OPINION: Small changes can be life-changing for someone
Most of the work we do in the legislature can be thankless. No one, or at least not many, notices or cares that we revised the law to place certain new substances on the controlled substances list, or that we changed a fee paid normally biannually by pesticide manufacturers to one they now pay annually ... at their own request.
A large majority of our work goes unnoticed, and that's just fine with me. Occasionally, of course, a hot topic bill will stir a lot of attention and will cause angst among some people and legislators alike. However, every once in awhile, an old, antiquated law affects someone's life in a very real way and that leads to some of the most fulfilling work we do in the legislature. That's what happened to one local family.
The story unfolds when a young woman found the love of her life. The couple was soon thereafter married.
The gentleman had a young son already and for five years this stepmother raised the son as her own. The young man loved his stepmother very much, yet still knew that the law said she wasn't his mother.
So, the happy family decided to change that and went before the court so she could legally become his mother through adoption. A "welcome to the family" party was planned and presents were bought. The court hearing date arrived and the family sat before the judge, eager to achieve their goal of being a whole family.
The judge asked the age of the mother, who declared 22, and then he asked the age of the son who shyly declared 13.
Then the judge stopped.
He paused for a long time before declaring that he could not do the adoption. Codified law 25-6-2 was very clear in its language that stated, "...However, the person adopting the child must be at least 10 years older than the child being adopted." This language was put into statute in 1939 and that one sentence devastated this family. They went home, not knowing what to do next.
Finally, it was suggested they reach out to me, and upon review of the law, I had drafted a simple bill that added the language "unless the court finds the adoption of the child by the adult person in the best interest of the child."
This was what I brought to the committee and it passed unanimously.
After the committee hearing, I was recalling some of the testimony from the mother during the committee hearing.
"When we got home from the court that day, the house was somber ... I noticed my son in the corner of the room, repackaging the gifts he'd been given. I inquired about what he was doing and his response shattered me. He explained to me that he understood the judge and that despite loving me he could not be my son because the court said so; the law said so."
This heartbreaking testimony about her 13-year-old stepson who fully understood the law combined with the unanimous support the bill had just received in committee made me decide to add the "emergency clause" we use often in the legislature to make a bill go into effect upon receiving the governor's signature instead of waiting until July 1. This amendment was added on the Senate floor and the bill passed the full Senate with unanimous support.
To many, this was an inconsequential bill that changes a small law that's been in place for 79 years with no reason to revisit it.
But as I learned early in my time in the legislature, every bill is important to somebody. This small change has given this family so much hope and happiness. These are the bills that make all the headaches and thankless things we do to make the state operate all worth it. The amount of time I put into this whole process was really quite minuscule, but to the family and maybe even families in the futures this was a life-changing bill.
— Josh Klumb is a state senator from Mount Vernon who represents Aurora, Davison, Jerauld counties.