Minors could soon access medical, other services without parents' OK
Utah may soon join two dozen other states across the nation that have provisions in place for minors to petition courts for emancipation, allowing them access to medical care, housing and other critical services.

Despite some reservations, a majority of House legislators approved HB77 Thursday by a 44-25 vote, which will advance the measure to the Senate for consideration.

Sponsored by Rep. Roz McGee, D-Salt Lake, the proposal allows minors 16 and over to seek emancipation from a juvenile court judge, provided it could be proven by "clear and convincing" evidence that the declaration is warranted.

McGee said she brought the proposal as the result of two specific groups of teenagers who say established guidelines will help them make their way officially in a world where they are already on their own.

Specifically, McGee said the measure will be helpful to teenagers long abandoned by their parents and living in shelters or on the streets and for those youths who flee polygamist families.

While judges can emancipate juveniles in Utah now, McGee said the lack of a statute on the books makes it difficult and gives rise to a potential for ruling inconsistencies.

Emancipation would not mean the minors are considered "adults" when it comes to age-specific laws, such as smoking, drinking or voting. Punishment for criminal activity would be left to the discretion of a judge.

Overall, McGee said she anticipates the law would affect a minimal segment of the youth population in Utah, with somewhere between 8 and 12 teenagers who would seek the declaration.

Some doubters wondered if judges might encounter frivolous petitions or if it might be a way for rebellious teenagers to get back at their parents.

Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, objected to a provision in the bill that would not require notifying the parents should it be deemed unnecessary or not practical.

"I am not sure I am comfortable with that," he said. "I think it is too broad and would open up the system for some abuses that currently don't exist."

But Rep. Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, an attorney, said trust to deter abuses should be left to the courts.

"The judges in juvenile court are bright men and women," she said. "They are not unaware that children may run away and make all sorts of claims this bill is for the children who cannot get these necessary services without emancipation."
Originally published February 26, 2005