As chairman of House Human Services Committee, I realize that there is a need for a good system of protection for our children in Montana. As many news sources opine, and as we know, there are children who need to be removed from their homes, at least for a time and sometimes permanently.
We also know that due process is not being met at times for some families.
Montana has an opioid and methamphetamine problem. The statistics are roughly the same for the surrounding states: North Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho. But Montana has a much higher percentage of children in foster care than our neighbors. Why is that?
In response to our statistically high removal of children, and the instances of families who have been unnecessarily or unreasonably traumatized by our system, I presented three bills in this legislative session. House Bill 408 would have set clearer parameters for the emergency removal of children, HB409 gave quicker response times in hearings, and a clear directive from Child and Family Services and the courts as to what parents need to do get their kids back home, and HB410, which would have required a higher expectation of continued education, accountability and transparency of social workers.
Our CFS workers have extremely high caseloads. One of the reasons is this abnormally high instance of child removal that puts too many children into the system. Another is the high turnover of CFS workers. These are internal problems within CFS which these bills would have helped, but certainly not solved.
It is frequently mentioned that removal is traumatic for children. This is very true, and likewise, is very traumatic for families as well. Often, families need help before a removal happens, which can be offered and given while the children remain in the home and can prevent that traumatic removal.
These removals take place across the spectrum of economic and social levels. One of our legislators asked the question of a lawyer during the committee hearing for these bills: “If I was wrongly accused of abuse of my daughter, and CFS showed up on my door, would I have to hand her over on the spot?” The answer was yes. (Note: if it were any other allegation regarding removal of anything but a child, it would require a court order/search warrant given in advance by a judge.)
This could happen to any one of us with minor children or grandchildren. Wouldn’t you want a system of good due process, a timely hearing to find out what you were accused of and a concrete plan to get your child back?
Many legislators across the state receive calls from parents who have allegedly been treated unjustly by the CFS department. The stories are many and varied, some egregious. There needs to be a legal process to address when the social worker/department oversteps their bounds and retaliates against parents who have a complaint — another issue brought up frequently.
One of the parents who brought testimony as a proponent to my bills stated that she was harassed the very next day by local case workers, even though the case had been closed for many years. This parent’s children were "interviewed" by CFS with loaded questions of how their parent treats them. I contacted the administrator of the department numerous times to speak to them about this, with no response. Just another problem.
This is a department with large responsibilities and large problems. We need to look at solutions that involve a review of all aspects. I look forward to continued discussions that address the needs and issues of the children and families of our state.