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A trial by jury for parents in danger of losing parental rights?
March 8, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Should it be easier or harder to terminate the rights of parents whose kids have been taken away by Social Services?
Utah's legislature is considering a law that would allow those parents to request a trial by jury if their parental rights are at risk of being taken away. Legislators who proposed it think this might make it harder to terminate parental rights, though a few skeptics have said that juries will probably be MORE likely to terminate parental rights than a family court judge.
In many cases, I think social service agencies have been too quick to remove kids from their homes. A dirty home or a child briefly left unsupervised probably should not mean the kid goes into foster care, at least not right away. Foster care should probably be reserved for the most extreme cases when a child has been severely abused or neglected. Even then, there's often someone in the family who can take the child until his parents remedy their problems. The Clinton administration changed the laws a generation ago so kids can only be in foster care for a certain amount of time before the child welfare agency files a motion to terminate parental rights. The younger the kids are, the less time the biological parents have to get their act together. The goal is usually permanency and adoption by a foster family or a biological family member.
It is probably better to give kids permanency and adoptive families sooner rather than later, as foster care is not the best place for a child. But there have also been studies that show that kids left in "marginal" homes did better as adults than kids who had been removed from similarly marginal biological homes and put in foster care. Except in the most extreme cases, kids are probably better off with their biological parents or, failing that, with relatives of their biological parents. For instance, after his mother died when he was six, my grandfather was legally adopted by his mother's sister and her husband. His biological siblings were also placed with family or extended family, so he was able to know them as they were growing up, even though he didn't live with them. This was probably the best outcome possible for those children, though not an ideal option since they had lost their first parents. They always knew who their biological parents and siblings were and also loved their adoptive parents. In a way, this was similar to the practice of open adoption as it is practiced today and probably was a healthier arrangement than many of the closed adoptions, where kids knew nothing of their biological family members.
I think a trial by jury is probably a good idea if it puts more power back in the hands of biological parents. They ought to have a right to plead their case for preserving their families before a jury of their peers.
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