Among 14 Montana children who died of abuse or neglect between July 2015 and November 2016, 12 had previously been the subject of a report to the Child and Family Services Division and eight of those had a report filed within 60 days of their deaths. Other findings of the fatality report from Office of Child and Family Ombudsman included:
- 11 deaths involved adult drug use, including four with meth.
- 6 involved domestic violence.
- 11 victims were less than two years old and nine were under one year.
In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, CFSD received 35,226 calls reporting child abuse or neglect involving 13,307 different children. That was nearly 100 calls per day. The division conducted 9,154 investigations, according to its report to the Legislature this month.
The staggering volume of child abuse and neglect complaints and the tragic deaths demand action from Montana’s leaders during the 2017 legislative session. Here are two steps the Legislature and Gov. Bullock must take:
- Create the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission proposed in House Bill 303, sponsored by Rep. Kathy Kelker, of Billings.
- Fully fund child protection services.
The ombudsman report of 14 deaths wasn’t comprehensive and investigations were hindered by lack of access to information needed to review all factors contributing to the child’s death. Kelker’s bill would give the new commission greater authority to investigate while assuring that confidential information is kept confidential. Some members would be appointed by the governor, the rest by the state attorney general and would include the child and family ombudsman, a judge, a Native American representative, the state crime lab, a legislator, law enforcement, a children’s attorney, a pediatric specialist, a foster parent and a parent who was abused as a child.
All members would serve voluntarily, so expenses would be mostly travel and meetings, which the bill’s fiscal note estimates at $31,000 per year. As Kelker has said, federal funding is available to cover those costs. Even without federal money, the review commission is an urgent necessity.
This commission was the top recommendation for change from the Protect Montana Kids Commission Bullock appointed to advise him on the state’s child protection crisis. The Children’s Justice Bureau in the Montana Department of Justice also highly recommends this new commission.
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Importantly, DOJ and the Department of Public Health and Human Services have been working on an agreement that would allow the commission to be attached to DOJ, even if federal funding has to go through the health department. This interdepartmental cooperation is crucial and commendable.
Leaders of the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence as well as the Montana Medical Association supported Kelker’s bill at a House committee hearing last week. Maurita Johnson, CFSD administrator, and her predecessor, Sarah Corbally, both spoke in favor. Kelker carried a similar bill in 2015; it died in committee.
“It is time for more transparency in CPS (child protection) in Montana, both externally and internally,” said Jani McCall, of Billings, who served on the Protect Montana Kids Commission, and is lobbying for Montana children’s services providers. “This commission will yield better information to improve services for children.”
Improvement will also require adequate resources. The number of child protection cases in Montana District Courts has doubled in the past five years. The number of child protection workers has not, resulting in caseworkers who are responsible for two or three times the maximum number of children deemed safe and effective by national standards. In Yellowstone County alone, new civil child protection filings increased from 143 children in 2010 to 531 in 2016.
The appropriations subcommittee started the 2017 budgeting process by proposing to cut funds that equate to nine children protection workers. This cut should not even be considered.
The 3,400 Montana kids in foster care need every CFSD worker we’ve got and need all of them to do their jobs very well. When abused and neglected children — and their parents — get the attention and services they need quicker, there’s greater probability of safe reunification. An overloaded system often strands kids for months because the people who are supposed to help are too busy with too many children.
We call on Montana lawmakers to approve the child abuse and neglect review commission in HB303.
We call on lawmakers to fully fund the life-saving work of CFSD so that the new commission will have fewer cases of child abuse deaths and serious injuries to investigate.