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Parents in Alabama could lose custody of their children if they twice receive treatment for alcohol or drugs over a five year period and then fall off the wagon, according to a House bill originating out of Guntersville.

Madison County Democrats argue the three-strikes proposal is misguided, even dangerous to children.

"This bill could actually serve to discourage people who need alcohol and drug treatment from seeking help for fear that they would lose their children if the matter came up in a divorce hearing or other civil matter," reads a statement from the Madison County Democratic Party.

Rep. Wes Long, R-Guntersville, would amend existing state law governing termination of parental rights.

Treatment, according to the bill, could include Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and church support groups. But Long today said he's heard concerns about the alcohol portion and intends to edit the proposal.

"The whole alcohol issue will be gone," said Long today, saying he would change the proposal to focus only on treatment for illegal substances. Long said the bill had been prompted by parents in Marshall County who were hooked on meth and were able to maintain custody by repeating treatment programs.

"It's a never-ending cycle," said Long. He would allow judges to find that despite future treatment the behavior is unlikely to change.

"It doesn't mean he won't give them another chance," said Long of ending parental custody, saying his three-strikes provision is an option, not a mandate.

But Democrats voiced concerns beyond the alcohol provision and an apparent disincentive toward treatment.

"Once again I ask these genius legislators to do the math and determine who will pay for this," said Clete Wetli, chair of the Madison County Democratic Party. "Are there adequate state resources to handle an increase in foster care?"

State law currently empowers courts to end parental custody in numerous instances, such as abuse, neglect, abandonment or imprisonment of the parent. Existing law also allows for termination of custody for "excessive use of alcohol or controlled substances, of a duration or nature as to render the parent unable to care for needs of the child."

As currently filed, Long's bill would add the following section to possible causes for termination: "The parent or parents who have excessively used alcohol or controlled substances, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, have been enrolled in, submitted to, admitted to or participated in a drug rehabilitation program...on two separate occasions within the five years immediately preceding the filing of the petition to terminate parental rights; and have again used alcohol or controlled substances thereafter."

Wetli, who is a substance abuse counselor, argued that legislators should instead focus on providing more treatment options.

"Perhaps they could do a bit of research and figure out what the rest of America already knows: that the War on Drugs has been a costly failure and that addiction is a disease, not a crime," said Wetli. "I urge them to ask themselves why America incarcerates more people than any nation on earth, putting Alabama prisons at 200% capacity, all the while cutting mental health and treatment budgets?"

Published on February 27, 2013 at 2:13 PM
Updated February 27, 2013 at 7:04 PM

By Challen Stephens | cstephens@al.com
The Huntsville Times
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