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Colo. Lawmakers Finishing Up Rewrite of Children's Code

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Colorado lawmakers last week were nearing the end of their debate over a get-tough rewrite of the state's juvenile-justice and child-welfare laws.

During the 1950s, Colorado was one of the first states to adopt a separate set of laws dealing with children's issues, known as the children's code. The state has not taken a comprehensive look at the code in more than a decade.

Last year, a statewide task force of legislators, legal experts, and others unveiled a proposal to rewrite hundreds of the code's provisions. The recommendations ranged from increased penalties for juvenile crime to new procedures for handling neglected children.

Most of the provisions do not deal specifically with education. One of the most contentious proposals, a suggestion to do away with the state's compulsory-attendance law, died early in the session. The task force's view that disruptive students should not be forced to stay in school grabbed headlines, but Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, promised to veto the provision. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1995.)

Doing Time

While that proposal is dead, the two major bills dealing with the children's code run more than 500 pages and address dozens of other issues, including a number that have sparked debates.

The House version of the juvenile-justice bill would lower the minimum age of imprisonment as an adult from 14 to 12 for serious felonies such as murder, assault, and robbery. Lawmakers rejected a proposal to lower the age to 10.

The bill also lowers the minimum age for juvenile detention from 12 to 10, and eliminates jury trials for juveniles accused of some lesser felonies.

The Colorado House passed its code rewrite last month. As of last week, the Senate was still debating its bills. The legislative session is due to end this week, and observers said there was still a chance lawmakers would not finish the bill in time.

"The maneuvering is such that the whole issue could still blow up," said Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association.

The legislature's get-tough attitude was seen as a response to a dramatic increase in youth crime in the state.

The companion measure to the juvenile-justice bill deals with a slew of child-welfare issues. The House bill includes a new definition of "acceptable corporal punishment" that parents may use on their children.

The bill also includes a hotly debated measure that alters the state's requirements for certain professionals who must report suspected child abuse.

Under current law, teachers, social workers, doctors, and others must report suspected abuse but are immune from lawsuits.

The House bill still requires professionals to report abuse, but also requires them to make a "reasonable inquiry" into such reports and removes their immunity from liability when abuse charges prove false.

The provision was sponsored by lawmakers who argued that false reports of abuse were harming families and encouraging state intrusions into family privacy. Teachers' unions in the state were among those concerned about the loss of immunity in child-abuse reporting, and a Senate committee that reviewed the measure has essentially restored the status quo.

Parental Rights

Another provision that provoked debate was the child-welfare bill's version of a parental-rights measure similar to those being debated in Congress and several other states. The measure says the government cannot infringe on parents' rights to direct the upbringing of their children.

The provision was included in the House bill with the strong backing of Republican lawmakers, who hold an overwhelming majority in the chamber. It made the final bill despite opposition from several Democrats, who said it shifted the law's focus from serving the best interests of children to those of parents.

A Senate committee eliminated the parental-rights provision. However, observers said last week that most of the controversial issues were still in flux as the two main bills moved to the floor of the Senate, which is also dominated by Republicans.

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