Billings lawmaker accuses state employees of 'kidnapping' children

Billings lawmaker accuses state employees of 'kidnapping' children

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A Republican lawmaker from Billings has accused state child protection workers of kidnapping children, and he’s urging parents visited by the state employees to throw them out of their homes.

Rep. Rodney Garcia said on James White’s “North West Liberty News” in mid-February that child welfare workers “do not protect the kids, they kidnap them.” North West Liberty News is a right-wing blog that espouses conspiracy theories on the “CIA-controlled media,” among others.

On the show, the Billings lawmaker urged those parents visited by child protection specialists not to sit by idly when faced with removal.

“If they don’t like it, they have a right to grab them by the collar and the seat of the pants and throw them out their door,” Garcia told his interviewer. “They’re invading their personal property.”

Garcia repeatedly said that child protection specialists were removing children illegally because they were doing so without a court order.

But a longstanding practice in child protection work — common across the U.S. — is to remove a child before a court order can be secured when the social worker believes the child is at immediate risk of harm.

It’s designed for emergency situations, and is only temporary, until a show cause hearing can be held. There, judges determine if the department was justified in the emergency removal and if the child should remain in temporary foster care. 

Reached Monday, Garcia said he was aware of the emergency removal process but doubled-down on his criticism of the state's Child and Family Services Division.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’re bullies, and they praise themselves for being heroes,” Garcia said.

He claimed social workers routinely remove children without cause, saying he’s received complaints that an angry spouse or even teenage child will file a false abuse or neglect report with the state to have children removed. 

Garcia insisted these vendetta-related false reports were acted on without proper investigation, citing anecdotes from constituents.

In response, a health department spokesman said Garcia painted an inaccurate picture of the child removal process, in part because he failed to acknowledge how child protection work at some point involves prosecutors, judges, court advocates, public defenders and law enforcement.

After a complaint is filed, the department opens an investigation by meeting with the child or children, parents, other family or individuals involved.

If the department determines the child is unsafe, the first step is to try to keep the child in the home and correct the problem by working with the parents, department spokesman Jon Ebelt said.

If the parents are unwilling to cooperate, the department initiates the removal process.

“It’s important to highlight that 65 percent of children in foster care in Montana are returned to their parents,” Ebelt said in an email.

He also noted that 53 percent of children in the state’s foster care system are placed with relatives.

In an emailed statement, department Director Sheila Hogan commended child protection workers for doing “difficult work every day” and making tough decisions “with the ultimate goal of keeping children safe.”

“They all should be applauded for their efforts,” Hogan said. 

The state health department has struggled to deal with an increase of children in care — in 2008, there were 1,507 children; by 2015 there were 3,179. The department says the number of children entering care has dropped in recent months.

A majority of children in the state protective system, or 65 percent, had a parent using drugs, with meth present in 70 percent of those drug-related cases, according to the department. 

Efforts this legislative session that would have made it harder for the state to remove children have failed.

Three such bills, carried by Garcia's fellow Billings Republican Rep. Dennis Lenz, included one that would have required child protection specialists to wear body cameras during contact with children.

Reporter Holly Michels contributed reporting. 


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