Change requires patience and persistence: SB 706 provides great example of representative government (Capitol Update)

With last week’s deadline for passage of legislation by the house of origin, there was an onslaught of floor action on both sides of the Capitol. One bill, Senate Bill 706 by Sen. Roland Pederson, R-Burlington, caught my attention because it’s a great example of how our representative government can work. 

SB 706 would bring about a fundamental change in legal rights between parents, children, and the state. The bill repeals the statute in the Children And Juvenile Code granting the right to a jury trial in termination of parental rights cases. Before a parent’s rights may be terminated a judge must first rule that the child was “deprived,” meaning the child has been abused or neglected. Where possible, the court works to return the child to its family as soon as the conditions that caused the child’s removal are remedied. 

But in cases where it appears that return to the parent(s) would not be in the best interest of the child the state may ask that the parent/child relationship be severed so the child can be placed in a permanent home. Providing a jury trial almost always slows this process and delays the child’s finding a “forever” home, but many feel such a life-altering decision should be made only by a jury, not a judge. 

What caught my attention about SB 706 was not the bill itself — as significant as it is — but the author. Bills to eliminate the right to a jury trial in termination cases have been introduced quite a few times through the years, but they’ve never made it to the finish line. Sen. Pederson, in explaining the bill, said this kind of legislation was “totally out of my wheelhouse” when he joined the legislature seven years ago, but he was persuaded by advocates from his district that something needed to be done to speed up the process of terminating some parents’ parental rights.

For the past 40 years, Sen. Pederson has farmed near Burlington, primarily producing cattle, wheat, and alfalfa. For a time, he was a high school science teacher and middle school principal. In the Senate, he says his focus has been on education, small business, agriculture, and infrastructure. By his own account, child welfare cases are not in his wheelhouse. But one or more of his constituents came to him with problems they see in the way child welfare cases are handled and asked for his help, in their opinion, to make the system better. 

Looking at this year’s introduced bills, Sen. Pederson, in addition to SB 706, introduced:

  • SB 686, which gives foster parents the right to appropriate continued education and training to enhance their skills on “childhood attachment, the impacts of abuse and neglect on child development, long-term impacts of drug and alcohol abuse on children, infant mental health, and childhood trauma.”
  • SB 699 that provides that a relative need not be considered for appointment as a legal guardian if the relative did not attempt to care for or obtain custody of the child within six months of removal of the child from its parents’ custody, the permanency goal of the Department of Human Services is adoption, and the federal Indian Child Welfare Act is not applicable. 
  • SB 701 that broadens the definition of a DHS “safety evaluation” to include the child’s “physical, developmental, medical, mental, felt safety, or educational needs,” and adds the probability of sustaining mental, in addition to physical illness, to the definition of “safety threat.”
  • SB 708, which provides in a “deprived child” case that the court must make a finding for the record at “each hearing” in the case that the attorney appointed for the child is independent of and not selected by the district attorney, the child’s parent, legal guardian, or custodian; the attorney has met with the child as soon as possible after appointment; except for good cause shown the attorney has met with the child before the hearing; the attorney can establish a meaningful relationship with the child; the attorney will represent the expressed interests of the child or if the child is preverbal or too young to communicate, what the attorney determines to be the best interests of the child through a determination of the circumstances of the child, an assessment of the child, an examination of all options in the light of available permanency plans and the use of medical mental health and educational experts.

None of these bills, except SB 706, received a committee hearing, so they won’t be passed this year. But they have been introduced, and the ideas for change they represent are now part of the conversation. If they have merit, they may be on someone’s agenda in the future. And certainly, the ideas have been brought to the attention of the Oklahoma Human Services’ Child Welfare Service, and perhaps the judiciary as possibilities for improvement. 

As I said, SB 706 is a great example of representative government. There are child advocates in Sen. Pederson’s district who care about kids who, through no fault of their own, are “in the system.”  They have been heard and represented by their legislator, and an important change has now passed the State Senate.  As for ultimate success, we won’t know about SB 706 until later. But change requires patience and persistence. 


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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