Gazette opinion: Progress on protecting Montana’s kids, elders

2013-05-02T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Progress on protecting Montana’s kids, elders The Billings Gazette
May 02, 2013 12:10 am

At the start of the 2013 Legislature, Montana county attorneys supported several bills to help protect the state’s oldest and youngest residents. All but one of those bills has become law or can become law within the next few days.

First, lawmakers strengthened and revised the Montana Elder and Persons with Developmental Disabilities Abuse Prevention Act by making two changes:

  • Eliminating the requirement for proving that the victim was “unable to provide personal protection from abuse” and simply requiring that abuse be proven for a conviction under the act.
  • Increasing the maximum penalty for a person convicted of exploiting an elderly or developmentally disabled person to $50,000 fine plus up to 10 years in prison if the case involves assets with a value of more than $25,000.

Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, sponsored SB134, which garnered 15 cosponsors before it was unanimously approved by the Senate and received 83 votes on final approval in the House. Gov. Steve Bullock signed the bill into law on April 5.

In a package of bills aimed at protecting children from abuse, the Montana County Attorneys Association included House Bill 433, which closed a loophole in the state’s sexual and violent offender registry requirements. The bill sponsored by Rep. Jesse O’Hara, R-Great Falls, and supported by Attorney General Tim Fox became law on April 24 and now requires registered offenders to register again if they are away from home for 10 days. They are required to register again with the sheriff in their home county when they return. Previously, some offenders were known to travel and relocate for “vacation” without reregistering.

A bill that would have allowed evidence of a defendant’s prior child sexual abuse convictions to be introduced at trial didn’t survive the legislative process. It should be revised and reintroduced in 2015.

Meanwhile, three bills that would strengthen child abuse laws are on the governor’s desk:

  • Senate Bill 160, sponsored by Sen. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls, creates the offense of child criminal endangerment, a felony with maximum penalty of a $50,000 fine and 10 years in prison. Child criminal endangerment includes: failing to seek reasonable medical care for a child’s life-threatening condition, leaving a child with a person known to have previously harmed the child, dealing drugs in the presence of a child, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs with a child in the vehicle, failing to attempt to provide proper nutrition for a child, resulting in a medical diagnosis of failure to thrive.
  • Senate Bill 198 would increase penalties for assaulting a child younger than 36 months. This bill would double the maximum prison terms so that adults who harm tots could be imprisoned for up to 40 years.

Finally, children’s advocates succeeded in passing House Bill 74. Drafted by Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, endorsed by the Interim Law and Justice Committee and sponsored by Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, this bill simply requires the state child protection agency to promptly report cases of serious child abuse to local law enforcement or the attorney general.

Usually, there is prompt reporting. However, a Yellowstone County case last year revealed a gap in child protection law. A mother reported to the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office that her child had been sexually abused a year earlier and that she had told state child authorities about the abuse then. The law didn’t require state child protection services to notify law enforcement, and they didn’t.

Twito’s office filed felony charges, the offender pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

HB74 passed the House in January and should have sailed through the Senate quickly. But it was held up in Senate Judiciary Committee for two months while proponents, including county attorneys from across Montana, worked to explain the bill to senators. After squeaking out of committee, thanks in part to support from Brenden and Sen. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings, the bill was approved by the Senate 47-2.

As the governor and his staff review the 200-plus bills that arrived in his office at the end of last week, we call on him to give special attention to the trio of child protection measures. Sign HB74, SB160 and SB198 to help ensure that child abusers will be held accountable in Montana.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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