Debate Begins Over DCFS Overhaul Bill

Debate Begins Over DCFS Overhaul Bill

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A house committee on Wednesday delayed a vote on a bill that would overhaul the way Utah's Division of Child and Family Services investigates -- and the state prosecutes -- child abuse cases.

Bill sponsor Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, sought the delay after he substituted large portions of the bill during the hearing before the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. Harper said the delay was necessary in fairness to those voting and to members of the public who may want to comment.

A date for another hearing or a vote on the bill was not set.

The 101-page bill offers sweeping reforms of Utah's child welfare system, including changing some of the definitions of child abuse and neglect, as well as court standards by which the state must prove a child has been abused or neglected by parents or legal guardians.

For example, under the bill a decision by a parent not to seek some kinds of medical care would not be considered neglect, nor would accidental injuries be considered abuse. And a "dirty home," which can also be considered neglect by DCFS, would be exempted under the bill.

In the courts, abuse allegations would have to be proved to a standard of "clear and convincing" evidence, rather than to the current standard of "a preponderance of the evidence."

Harper said the intent of the bill is to attempt to "harmonize" the rights of parents with the state's responsibility to protect children.

The representative carried a similar bill during the 2004 session which failed to pass in part because of objections from DCFS, and the offices of the Utah Attorney General and the Guardian Ad Litem, the attorneys who represent abused children in court.

Those agencies also voiced opposition to Harper's 2005 bill Wednesday.

Craig Barlow, an assistant attorney general and the division chief for child abuse prosecutions, said the bill puts some standards for prosecution in criminal law and others in civil law, which will make prosecutions difficult and confusing for juries.

DCFS policy analyst Adam Trupp said he fears the bill will "muddy the waters" for DCFS case workers trying to investigate allegations of abuse.

But others said the bill will help keep Utah families together when parents are wrongly accused.

Donna Dahl, a former legislator, said her son-in-law has been kept out of participating as a Boy Scout leader and other activities involving children because the division had placed his name on their child abuse registry after his son's school reported seeing a red welt on the boy's bottom. Dahl said the welt was from a spanking administered after the boy, who has autism, ran away from her home.

"Nobody wants child abuse, but (DCFS officials) have to be realistic and parents have to be protected as they raise their children," Dahl said. "We asked for our day in court and we lost."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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