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An opioid epidemic. High smoking rates. Health care provider shortages. Indiana faces serious public health challenges. Side Effects Public Media provides in-depth coverage of these issues and more.

Following Emotional Testimony, Lawmakers Gut Bill That Would Eliminate Certain Parents' Rights

After hearing testimony last week, Indiana Senate lawmakers Wednesday made significant changes to a bill that would have resulted in more people facing termination of their parental rights.

Senate Bill 402, sponsored by Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, would have created a three-strikes rule for parents with open child welfare cases. The bill specified a list of actions — from missing a hearing to failing a drug screen. If a parent had committed three violations from this list, the Department of Child Services would have had to automatically petition the court system to sever parental rights.

After testimony from detractors, who said the bill would have been tough on parents suffering from addiction, lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary Committee stripped the three-strikes rule from the bill.

Tammy Wadlington found out about the Judiciary Committee hearing on Facebook the night before and decided to testify. She told the committee that the bill hit home.

“I want for you to hear from someone who has lived through some of these circumstances that would put a parent in a place to miss meetings, to miss visitation,” she said.

Growing up, Wadlington said she spent three years in foster care. Her mother was physically unable to work and lived off of Social Security disability insurance.

“She couldn’t afford a taxi to get to the hearings. She couldn’t afford a bus pass three times a week to get to the classes they wanted her to go to,” Wadlington said.

While she appreciated the bill’s intention to move more foster children into permanent homes, she said she would like to see birth parents offered treatment rather than punishment.

“So please bear in mind that you are going to have very, very good, loving parents who are in very tough situations,” she said, saying she would hate for a parent to be penalized for missing a hearing because of work.

Marion County Public Defender Agency Assistant Division Chief Andrea Marsh expressed concerns over the mandatory three strikes rule.

“The vast majority of my current clients would be in termination right now if this bill were law,” she said.

Indiana law requires DCS file a petition to terminate rights if children have been removed from their parents’ care for 15 out of the most recent 22 months.

Marsh said more legislation isn’t needed to more aggressively terminate parental rights. She estimated the Marion County Public Defender Agency has seen a 75 to 100 percent increase year-over-year in the filing of terminations in the past five years.

Now, the amended law’s only provision is parents’ progress reports are shared with attorneys and court-appointed child advocates 48 hours before hearings.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a reporting collaborative focused on public health.