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updated: 2/3/2013 11:11 AM

Congress may take up Aurora man's campaign to help grieving parents

Aurora father's desire to help parents who lose a child has led to new legislation

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  • Kelly Farley of Aurora has pushed to amend the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993. Farley is traveling to Washington, D.C., this week for the expected introduction of the Parental Bereavement Act, which would extend FMLA benefits to parents after the death of a son or daughter.

       Kelly Farley of Aurora has pushed to amend the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993. Farley is traveling to Washington, D.C., this week for the expected introduction of the Parental Bereavement Act, which would extend FMLA benefits to parents after the death of a son or daughter.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Kelly Farley of Aurora has written a book, "Grieving Dads: To the Brink and Back," and a blog in his efforts to amend the Family Medical Leave Act so parents can take up to 12 unpaid weeks off work after the death of a child.

       Kelly Farley of Aurora has written a book, "Grieving Dads: To the Brink and Back," and a blog in his efforts to amend the Family Medical Leave Act so parents can take up to 12 unpaid weeks off work after the death of a child.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Family Leave report on ABC7

 
 

It started with death. Two deaths, actually.

The passing of Kelly Farley's children, Katie and Noah, brought to life in the Aurora man a desire to help other grieving parents.

He wrote a blog about dealing with his loss, then a book. But the bulk of his crusade has been a legislative one, aiming to amend the federal Family Medical Leave Act so the death of a child can make workers eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off.

Now, roughly two years after beginning his campaign, Farley says the goal feels within reach. The Parental Bereavement Act is scheduled to be introduced in the U.S. Senate and House this week, carrying the power to add the "death of a son or daughter" to a list of medical events that allow employees to take a leave of absence without fear of being fired.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, and Rep. Steven Israel, a New York Democrat, both say they plan to introduce the Parental Bereavement Act Tuesday -- a fitting date because it marks the 20th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act.

Farley said he's confident in the bill's chances of becoming law as he heads to Washington, D.C., today for meetings this week with more than 35 members of Congress.

He said the amendment he developed two years ago has garnered enough grass-roots support to cause legislators to take notice. And the American public, saddened by the tragic killing of 20 young students in Newtown, Conn., is becoming ever more aware of the emotional suffering created by the often senseless loss of a child.

"People can lose a child for all reasons -- it's not just disease or stillbirth or car accidents," said Farley, 44. "And if it happens, people need the time to grieve."

Grieving dads

Farley lost his daughter in 2004 and his son in 2006 to genetic abnormalities before their births. He tried to keep the grief pent up, but found himself unable to cope with the loss of his unborn children, calling a child's death "the most profound life experience" a parent can endure.

Soon the words began flowing -- first to family, counselors and anyone who would listen, then onto the Internet at grievingdads.com, then into a book released last summer called "Grieving Dads: To the Brink and Back."

"It's not just about the death of a child," Farley said about his book, which has sold 600 copies. "It's about how men are expected to deal with adversity in their life."

Anyone dealing with the death of a child needs a support network, said Sue Duke, who runs a chapter of Share Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Inc. at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove. Good Samaritan's chapter of the national network has assisted more than 4,000 parents in 25 years with services such as one-on-one counseling.

"We also provide a monthly support group for these families, which is a strong, nurturing environment that helps with the healing," Duke said. "The loss of a child is so overwhelming, they need that support system."

Grieving parents also need time to begin adjusting to the loss before returning to work, said Joann Cacciatore, a professor at Arizona State University who studies child loss and founded a support group called the MISS Foundation.

"Everything shifts for people when a child in the family dies. It really can be utter chaos," Cacciatore said. "To expect people to return to work and function after such a traumatic experience is a pretty big stretch."

Time to heal

The Parental Bereavement Act would allow workers at companies that employ more than 50 people up to 12 weeks unpaid time off if their son or daughter dies.

The act was inspired by the Farley-Kluger Initiative, a proposal Farley crafted with a grieving dad from Arizona named Barry Kluger. The pair connected through Farley's blog, where both had heard from other fathers struggling with the necessity of returning to work while dealing with the emotional shock of a child's death.

The birth or adoption of a child or foster child already triggers the availability of time off under the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. Farley said he plans to point out the omission of a child's death as he and Kluger meet with legislators this week.

"We're just asking for you to include the death of a child as a reason you can qualify" for leave, Farley said. "We're hoping partisanship can be set aside for an issue that has no boundaries."

Society incurs more costs from bereaved parents struggling to work too soon than it would if employees were allowed time off, according to research Cacciatore soon will publish. She said she found 70 percent of grieving parents studied would be required to return to work within three business days of the death.

"It's painful and it's costly to society not to give them the time off they need to cry, plan funerals, meet with family, engage in mourning rituals," Cacciatore said.

But for the business community, allowing extended leave can be tough on the bottom line, said Todd Maisch, executive vice president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. He said employers recognize the difficulty of child loss, but allowing 12 weeks off would be excessive.

"While we understand the human tragedy of it all, employers still have to be able to run their business, and staffing is the number one issue," Maisch said.

Building support

Farley said he has heard concerns about extending FMLA benefits to grieving parents -- mainly worries the time off would be abused or cause undue burden on businesses. And there are those who simply oppose more federal regulations.

Under the amendment, workers would need to produce their child's death certificate to qualify, so Farley said abuse would be unlikely. The Parental Bereavement Act is not creating a new law, he said, but amending the FMLA to correct what some see as a glaring omission in the list of reasons workers can become eligible for time off.

Farley and Kluger have collected more than 52,000 signatures on an online petition at farleykluger.com. The campaign reached the congressmen who plan to introduce the bill this week; both said constituents informed them of the issue.

Tester, the Montana senator, first introduced the Parental Bereavement Act in 2011.

"Any time a parent has to bury a child is, in my opinion, the most stressful and excruciating experience a family can go through," Tester said in a statement. "People need time to grieve and sort out what has happened without having to lose their jobs."

Israel, the New York representative, introduced it to the House in December.

The bill has drawn the endorsement of 20 national organizations, including military groups such as Blue Star Families and MarineParents.

"The current bereavement policy at most companies is not such that it encompasses the amount of time necessary to grieve the loss of a child -- whether that child is 4 years old or 24 years old," said Tracy Della Vecchia, who runs the nonprofit MarineParents.

FMLA defines a "child" as younger than 18, but Farley said he is working to change the age to 26 for consistency with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

His meetings with legislators focus on members of the Senate and House committees that will review the bill -- the Senate committee on health, education, labor, and pensions and the House committee on education and the workforce. He has appointments scheduled with four Illinois representatives: Republicans Peter Roskam and Randy Hultgren, and Democrats Tammy Duckworth and Bill Foster.

Parental Bereavement Act supporters hope the bill will progress out of committee for approval by both chambers and then the president. Changing the law will not prevent children from dying, but child loss researcher Cacciatore said it will provide the comfort of time to parents learning to cope.

"This is an unimaginable tragedy in a family to have to bury a child, and yet people do it all the time," Cacciatore said. "This won't reduce the number of infant or child deaths in society, but we need to have a more compassionate way to respond."

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