Child welfare, arguably the state's least publicly scrutinized government activity, would be closed off more to the public under a proposed law debated Tuesday by a legislative review committee.

HB34, sponsored by Rep. Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, was held over for more discussion by the House Health and Human Services Committee. It would permit the only outside agency overseeing the state's child abuse and protection services to review cases in private.

Although the sponsor calls the bill a "clarifying" measure, placing the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel case reviews under the closed meetings section of the Open and Public Meetings Act further limits access of the public and news media to the workings of what some critics claim is a system that runs roughshod over the rights of parents.

Although the new law would give the panel authority to restrict public access to case reviews, former panel co-chairman and state legislator Matt Throckmorton from Springville said it will actually help the panel better investigate cases without the worry that details of the cases will be made public, further embarrassing the children involved.

It would actually give the panel more latitude and more opportunity to review cases and in the process get another tool to determine whether child welfare is fuctioning properly, Throckmorton said. What it actually does is protect the rights of a system that is virtually unassailable and will do everything it can to stay that way, countered Mike Humiston, an attorney based in Heber City who defends parents who have had their children taken into state custody and who openly accuses the state's child welfare system of being corrupt.

From the moment that a child is taken away, the job of the state is to build a case against the parent, he said. The system picks on people who are marginal "who don't have the means or the wherewithal to handle it let alone to fight back," Humiston said.

"Making the activities of child welfare more confidential is really about the system protecting itself, not about protecting the rights of children," Humiston said.

The bill to expand the panel's power to close meetings ironically comes at a time when other legislation is being developed that would open the now closed child custody hearings in court.

A flaw in the law was discovered a year ago when the oversight panel scheduled a rare meeting to review both the parents' and the state's sides in two settled child abuse cases. Although the panel is required to meet in public and did have a provision to close for case reviews, the panel closed the meeting anyway, despite objections from the parents involved and the news media.

The oversight panel generally conducts its meetings in public, takes testimony and makes recommendations to the governor, the Legislature and the courts regarding child welfare operations.

Dozens of times in those meetings the past year, parents who have had children taken into foster care have complained to panel members that they have been treated unfairly and possibly illegally by the state. They say the state acts too quickly, capriciously and without meaningful oversight in child custody hearings.

But child protection agencies and the courts adamantly disagree with the charge and say they must operate under a "trust us" mode because that is the only sure way to fully protect children.


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