Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics & Public Service

Project Prologue

Notable Child Welfare Cases

Notable Child Welfare Cases Another pivotal child welfare event was the Parker Jensen medical neglect case that acquired a lot of media and public attention and scrutiny. The case came to the attention of the Division of Child and Family Services when the young boy, Parker Jensen, was diagnosed with cancer, and his parents refused to put him through the recommended treatment regimen. Under Utah’s child abuse laws, doctors are required to report any suspected abuse or neglect including medical neglect.  As the child protection case began to play out in juvenile court, and to avoid having their son treated, Parker’s parents took him out of state and “hid” him. Utah physicians vocally argued that Parker would die if he did not receive treatment. Parker’s parents refused to believe it. The State, through efforts of the Attorney General and the Office of Guardian ad Litem secured a court order for the return of Parker to Utah. The story blew up in the press because it became a rallying cry for the rights of parents over the rights of the state. It was learned that Parker had been taken to Idaho. In an effort to find a peaceful resolution, Governor Leavitt sent representatives to talk to the parents. The Jenson’s agreed to return to Utah with Parker where they would submit to the authorities with the agreement that there would be plea negotiations. Complicating the issue somewhat was a request for extradition of the Jensen’s to Idaho. Governor Dirk Kempthorne was about to push for extradition, but Governor Leavitt called him and said, “Look, there is more to this story. You need to slow down your process.” Originally charged with felony kidnapping for taking their own son out of the state, the parents pled guilty on October 2, 2003, to a lesser charge of “custodial interference.” They were each given one year of probation, after which the charge was removed from their records. The Attorney General and State Guardian ad Litem were convinced that it was the state’s role and duty to ensure that Parker receive treatment even against his parent’s wishes. The recommended treatment regimen was forty weeks long, and reportedly very painful. Parker did not want the treatment and was very vocal to the Judge and to the public in his objections. Admittedly, there were mixed perspectives within the agency with staff on either side of the issue and every possible position in between.  This was not atypical of a child welfare case and a good example of why child welfare cases can be the most difficult issues a state government confronts. In addition to the policy struggles this case portrayed, it also presented significant challenges for practice in child welfare. If the Department was ordered to pursue treatment against the wishes of the patient and his parents, the agency would be placed in a position of determining how to enforce that decision. Robin recalls a telephone conversation with the State Guardian ad Litem discussing the situation. She asked, what would you like me to do? Parker is twelve years old, he doesn’t want the treatment. Do you want me to lock him up in a juvenile justice facility to treat him? Because that is what it may take.” Stunningly, the response was, “Yes.” This demonstrates how government employees can become mission driven and lose sight of the individual child they are supposed to be helping. The Utah courts eventually ruled that the decision to receive treatment was that of the Jensen’s, not the State, and Parker did not undergo the treatment. Indeed, five or six years later, Governor Leavitt met Parker Jensen’s father. In their conversation, Governor Leavitt asked about Parker and was told that Parker is healthy as a horse living life as adult. The Jensen family pursued a lawsuit against the state, Primary Children’s Hospital and the doctors there. The lawsuit is still in progress. The Parkers claim that emotion got in the way of rational, scientifically driven decision making when it came to treatment for Parker. There was a confrontation between Parker’s father and the lead physician, which led the physician and members of his team to take a hard-line position regarding the need for treatment. This was a very intense process, and members of the administration were heroic in the way they handled negotiations until cooler heads could prevail. As it often happens after a big emotional case like this, a series of bills were written to modify child protection laws, especially as they relate to limiting the role of the state in superseding parental rights. Several legislators tried to modify state statutes based upon this one case to increase parental rights.  This happens often in the human services area generally, but particularly in child welfare and the laws are often named after the child. Another child welfare case that caused a stir was the case of Baby Bo. Baby Bo was held up by Governor Leavitt at the State of the State Address in 1998 to launch the Foster Care Foundation. Unfortunately, three weeks later Baby Bo’s foster parents were arrested for abusing him. This just goes to show that one never can be sure.

Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service