JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)— A law seeking to protect some of Tennessee’s most vulnerable children will go into effect Thursday, July 1, 2021.
“Eli’s Law” targets newborns who are going home to families where other siblings have already been removed and are in state custody. A fierce mother and local advocate is behind the call for change.
The rough draft for Eli’s Law came years ago when founder of the Isaiah 117 House network Ronda Paulson took in her first foster child, Isaiah. He was 9 months old, her first foster placement.
“I feel very honored that they opened my eyes to a world I did not know about,” said Paulson.
But it was Isaiah’s little brother Eli who would be the inspiration for a new law. After his birth in 2017, Eli went home from the hospital to the same parents who could not regain custody of Isaiah.
“If an 18-month-old is not safe in that home, how could a 5-pound baby boy be safe in that home?” Paulson asked anyone who would listen.
Paulson said she worried about the safety of Eli, until he was ultimately removed by the Department of Children’s Services after three weeks and a domestic incident.
“The more research I did, the more I found that this is the norm; every child that’s born is a new case,” said Paulson.
Paulson then took in Eli, fostering the two brothers that she reunited and who she ultimately adopted. Every day since has been a mission for change.
Eli’s Law was signed by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee on Thursday, June 24. It puts more legal safeguards in place so newborns cannot be blindly released into homes that were already deemed unsafe.
“If you are dealing with the exact same home, the exact same parents, the exact same situation, is it really a new case?” asked Paulson.
State Sen. John Lundberg had the answer. Drafting legislation he took the issue up in the Tennessee Senate championing the bill. Rep. John Crawford sponsored the Tennessee House version of the bill.
“Ultimately it’s about the safety of our children,” Lundberg told News Channel 11 in a statement. “If a parent has a child removed, we have a duty to look out for the safety of any others in the household.”
For Paulson, the bill is about having another set of eyes on each case and legal precedent for a judge to step in.
“How much progress has mom made? If she is doing great, then great. We want mom to succeed. But if she isn’t, and it’s not safe for one child, it’s not safe for a newborn baby,” said Paulson.
Eli is now happy, safe and loved. His namesake law shines a light on those not as lucky, who are continuing to fly under the radar.
“We’ve got to do something to protect the Eli’s of the world,” said Paulson. “We can’t take a chance on a newborn. That’s not something we take a chance on.”
To read the full text of the bill, click here.
For more information on the Isaiah 117 House and their work to help children entering the foster care system, click here.