In the wake of tragedy, Om’s Law aims to reform Utah’s family court system
Om’s Law is named after 16-year-old Om Moses Gandhi. His parents were in the midst of a bitter custody battle last year when he was killed by his father during a court-mandated, unsupervised visit.
Utah lawmakers are considering a bill to better keep children away from abusive parents.
“I listen to the stories of families being torn apart, and they're some of the saddest, most tragic stories you can hear of,” said Republican bill sponsor Rep. Paul Cutler. “We met with judges, we met with court commissioners and advocates on both sides to try to craft careful legislation.”
Central to HB272 is reforming Utah’s family court system.
Family courts have the power to grant child custody and set parameters around parental visitation. Cutler’s “Child Custody Proceedings Amendments” aims to tighten those practices, in particular, who can give expert testimony.
“We tried to make it very clear in this last version of the legislation that we're not excluding other experts,” he said. “But if you want to go to the court and say, ‘I'm an expert in, child abuse and domestic violence,’ then you should have some experience and credentials in that area.”
The bill is modeled after a federal law called the Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act. Also known as Kayden’s Law, it’s named after a Pennsylvania girl who also lost her life to a violent parent.
“It's a tricky thing to bring into state law,” said Erin Jemison, director of public policy at the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. “Since a bill actually started getting drafted, we've been working to even move away, honestly, from some of the Kayden’s Law components and make sure that it's really Utah specific, that it will help family courts here.”
Another key provision is requiring the courts to consider evidence of domestic violence and abuse when determining what is in a child’s best interest.
“It's not just someone's word, but evidence of family violence, domestic violence in that list of factors that a court has to consider,” Jemison said. “So it really puts more weight on that and allows victims' voices to be heard in a way that isn't just assuming that it's just another part of a contentious custody battle.”
It’s why the bill includes increased training for judges and other court personnel on trauma, psychological control and other forms of abuse. Better guardrails around court-ordered reunification treatment between children and parents are also in the bill.
For Jemison, it’s hard to overstate just how important these changes would be to survivors.
“When I get outreach from victims of domestic violence, through my work and what policy change they're asking for, the family court system is the number one issue that we hear from victims themselves.”
Om’s Law has its first hearing on Feb. 8.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the Utah domestic violence link line at 1-800-897-LINK or text START to 88788.