Yesterday, a crowd of people gathered into a Capitol hearing room yesterday. They were there to comment on a slate of bills being considered by an assembly committee on family law.
Those bills would change a number of grounds within the juvenile courts.
Most prominent, though, is a Republican-led bill that could strip parental rights from incarcerated people.
The bill would create new grounds under which juvenile court may determine if a parent is unfit to parent their child. And as part of making that decision, juvenile courts could consider a parent’s history of repeated incarceration.
Both activists and community members proffered testimony before the committee. They said that the bill could hurt both parents who are incarcerated as well as their children. Mary-Ann Olason was one of those community members.
“I was convicted (of) seven counts of omissions and misrepresentations of stocks and securities, class G felonies, maximum prison sentence one year. I was sentenced consecutive, seven years. I would (have) lost my daughters! My three beautiful adult daughters, one of which is now a surgeon, two are now business executives, who I raised. I am not the sum of my crime,” said Olason.
Ramiah Whiteside is an organizer with EXPO, or Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing. That’s a group dedicated to dismantling mass incarceration and excessive supervision. – Whiteside says the group is wholly against the bill, and that it will only bring more suffering.
“When you remove that parental-child connection, you are doing a disservice not only to the parent, but to the child. That’s one of the innate sacred bonds we have, from parents to children, so when you disrupt that, you are going to perpetuate what leads to more incarcerations, what leads to more disfunction in communities, what leads to breaking up more families. And these are all the ingredients which leads to, often times, leaving people in a worse off condition. I’m not saying if forces anyone to do anything, but it puts you in a worse off condition to make poor choices in your life. So this bill further perpetuates broken homes,” Whiteside said.
The bill could also be in conflict with existing precedent.
In 200, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that a juvenile court cannot terminate parental rights based on a parent’s history of or current incarceration status. In that case, the state Supreme Court said that was a violation of due process. Abby Bar-Lev Wiley is legislative and compliance director for Legal Action of Wisconsin.
“So this bill very clearly contradicts the Wisconsin Supreme Court. We don’t have any insight whether this is the intention of the legislature, or if this is an oversight. We have no idea. We cannot speculate on why they are doing this. But there is this very clear precedent in Wisconsin law,” Wiley says.
Bob Held is Family Law Priority Coordinator for Legal Action Wisconsin. He says the bill would disproportionately affect the most vulnerable.
“It would have an outsized impact on our clients, who are often people who are low-income, and it would have an outsized impact on people of color, on Black people and Native Americans. The current statistics from the Department of Health Services, show there is already a disproportionate amount of Black and Native American children in child care in Wisconsin, and this has been a national trend. And because more African-American and Native American parents are in the criminal justice system due to the mass incarceration of BIPOC, especially in Wisconsin, ” Held says.
The bill is authored by seven Republican lawmakers. Those are Representatives Barbara Dittrich of Oconomowoc, William Penterman of Columbus, Rick Gundrum of Slinger, Jeffery Mursau of Crivitz, Ron Tusler of Harrison, Patrick Snyder of Schofield, and Jeremy Thiesfeld of Fond du Lac. All representatives are republican.
A total of eight organizations, including ACLU of Wisconsin, Ho-Chunk Nation, and the Wisconsin Council of Churches have registered against the bill.
The bill still faces passage by the assembly committee. If it passes there, it would head for approval to the entire state assembly. A similar bill in the state senate is also in committee.