No child should suffer abuse or neglect, no child should die because they were injured or abandoned by adults.
Yet such tragedies happen even in Montana, even in Billings. While recent news reports of violence against children have seized our attention, it’s time for lawmakers to muster the determination stop children from hurting.
Among the bills that the Legislature will see to improve child protection, there is one simple proposal that should draw bipartisan support: A child fatality review commission. It would give the same level of scrutiny to cases of child homicide as now is given to homicides involving adults. A commission would increase awareness of child abuse and bring together a diverse group of Montanans to recommend child protection system improvements.
Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, has agreed to carry the bill, which didn't yet have a number as of early this week. Kelker, who taught special education at Montana State University Billings, founded Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids, served many years as a Billings school trustee and retired last year as director of Billings Head Start, has long been an advocate for children.
Adult deaths reviewed
The review commission would be similar to the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission that has for the past decade examined homicides committed by intimate partners.
Child abuse and neglect may occur in the child’s home or elsewhere, with the abuse inflicted by a parent or someone else. The aim of the review commission would be to look at all child deaths attributed to abuse/neglect regardless of who may have been involved or where it occurred.
In her career, Kelker said, she didn’t see a lot of severe abuse cases, but there were some horrific ones in recent years.
“Most people in Billings don’t know what types of horrible things some children have experienced,” she said.
The community doesn’t know till it’s too late and the child is dead or seriously injured.
In those cases, the review commission would work to find out what can be done to improve the child protection system. How could the system intervene sooner and more effectively?
“It’s a very tricky business,” Kelker said. “It’s about figuring out systemically how to help families so they don’t get into the mire of abuse.”
The review commission is “desperately needed,” said Sarah Corbally, administrator of the Child and Family Services Division in Helena.
Corbally serves on the state Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission, along with more than a dozen other Montanans representing public and private agencies, courts, prosecutors, law enforcement, medical professionals and victim advocates.
The envisioned child fatality review commission also would be a multi-disciplinary team drawn from across the state. Rules for the commission would protect privacy rights, but also increase transparency with annual reporting on the numbers and circumstances of child abuse deaths.
Importantly, a competent, active commission could generate data needed for making decisions to improve prevention of child abuse and neglect.
Costs of the commission would be covered by a federal grant from the same U.S. agency that funds a major share of Montana foster care.
A dozen years ago, the Montana Legislature acted to raise awareness of the toll of domestic violence in our state by establishing a review commission. That Department of Justice Panel has advocated successfully for domestic violence prevention measures.
The 2015 Legislature should elevate concern for child abuse to the same level by establishing a commission to examine child deaths. Abuse and neglect must be stopped before additional tragedies become front-page news.