Of Fosters and Fathers – two new laws aim to improve conditions for foster children, presumed fathers

OKLAHOMA CITY – Two new laws – one touching foster care, the other the rights of presumed fathers – were signed by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin last week.

The first proposal signed into law last week will improve the foster care system, according to the bill’s author.

House Bill 1078, by state Rep. Pat Ownbey, expands the independent living program that transitions children in the system into their adult lives, updates requirements for foster parents and group homes to ensure the child is engaged in typical childhood activities such as sports and other social activities and revises protocols used to deal with runaways and child trafficking victims.

Ownbey said the specific changes to the independent living program include lowering the age from 16 to 14 and providing for a team concept. The team would include the state independent living worker, the child and an advisor that could be a coach, teacher or foster care parent.

“The independent living program is very important to ensure that individuals who are leaving the child welfare system are established well in their adult lives,” said Rep. Ownbey, R-Ardmore. 

“When our kids grow up, we support them until they get their feet under them. This program endeavors to do the same thing for children in the child welfare system.”

The safety provisions of the legislation include the expansion of reporting requirements in the case of missing children in the system, Ownbey said.

In other news, House Bill 1918, also signed by the governor, will give a family law judge discretion to award temporary custody to a “presumed father” until a paternity test is conducted.

State Rep. John Paul Jordan’s measure requires that the family law judge determine that the awarding temporary custody is in the best interest of the child. 

The measure defines “presumed father” as a person who is recognized by law to be the father of the child until paternity is confirmed or denied by a paternity test. The “presumed father” would have to be a party to a paternity suit to have any claim under the law.

“This legislation is easy to misunderstand so I want to be clear that it does not deal with the final placement of a child during a paternity action, but only the initial custody placement until a test can be conducted to determine paternity,” said Rep. Jordan, R-Yukon.

“It also does not relate to adoption, divorce or other actions involving parents. It only relates to paternity actions where the parents of a child are unmarried and custody, visitation, child support and child care are the issues at hand.”

Existing law does not provide a father with any custody or visitation rights until paternity is established, Jordan explaned.

“The issue arose from a paternity case I was working on right before the legislative session,” Jordan said. “The child was 18 months old. The parents were young and had met while partying. Mom and Dad had lived together while Mom was pregnant. After the child was born, Dad got a job and cleaned up his act to raise a child. Mom tried to clean up but ultimately wanted to go out with her friends. When the child was approximately 6 months old, Mom abandoned the child with Dad. Dad took care of the child on his own for the remaining 12 months. Mom filed for state assistance and was told to file a Paternity Action.

“When they got to court Mom testified that she had been sleeping around at the time she got pregnant and was uncertain if Dad was the actual father of the child. Under the current law the Judge was unable to leave the child in the care of Dad, and Dad had no visitation rights of the child he had cared for over a year.

“Upon checking with other family law judges and attorneys this is a common practice by unwed mothers to delay proceedings or to deny a father visitation.”

Jordan’s new law will take effect on Nov. 1.