BILLINGS — Before Gov. Steve Bullock signed House Bill 74 into law on Thursday in Billings, he said the piece of legislation demonstrated a commitment by multiple agencies to protect children.
“Not only is it important that all parts of government work to protect kids, but more important that they work together,” Bullock said during the brief ceremony.
The signing took place at the downtown Yellowstone Valley Children’s Advocacy Center, which Bullock called a model for tearing down barriers between agencies to focus on keeping youngsters safe.
HB74 was drafted by Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and sponsored in the House this session by Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings. The bill, which passed in the Senate in the last week of the session, was part of a package of bills to protect the state’s youngest residents.
HB74 requires the prompt release of child abuse or neglect records to law enforcement, prosecutors and child welfare agencies under certain circumstances. It also requires the state child protection agency to promptly report cases of serious child abuse to local law enforcement or the attorney general.
Bullock sat at a table in the front of the conference room, flanked by MacDonald and Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder.
MacDonald said the bill was a bipartisan effort. She recognized the work of Twito, “who conceived this approach to fixing something that clearly needed to be fixed in the law and also shared his passion for children and for safety.”
MacDonald referenced a case in Yellowstone County, where in March 2011, the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous tip that a 43-year-old man had molested a young girl.
In the course of investigating the case, a sheriff’s deputy learned that the allegation had been investigated months earlier by the state's child protection agency. The accused child molester had been referred to treatment in an agreement that left local police and prosecutors in the dark.
Twito’s response at the time was that the matter was criminal and should have been reported to law enforcement. But state law did not require social workers to report information on child abuse and neglect to law enforcement.
MacDonald said Thursday that the case was a red flag and signaled the need for a change in the law.
“Our system wasn’t really working to protect children as well as it should,” she said. “And this law, with good leadership from all sides, both law enforcement and family services, was able to address that problem.”
After the ceremony, Bullock acknowledged that “talented and trained people in all sectors are working to try and keep kids safe.”
“What we have to do is make sure that there aren’t any barriers to ensuring they can work together,” he said.
MacDonald said that since the case of the young girl came to light, the Department of Public Health and Human Services has instituted some rule changes.
“But the county attorneys felt it was such an important issue, and rules come and go but statute is very clear and it’s much harder to change,” she said.
Chief Deputy County Attorney Rod Souza, representing Twito at the ceremony, said the law will close a loophole that left children vulnerable to predators.
“It was nice to see a bipartisan effort, a concerted effort from so many people coming from so many different agencies to really work on behalf of children,” Souza said.