MISSOULA — U.S. Sen. John Walsh announced new legislation Friday that would strengthen child endangerment laws at the federal level.
At the Watson Children’s Shelter in Missoula, kids could be heard singing karaoke from downstairs as Walsh explained his bill, the Protecting Children from Interstate Child Endangerment Act.
Walsh, D-Mont., said there are often discrepancies between states on protections that are provided for children. He said the bill will expand Montana’s child endangerment law to the federal level and make child abuse laws uniform throughout the country.
“We want to make sure that people who abuse our children are held accountable,” Walsh said.
The bill would make it a federal crime to drive under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance with a child in the car, as well as to place a child up to age 14 in the custody of a person who has knowingly hurt the child. The crime is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine of $50,000.
Walsh listened as Watson executive director Fran Albrecht described the importance of the shelter, which serves more than 100 children annually and is at full capacity this summer with 16 kids. The children are placed by the state Child and Family Services Division, and stay an average of 60 days.
Often, the kids come from abusive or methamphetamine-addicted parents, and don’t know how to play or have fun, she said.
“We teach them a lot – just what it’s about to be a child,” Albrecht said.
Albrecht said the shelter tries to provide a normal life for the kids, which includes birthday parties, swimming lessons and family dinners with the other children.
One 11-year-old girl sat brushing her Barbie’s hair on the floor of the lounge area, with the doll’s accessories strewn around her. Walsh asked what her favorite part of living at the shelter is.
“Allowance!” she answered.
Part of the children’s routine is being rewarded for making their beds and picking up clothes from the floor of their room. The older kids can receive $2 a day for being tidy, while the younger ones earn $1.
Walsh toured the rest of the building, including the dining room, bedrooms and the downstairs – where most of the kids sat in comfy chairs watching a show on the Disney Channel.
Albrecht said she supports the bill as long as it protects the whole family and takes into account the bigger picture.
“If it’s an opportunity for children and gives them the safety and security they need, I’m in favor of that,” she said.
Walsh said he hopes the legislation will be voted on in September or October, and he thinks it has a good chance of passing. It affects everyone, whether Democrat or Republican, he said.
“The goal would be we would never have to send any of our children around the state of Montana to a home like this,” Walsh said. “But being realistic, it’s going to happen. The bill that I’m introducing, we want to make sure that we’re able to identify these children around the state of Montana before it’s too late.”