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Utah's parent czar

By Wendy McElroy
web posted July 12, 2004

Alicia Davis may be America's first state-funded defense attorney for parents accused of abuse by the same state's own child protective services. She assumed office last week as Utah's director of the Office of Child Welfare Parental Defense.

The local press has already dubbed Davis "the Parent Czar," but skeptics wonder if she can effectively protect parental rights. Some wonder whether her position — apparently created as a last minute addition to a bill — is a compromise that won't work?

Davis' post as "parent czar" was created partly in response to the case of Daren and Barbara Jensen, who became embroiled in Utah's child protective services system when their 12-year-old son Parker was diagnosed with cancer. The Jensens declined a recommended 49-week course of chemotherapy, preferring to exhaust medical options with other doctors. Utah's Division of Child and Family Services attempted to remove Parker from the custody of his parents.

The charges against the Jensens were ultimately dropped, and Parker is reportedly in remission. However, the case became a lightning rod that galvanized a crusade to strengthen and protect parental rights — and has made Utah a rallying point for the cause of defending parental rights against unreasonable invasion by child welfare agencies. 

Most states are wrestling with the same basic question embodied by the Jensen case. Can child welfare services become responsible and respectful of parental rights, or is it time to eliminate the system and start anew? And while the continuously erupting scandals, abuses, failings and incompetence of state child welfare agencies has convinced most that change is necessary, government and parental advocates disagree as to the direction and scope of change. Should procedures be reformed or is fundamental change necessary?

The last session of the Utah Legislature illustrates this disagreement.

Carried by a surge of support for parental rights, over 30 bills to reform Utah's child welfare system were introduced in the Utah Legislature's 2004 general session. Cumulatively, they strengthened parental rights and restrained the DCFS. One measure, known as "The Parker Bill," required the DCFS to prove a parent was not a "reasonable, prudent and fit caregiver" before nullifying that parent's right to decide medical treatment for his or her child.

Fifteen bills were finally approved, but the most ambitious measures were either defeated or stripped of controversial provisions. For example, the Parker Bill did not pass.

To kill The Parker Bill, Utah's Democrats reportedly used delay tactics, running a vote up to the end of the session.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported on House Bill 266, which would have "changed more than 50 areas of child welfare code — beginning with redefining what abuse is and ending with a tougher standard of proof needed in terminating parents' rights." Rewritten five times with over 30 pages deleted, the bill also did not pass.

Director of the DCFS Richard Anderson expressed pleasure, saying, "The bills that passed are ones that help the system." In short, most of the bills reformed procedure within the system, without changing the system itself.

Some procedural changes were significant. For example, H.B. 54 requires that all investigative interviews with children be "videotaped or similarly recorded."

Advocates of parental rights pledged to continue fighting. Sandra Lucas, executive director of the Utah Chapter of the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights stated, "We will not go away. We will be back until we shift the balance back [to respect for parents]." Republican Sen. Dave Thomas, who championed the bills, referred to the Democrat's delay tactics when he vowed, "expect to see something next year."

Advocates of parental rights face a tough battle in Utah and elsewhere. They confront huge government bureaucracies at both the federal and state levels that will not surrender authority easily. Collectively, the behemoth has been called "the child welfare industry." It consists of social workers, judges, bureaucrats, politicians, lawyers, therapists, commentators and others whose income depends on a system that views parents with suspicion. In crassly commercial terms, abused and neglected children are the source of a multibillion-dollar industry.

Yet, the need for change — and not just in Utah — is clear. Tragic headlines about foster children are too common. One of the latest is Florida's current investigation of a 10-year-old girl, reportedly "at risk of imminent death." She weighed only 29 pounds after four years in the custody of assigned caregivers who were regularly visited by DFCS workers.

Other children were not so fortunate: 4-year-old Anthony Bars was beaten to death by an approved caregiver who had a known battery conviction against his own daughter. The Indiana caseworker involved was charged with "official misconduct and falsifying information in an adoption proceeding."

Both government and families acknowledge the need for change. Last month, a grand jury in California called for an independent audit of Child Welfare Services' top management, which it described as "heavy-handed" and "autocratic." The grand jury questioned whether the department is "properly protecting children."

A June 8 press release from the American Family Rights Association reads, "During the Congressional hearings held in San Bernardino, and the more recent hearings before the Texas House Interim Sub-Committee on Child Welfare and Foster Care, irrefutable evidence was presented of abuses of authority and violations of civil rights by state agencies nationwide in the pursuit of 'maximization of the federal funding stream'." (States receive federal money for every child placed in foster care.)

Many eyes are now on Utah's new Parent Czar to see if she makes a difference to parents like the Jensens. Skeptics wonder how adding a new layer of bureaucracy can solve problems caused by too much bureaucracy. And can an office that functions under the same aegis as those it is accusing really be independent?

I'm a skeptic. Nevertheless, if the Parent Czar is even marginally successful in abating criticism of the DCFS, we are likely to see more czars popping in child welfare departments across North America.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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