The years for older children and young adolescents between the ages of 6 and 15 have been called the most important time in their development. Why can we not allow the judge to make the ultimate decision in terms of the competency and honesty of a child testifying in a courtroom, given that the child is younger than 12 years?

As a divorced mother of one child, I want to share my thoughts on LD 1511, an Act to Remove the Age Limit Governing When a Court Must Consider the Wishes of a Child in a Proceeding for the Termination of Parental Rights. Current Maine law states that the court should consider the wishes of a child 12 and older during these termination proceedings. I hope that we as a community can come together to give our children more rights in the courtroom. Let us leave it up to the judge’s discretion, as we do in many hearings.

I would like for our children to have the opportunity to have their voices heard, regardless of age, in order to serve the best interests of the child. This I believe will lead to better, more accurate evidence and improved outcomes for our children and families. This bill is consistent with LD 1623, An Act to Expand Options in the Permanency Plan for Children in Foster Care, as it also promotes the participation in a permanency hearing in an age appropriate manner.

Rep. Walter Wheeler Sr., D-Kittery, and Sen. Peter Bowman, D-Kittery, have sponsored this bill. Representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services and the judicial branch gave testimony Jan. 14. A constituent testified on behalf of his 10-year-old stepson who was looking forward to telling the judge that he never wanted to see his father again. However, due to the public policy of this state, this was not allowed. His stepfather gave testimony and raised the questions: “What if the minor child states that his parent behaves in ways the child finds strange, disconcerting, even frightening but because of the child’s age, no judge will listen. What if the absent parent is of questionable character, but is savvy enough to not get caught? What if they present themselves well in front of those in authority, so no evidence of their inappropriate behavior exists?”

He added that the stepson was a kind, intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, and sharp boy. After detailed testimony given by the stepfather, with proof relating to lies, abuse and violent outbursts by the biological father, the law mandates that the stepson must spend time with his biological father. Had the stepson been able to testify, this would not be happening to this young boy.

Hearings are an ideal way for the media to gather public opinion and for individuals to have a tremendous impact and input into legislative decisions. The testimony by a child could have an even greater impact at a hearing. The guardian ad litem appointed in the above case believed that children should only be taken seriously at the age of 14 or older. Must the stepson spend time with someone, where so much hatred exists and with someone who will say anything to get what he wants? Must he wait until the legal age of 12 to be heard?

The years when a child is between 6 and 15, according to the renowned cognitive psychologist Piaget, are a time of great change and of logic development. Why is this age not allowed in the courtroom during an important decision-making process that will directly affect the lives of our children?

This proposed bill will be presented Thursday, Jan. 28 at 1 p.m. in Room 438 at the State House in Augusta.

Este Underdown lives in Owls Head.