Gina Evans got addicted to methamphetamine as a teenager. She collected a dozen felony convictions, did prison time, and lost her legal rights as a parent before she finally turned her life around. But even after she entered recovery, got a job and made a stable home for herself, she found that she couldn’t get her children back.
In Minnesota, “there’s no process for this,” she told the House Early Childhood and Youth Development Policy Committee on Tuesday.
That would change under the proposed Family Reunification Act of 2013, which would lay out a new process to restore the relationship between a child and a parent whose legal rights were terminated.
The circumstances under which families could be reunited under the bill are narrowly defined. As Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said, when the county takes the “extraordinary” step of moving to terminate a parent’s rights, “there are some bad things that have happened.”
It’s important for children to have a sense of permanence about their future care, which is one reason that reversing such a decision shouldn’t be done lightly, he said. Children need love and support, and when a parent is willing and able to give it, “government should not stand in the way,” said Choi, who supports the bill.
Making ties that bind
Sponsored by Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center), HF704 would require specific criteria to be met – and the court to make specific findings – before the legal ties between family members are renewed.
The bill would apply only to children who are at least 15 years old and are still in foster care at least 36 months after termination of the parent’s rights. Among other conditions, the court could only approve a reunification if the child wants to live with the parent in question.
As outlined in the bill, only the county attorney could kick off the process by filing a petition to reestablish the legal parent-child relationship. That attorney could do so only if certain criteria are met. For example, the parent would have to have fixed the problems that led to the termination of rights, the child couldn’t have been adopted, and both the county attorney and the responsible social services agency would have to agree that reunification would be in the child’s best interests.
A petition also wouldn’t be allowed if the parent had been convicted of certain crimes or lost parental rights because of a finding in a legal proceeding of either sexual abuse or conduct that resulted in the death of a minor.
If a county attorney declined to file a petition, that decision could not be appealed.
The bill was approved by the committee and referred to the House Civil Law Committee. SF422, a Senate companion sponsored by Sen. Kathy Sheran (DFL-Mankato), has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Though the bill would apply to relatively few families, those affected would see enormous benefits, said Evans, whose daughter and son – now ages 19 and 12 – sat with her at the hearing.
Her children were luckier than some, but they didn’t have it easy. At ages 3 and 10, they spent nearly a year with a couple who started the adoption process and then had second thoughts. Then, thankfully, they were able to live with their grandmother, Evans said.
“For so many other mothers and fathers, that’s not an option,” she said.