On Monday April 18th, the bill known as the Family Reunification Act of 2011(HF 749) had a hearing in the Civil Law Committee. The discussion of the bill was fascinating and contentious, with very different views from people concerned about child well-being. You can listen here. The committee voted to pass the bill and refer to the Judiciary Committee.
The best place to start listening is at 7:00 minutes. Representative Holberg steps in for the bill's author, Rep. Smith. Rep. Holberg gives a compelling overview of the potential for rehabilitation amongst parents and the importance of reunification for children who've been residing in foster care. The bill creates an avenue for parents who had their parental rights terminated, and have since made substantial progress in their lives and can now provide a safe, healthy, loving home.
Testimony in support:
Ron Elwood, Legal Aid:
"Nine other states have provided a limited right for families to legally reunite with their children. Relatively few petitions occur in those states." Elwood lists the 20+ organizations that support the bill, a broad array of government, provider and advocacy groups. He reinforces the high standard that petitioners (parents) must clear before reunification is granted; the process for this is rigorous for children. For youth who are over 18 years of age, the process is less rigorous and more focused on consent of the parties.
Marquita Stephens, African American Adoption Agency Director
"Over the years, we've seen several instances when kids would have benefited from being reunited with their families had that been legally possible. Based on the prevailing research and our experience, we suggest that the bill be passed."
Mark Haase, VP Council on Crime and Justice
Mark Haase testified on the importance of reunification for parents. As a member of the Second Chance Coalition, he advocates for full restoration of people's status as a parent, so that they may contribute to their families and make amends to previous mistakes. "This bill has strong safeguards in place to protect children. We think it is a safe bill that will allow some people to be restored to their families. We think it will help children. It will help us as a state; one example is by reducing costs to the state of supporting these children in care."
Kimberly White, Parent of three children in the foster care system
"In 2005, I was in a real bad situation. Since 2007, I have been clean and have been getting my life together. I want to have healthy relationships with my children. My mom adopted my children and passed away shortly after their adoption. I am here because I want to help others like myself have lost their rights and are now in a position to take care of their children."
Questions from House members:
Rep. Hilstrom question for Elwood:
"The standard is very, very high to terminate parental rights on a child....Why not change the process of termination and prevent terminations and continue support services to families in need?
I do not support this proposal at all. Every child wants to be loved and always looks back and says, 'My parent is coming back for me'. And this gives false hope."
Rep. Lesch, DFL Lead:
"I am a co-author on this bill...I think this is going to be applied in a few select situations. I think this is a body that believes in redemption for parents that have screwed up and come around again...I think an open door of redemption is absolutely critical...this body places the best interest of children at the top. But to do that in a vacuum and not recognize the possibility of redemption is not the kind of State I want to live in...I think it will be applied in the most important and select circumstances."
Rep. Mahoney expressed some concerns about the young age of some children who will be impacted by the bill, and feels more comfortable with older children expressing their desire to reunify.
Rep. Peterson wondered whether there a risk that the potential for reunification will prevent youth from desiring or agreeing to adoption?
Testimony in opposition:
Mr. Kingrey, MN County Attorney's Association
"A number of county social workers in a field have concerns about this bill. After terminating parental rights, children need to heal...it flies in the face of permanency and the child moving on in a foster care situation or adoption." Kingrey has concerns about the burden that will befall counties to re-investigate cases that request reunification.
After testimony and questions, the committee passed the bill and referred it to the Judiciary Committee.