Montana lawmakers heard several bills seeking to make changes to the state's child protection system, including reducing turnover of caseworkers, setting higher standards for removing children from their homes and increasing accountability.
Republican Rep. Dennis Lenz presented three bills to the House Judiciary Committee Thursday, including one that would require children to be in danger of serious bodily injury or starvation before they could be placed in state care.
Under law, serious bodily injury means injuries that create a substantial risk of death, disfigurement, or loss of function of a body part or organ, including serious mental illness or impairment, said Valerie Winfield, who prosecutes child abuse cases in Cascade County.
Opponents, including the Department of Public Health and Human Services, argued the "serious bodily injury" standard does not adequately protect children who are being sexually or emotionally abused, or when there is domestic violence or drug abuse in the home.
"I feel strongly this bill would place children in substantial risk of harm," said Marti Vining, administrator for the Division of Child and Family Services.
Montana's Division of Child and Family Services has been criticized over the years for removing children from their parents unnecessarily, for not removing children who were in danger while caseworkers faced high turnover, a large number of vacancies and increasing caseloads. The agency is currently advertising for 22 child protection specialists.
The governor created a Protect Montana Kids Commission in 2015 as complaints against the agency grew. The panel recommended several bills that were passed by the 2017 Legislature.
Montana has about 3,900 children in foster care, putting it second in the nation with a rate of 16.8 children per 1,000 in foster care in in October 2017, according to Child Trends. West Virginia was highest at 17.8. The national average is 5.8 children per 1,000 in foster care, lawmakers were told.
Lawmakers are being asked to tighten up the laws and raise standards for removal "because the current system isn't working," said Denise Johnson, a former foster mother and board member of the Montana Child Protection Alliance, a group formed to help families who have complaints about the child protection agency. "If the current system were working, you wouldn't have so many proponents."
Lenz also proposed requiring a show-cause hearing within 48 hours of a child being removed so any mistakes could be quickly reversed with minimal trauma to the child. Opponents said that requirement wasn't practical for the courts, the department or attorneys representing the parents.
A third bill by Lenz would change several policies, including requiring caseworkers to wear body cameras when interacting with children and requiring them to undergo 30 hours of continuing education per year on child welfare, trauma and other related topics.
Georgia Miller of Great Falls, a board member with the Montana Child Protection Alliance, said she thinks mistakes are made by caseworkers in part because they are not properly trained.
Lenz argued his proposals could help reduce the number of children in the system, thus reducing caseloads.
Vining said the number of children being removed from their homes in Montana has stabilized over the past two years and the number of children being returned home from state care is gradually increasing.
On Wednesday, lawmakers heard a bill that would appropriate up to $1 million to help child protective services employees repay their student loans after three years of service in an effort to reduce turnover.
Another bill calls for the Child and Family Services ombudsman to let the courts know when they're investigating the handling of a case and if the ombudsman finds any failures. The ombudsman would have to report to the courts, the health department, the attorney general and the governor if their reviews turn up continued policy violations.
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