BOSTON -- First Middlesex District state Rep. Sheila Harrington presented a petition, House Bill 4058, relative to the care and protection of children, before House Vice Chair Christopher Markey and Senate Chair William Brownsberger as well as members of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary,
With 25 additional signatures representing districts state-wide, Harrington is seeking amendment of the current standards to instead determine that "the best interests of the children be paramount and shall have precedence at every stage of court proceedings."
The key goal would be to change the current standard's priorities from the fitness of the family and re-unification of the child(ren) with parents to assuring that the bests interests of the children would become the standard. This new priority would be used in court determinations as to whether a child should be removed from a home, temporarily or permanently, when there is proven neglect or abuse, or threat of harm.
Harrington also proposed clarifying statements supporting the definition of "in the best interest of the child(ren)" for the Legislature to consider as a means of evaluating cases.
Recommended factors include the potential for custody with a kinship relative, the ability of the parents to provide food, clothing, medical care and other material needs, the capacity of the parents to care for the child's safety, well-being and physical, mental and emotional health, and the child's ability to form a significant relationship with a parental substitute.
Before drafting Bill H4058, Harrington said she reviewed the standards and mission statements in several other states. She filed the bill with the House Clerk's office, subsequently sending out invitations to her colleagues in the Legislature to sign on in support.
"It was then sent to the Committee on Rules before being sent out to the Judiciary Committee," she explained, "Once it was received in the Judiciary Committee, they scheduled it for hearing. The extension period under which the hearing took place ended on Friday, May 30. In order to keep it alive after the extension date, the Judiciary chairs sent it to the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities."
Harrington will now be working with the chair of that committee to try to get it to the House floor. If the House of Representatives supports it, it will go over to the Senate. If there is a discrepancy, a conference committee will be established to reconcile differences.
At the presentation before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, several witnesses testified about personal experiences, exhibiting flaws in the current system run by the Department of Children and Families.
The first witness, who works with children under the protection of the juvenile court, expressed her concern for decisions made regarding the return of children to their homes, children who previously lived in a home with domestic violence, drug activity or emotional, sexual or physical abuse.
"These children are often returned to their home where these negligent activities continue ... where the parent hasn't changed," she testified. "Attorneys and judges need to have the best tools at their disposal. ...It is imperative that the decision to return a child should apply the standard of the best interest of the child."
Another witness was the foster parent to a 2- and a 1/2 half year old child who is now living in her third home and who was medically neglected. "She was unable to walk or talk like the average child. She needed to receive early intervention services to bring her up to age-appropriate standards. The DCF gave her back to her father, who didn't speak English ... with whom the child had no real relationship."
The witness stated, "The child had been doing well, but once returned to her father, she started acting out, wetting her pants, biting other children, and pulling hair." 'The fitness of the parent' was the standard applied by the DCF to return this child -- not 'the best interest of the child!'" the witness said.
Following other testimony, the final witness said, "If the true best interest of the child is made to be the priority from the start, outcomes will be better for all."
The formal session ends July 31. If Bill H4058 makes it out of committee, it goes to the Committee on Third Reading before being debated on the floor.
"It is truly my hope that this bill passes this session," said Harrington, "as I feel the consequences of not passing it are so great. Until we observe 'the best interest of the child' as our primary goal, I believe we will be doing a disservice to children in the DCF system and, possibly, putting more innocent lives at risk. That is a risk we cannot afford to take."