.

The federal money the state receives to handle the cases requires a permanent placement too quickly, he said.

"We talk about public lands and keeping government out of public lands. Keep them out of the family," Christensen said.

HB318, which passed on a vote of 46-27, has been forwarded to the Senate for its consideration.

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Marjorie Cortez


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