Jensen Says Swinging Too Far Other Way

Jensen Says Swinging Too Far Other Way

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- As Utah legislators, drawing on the celebrated Parker Jensen case, rush to give parental rights supremacy over long-standing child-welfare laws, one important figure in the debate is urging caution: Parker's father.

Daren Jensen, who successfully fought the state's efforts to gain custody and force chemotherapy on his 12-year-old boy for a disputed cancer last summer, paid his first visit to the Legislature on Wednesday and Thursday.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Jensen made clear he had reservations about some of the dozens of proposals in the works that would tip the balance in favor of parental rights over the power of the Division of Child and Family Services.

Jensen wasn't yet taking a stand. "It's not my job to come up here and change the world."

He also wasn't discussing any particular bills, but he said, "Those people that truly are abusing their children, we can't swing the pendulum too far the other way."

The Utah Senate voted 23-6 on Thursday to approve a bill that goes to the heart of the Jensen case, yet invokes some of the doubts that nag Jensen.

Senate Bill 90 gives "competent" parents near-absolute power over medical decisions for their children, including the power to grant or withhold lifesaving medical treatment. All parents would be considered competent unless proven incompetent beyond a reasonable doubt, which would all but eliminate medical neglect as a cause of action in juvenile courts.

Another bill would second-guess the child-welfare agency by requiring it to prove serious danger to a child's safety or health before the child is taken from a family. That could prevent caseworkers from taking action in an emergency.

Other measures promise to restructure the agency and juvenile court in parents' favor.

Richard Anderson, director of the Division of Child and Family Services, said lawmakers are looking for trouble trying to write into law prescriptions for judgment calls his caseworkers have to make daily.

"There's so many bills up here going in various directions," Anderson said. "I see no strategy, no plan, nothing that fits together."

Jensen, no fan of the child-welfare agency, agrees on that point.

On a visit of the House floor, Jensen said his now 13-year-old son was "doing great" and attending school, where he's writing up reports about some legislators' bills for a contemporary affairs component of his education.

Parker trumped cancer tests in December and "miraculously has never been sick for two years," his father said.

Daren Jensen said he was pursuing job leads in software management and keeping his house instead of trying to sell it but still having trouble paying the bills. Jensen lost a job that required travel last summer when he was "hauling Parker around the nation to doctors" for alternative medical opinions.

When he wasn't fencing with child-welfare authorities and juvenile court, Jensen and his family were in a summer-long exile with Idaho relatives. The parents finally settled with a guilty plea to custodial interference in return for custody of the boy and control over his medical fortuity.

But Jensen is concerned that some measures invoking his son's name might tolerate child abuse.

"They have to maintain the protective system for everybody. It's not easy," Jensen said. "You may have people up here ranting and raving. That's not how to make laws."

Jensen said his own encounter with medical authorities was of a kind infrequent and uncommon, over the family's disagreement with doctor-endorsed chemotherapy sought by state guardians and originally upheld by a juvenile court judge for Parker's uncertain cancer.

Jensen doesn't dispute that a tiny tumor removed last spring from the soft palate of Parker's mouth tested positive for Ewing's sarcoma, an especially aggressive cancer. But once that was removed, Jensen said Parker has shown no sign of any lingering cancer.

The family objected that toxic chemotherapy would stunt the boy's growth and leave him sterile, if it didn't kill him outright.

Jensen's message for legislators trying to work changes in the laws was caution and contemplation: "It wouldn't be worthwhile to put on blinders," he said.

"We have bills that address little pieces here and there," Jensen said. "What we really need is to step back and take a comprehensive look."

On legislation in general Jensen deferred to his emissary, state Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, who accompanied him on his rounds of the Capitol. Jensen greeted representatives on an idle House floor Wednesday, then joined House Speaker Marty Stephens and Senate President Al Mansell in Mansell's office sanctum. Jensen was at the Capitol for about 90 minutes, returning again on Thursday to study legislation.

Christensen said a "mature minor" provision could be written in law to make judges give consideration to a minor's maturity in deciding what's best, which is what the judge in Parker's case finally determined.

Asked how he felt about becoming a populist cause in a big election year for legislators, Jensen shrugged, tried to erase a grimace from his face and refused comment. He said he was waiting for legislators to sort out and consolidate their bills before taking any positions.

"I endorse what's right," he said.

Christensen said the Jensen family's influence at the Capitol could not be underestimated.

"They're very credible, they're not bitter, they're not railing," Christensen said. "They're just happy to have their family together."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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