ST. GEORGE — Following in the aftermath of a 16-year-old boy being killed at the hands of his father, this Utah bill aims to protect children during child custody battles by recognizing signs of abuse and trauma.

A judge is in court for a child custody case | Photo via Cava, St. George News

House Rep. Paul Cutler is the sponsor of the child custody proceedings amendments, officially designated as HB 272 in the 2024 Utah legislative session, which makes child safety the No. 1 priority in child custody and parenting decisions. 

“You have to put the child’s safety first,” Cutler said. “The child comes first and always.”

According to an article published by KSL News, a boy and his sister were at the center of a child custody battle that dragged on for more than a decade before Om, 16, was killed last year by his father Parth Gandhi.  

Before the death, Cutler said the boy’s mother advocated for her children and warned the judge of the father’s history of domestic violence. After a thorough investigation, evidence proved abuse had occurred. Despite the evidence, unsupervised custody was granted to the father, and the boy was killed.

Rep. Rex Shipp told St. George News the mother testified in the committee meeting, expressing how much she tried to protect her son. She said the father used his own personal issues as leverage to hurt her. And it worked.

“Frankly, it was a hard thing to hear in our community,” Shipp said. “It’s really emotional. And this bill takes a good path towards focusing on the safety of kids, putting them and their well-being in the primary spotlight.”

Cutler said the bill has been in the works for almost a year. Last year, there was a large legislative focus on domestic violence, including utilizing the lethality assessment – an evaluation that predicts the likelihood of serious injuries or death as a result of violence. 

Utah House Rep. Paul Cutler is the sponsor of HB 272 in the 2024 Utah legislative session, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of, St. George News

This year, the focus has shifted to the family court system and the steps needed to reduce domestic and family violence. In child custody cases, Cutler said oftentimes the parent’s poor behavior and how to improve it becomes the primary focus. The bill states that no matter the situation, the child’s welfare will not suffer.

The bill also makes changes to expert testimony. Professionals cannot claim to be experts on domestic violence or abuse if they have no direct experience. Credentialed professionals will require certain evidentiary standards.

“Often in child custody, there are a lot of he-said, she-said (statements),” Cutler said. “One person claims abuse, one person claims alienation. So it sets higher standards for expert testimony.”

The bill also makes changes to reunification treatment. Cutler said the current court-ordered reunification therapy programs are “fly by night” operations that are not scientific or evidence-based. If passed, the bill would require that treatment include a professional program with proof of safety, effectiveness and therapeutic value.

Lastly, the bill asks the court to put together a training program for child custody workers to recognize trauma, psychological control and other signs of abuse. 

“The paramount in any of these cases needs to be the welfare and safety of the child,” Shipp said. “And apparently, that hasn’t been happening. This bill will focus on that.”

As of  Feb. 13, the bill has been put on the House calendar for floor consideration. 

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2024 Utah Legislature by clicking here.

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