Montana’s child protection system is overloaded with kids needing care outside of unsafe homes.
The state will bring together 14 Montana child safety experts from diverse backgrounds to scrutinize some of the worst cases and to recommend better measures for prevention. The commission was created by the Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock through a bill sponsored by Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings.
A key to the legislation’s passage was good cooperation between the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, an executive branch department led by Bullock, and the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Tim Fox. The Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission will be part of DOJ, but its federal funding will be passed through DPHHS. The commission will have negligible cost to the state budget. In the long term, the knowledge and recommendations of the panel should help save children and money.
“This is a bipartisan effort and I’m confident this team will have a positive impact on Montana’s most vulnerable children,” Bullock said in announcing his appointments last week.
“Montana’s communities have experienced an alarming trend in the number of child abuse and neglect cases in recent years,” said Fox. As Fox noted, the majority of child abuse and neglect cases in Montana involve parental substance abuse, particularly methamphetamine. Domestic violence and untreated mental illnesses also are frequent factors.
The law spells out qualifications for appointments that have now been made by the governor and the attorney general. Bullock appointed:
• Georgia Cady, of Tumbleweed Runaway Program in Billings.
• Abby Eyre, a therapist working with trauma survivors and victims of domestic violence.
• Nichole Griffith, with Victim-Witness Assistance Services.
• Mary Pat Hansen, of St. Patrick Hospital.
• Laura Weiss Smith, deputy director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
• Arlene Templer, director of the Department of Human Resource Development for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
• Jenn Wihlborg, of AWARE, Inc.
• Traci Shinabarger, Office of Child and Family Ombudsman.
• Dan Mayland, Gallatin County sheriff’s detective.
• Katherine “Kitty” Curtis, Retired District Court Judge, Flathead County.
• Scott Pederson, a guardian ad litem for Yellowstone County.
• Shonna Larkey, a licensed foster parent.
• Sasha Joseph Neulinger, survivor of child abuse.
• Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City.
The commission will review trends, examine patterns of child fatalities and near fatalities, educate the public, service providers and policymakers about child abuse and neglect, and provide a written report to inform state policy decisions.
We commend the commission members who will volunteer their time to help protect Montana’s kids.
The number of children at risk is staggering and unprecedented. In Yellowstone County alone, the county attorney’s office has filed for the protection of 410 children since Jan. 1. That’s 75 more children than in the first eight months of 2016. In all of 2016, there were 531 child abuse and neglect cases — 114 more than in 2015.
Montana must reverse this terrible trend. Montanans must find more effective ways to prevent abuse and neglect. The Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission is one step toward well-informed policies to reduce the number of kids who are unsafe at home.