TOPEKA — A Wichita state senator and family members of abused and displaced children went before a Senate committee Monday to try to enhance the status of grandparents in child-custody courts.
Senate Bill 52 would automatically establish grandparents as interested parties in cases when their grandchildren are removed from their homes. Now, grandparents receive notice of and status to be heard in such proceedings only when they request it.
The hearing drew sometimes-emotional testimony from about a dozen grandparents, who complained of what they contend was abuse and dislocation of their grandchildren, who were placed in foster care or permanently adopted out in cases where the parents' rights were terminated.
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, who is sponsoring the bill, told the committee the legislation "is pretty simple, allowing grandparents to be notified without a lot of additional hassle."
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"We as a state want to keep families together and keep kids out of foster care," Faust-Goudeau said.
She said the bill is the top priority of the "Silver Haired Legislature," a group elected by seniors across the state to recommend bills and help guide state policies on the elderly.
A study of 2006 data showed more than 17,000 grandparents were acting as primary caregivers, a number that has undoubtedly grown during the current economic slump, testified Silver Haired Legislature Speaker Jim Snyder.
"It's important that grandparents who are taking care of the children have the notification and the automatic status as interested parties," he said.
One woman testified that her grandchildren, 7 and 10, had lived with her for four months after being removed from her daughter's home. She said she thought that was going well but state agents came and took the children from her, "forcefully, dramatically, hysterically."
Her granddaughter "was screaming, hanging onto me for dear life," the woman testified. "After they were taken from me, they put them in foster home, foster home, foster home.... They've had a lot of psychological problems from the way they were taken."
She said the granddaughter was later molested and got pregnant while in foster care after repeated complaints to the foster mother were ignored.
A grandfather testified that his two grandsons were healthy and doing well in school until they were returned to their father, a drug addict. Now, he said, their grades have fallen off and they are overweight from spending their days watching TV, playing video games and eating fast food.
The Eagle is withholding the names of the grandparents to protect the identity of the children.
As the hearing became more emotional and time-constrained, committee Chairman Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, repeatedly warned the grandparents to keep their comments short and confined to the bill at hand.
"I'm not interested in retrying cases that went before the courts," he said.
Owens also urged his colleagues to carefully weigh the hearing testimony. As a lawyer specializing in family law, Owens said he had represented more than 1,000 children in court cases and served as a judge pro-tem in some parental-rights cases.
"There's always two sides to every story," he said.
Later, he said he can understand why the grandparents who testified are emotional about their experiences and that family law cases are very difficult to deal with.
He said he thinks SB 52 is "overall, OK," although he felt most of Monday's testimony was "derived from some kind of lawsuit they didn't like and they didn't understand."
He said one of the biggest misunderstandings about state law is that when parents' rights are severed, that applies to the entire family. The reason is to prevent situations in which relatives agree to take in the children primarily so they can reintegrate them with the parents who are already proven unfit, he said.
Owens said he wants those kinds of decisions to be made by judges who have all the facts in hand. "I don't think we (legislators) should intervene in that," he said.
Owens said he plans to have the committee work on the bill and vote on sending it to the Senate floor later this week.
"I think it's going to pass here in the Senate," Faust-Goudeau said. We'll see how it goes in the House."