The Utah Legislature passed an amendment on March 2nd requiring child welfare placements to preserve both the parent and child’s rights to maintain contact during state custody. Senate Bill 163 would allow visitation by any of the child’s family members, including siblings, and remove the primary permanency plan provision for children 3 years of age and under, opening a path for infants to stay with their families.
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The legislation expands sibling visitation rights by requiring courts to order visitations and encourages the court to have better documentation practices to justify their denials. It also allows reunification to supersede welfare placement if the former is in the child’s best interest.
Rep. Karianne Lisonbee (R-Clearfield), the bill’s cosponsor, described why the bill is needed during a speech on the House floor last month.
“So this process should already be happening,” Lisonbee said. “Judges should be addressing these issues. It codifies the statutory guidelines that will determine the frequency of parent and sibling time. And under both the United States and Utah constitutions, a parent possesses a fundamental liberty [and] interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s children.
A fundamentally fair process must be provided. So these modifications also rectify racial discrimination as Black children are four times more likely to be removed from their family, and Latino families [are] two times more likely to be removed.”
In January, lawmakers approved a $249.1 million base budget for the state’s social services in FY 2024, $137 million of which is appropriated for child and family services programs. The base budget requires the Utah Department of Health and Human Services to report performance measures related to protecting children, youth, and families.
The performance measures include a 2% increase in the number of reunifications in placement cases from the figure reported in FY 2021 (738 children).
In a statement to State of Reform upon the bill’s passage, the Utah Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) said it supported SB 163.
“SB 163 is a declaration of parental rights when a child is placed outside of the home, and does not greatly change child welfare in Utah,” DCFS said. “The model currently in place by DCFS encourages and supports parental visitation with a child that has been placed outside of the home, in the most appropriate and safest manner possible.
Utah aims for safe and successful reunification of families, and strengthening families in their own homes, when possible. SB 163 reinforces this practice. Studies have shown that quality, frequent parent-time visits support successful family reunification in many ways, some including reducing trauma of removal in placement cases and maintaining the integrity of the parent-child relationship.”
DCFS said the legislation would now allow the courts to order visitations and foster the ability for all the parties involved to come together and understand the ruling provided.
Additional judicial oversight when determining the least restrictive parent-time can now be made in placement rulings, the adjudication of which ensures input from all parties is incorporated, agreements and additional concerns are placed on the record, and good quality visitation is provided to best support successful reunification, according to DCFS.