Eight child fatalities have been reported to the state this year under a law that requires an ombudsman to investigate the circumstances when a child involved with Child and Family Services dies.
Shannon McDonald, who oversees the Child and Family Services division, told an interim legislative committee Monday about the number of deaths reported. She said that none of the children who died were in out-of-home care at the time.
McDonald said she reviewed the cases last week, but did not have full details. She said she recalled that two of the eight cases were first reported to Child and Family Services after the child’s death, meaning six of the children could have been brought to the attention of the state before before their deaths.
Lee Newspapers has contacted the Department of Public Health and Human Services, who oversees Child and Family Services, and the Department of Justice, who oversees the Office of the Child and Family Ombudsman.
By state law, the ombudsman investigates circumstances surrounding child fatalities when the child was involved with the health department and Child and Family Services.
Last year 14 children died after entering into the Child and Family Services system. Of those children, 12 had been reported previously to Child and Family Services. Eight of the children died within 60 days of the last report filed to Child and Family Services, 11 were age 2 or younger, and 11 cases involved allegations of drug use.
Information provided to the Children, Families, Health and Human Services interim legislative committee also shows that more children are in foster care in Montana at this point than there were last year — 3,822 in August versus 3,610 at the same time in 2016. There have been 13,343 calls to the intake hotline, with 6,854 resulting in investigations this year.
From April to June, 774 children were removed from their homes. In about 66 percent of cases where there is a removal, drug use by parents was noted.
Rep. Jon Knokey, a Republican from Bozeman, pressed McDonald for more information about the children who had died, but she did not have further details.
“I think that would be exceptionally important to know because that’s something we should intimately know,” he said.
He continued, saying, “I’m at a little bit of a loss. What do we plan to do? … What does the department need for help, or is it just a fact of life we have to deal with? … How do we take this on and make sure it’s zero next year?”
Sheila Hogan, director of the health department, said that any child death was unacceptable.
“I will never feel the death of a kid is justified,” she said, adding the department is working to improve. “My goal is that it be zero. We will do our best to get it to zero. It’s never acceptable.”
Rep. Dennis Lenz, a Republican from Billings, echoed Knokey's frustration that there was not more information available about the deaths. Though McDonald said that many details are kept private to protect families, the 2016 ombudsman report contained information such as ages of the children who died, their gender, whether Child and Family Services had been aware of them and for how long, whether they had siblings, and the general region of the state where they lived.
“I would think with eight deaths you could quickly tell me this one was that and this one was the other thing," Lenz said. "I would like to know why what isn’t so readily available.”
McDonald promised to provide the committee with more information. Hogan added that under a new law that was passed last April and takes effect in October, lawmakers who sign a form pledging to keep information private may review specific Child and Family Services cases to “see where the holes are.”