HELENA — When parents lose custody of their children due to abuse or neglect, their grandparents often step in to scoop up the pieces. In Montana, dozens of those grandparents have organized to push back against a state agency they say has shut them out as caregivers and sometimes has placed children with parents they don’t know.
A network of 24 grandparents has staged protests across Montana, told their stories to lawmakers and enlisted at least one former legislator to lobby state officials on their behalf. Months into their campaign, Gov. Steve Bullock plans to meet with them about their concerns, spokesman Dave Parker said.
Sarah Corbally, administrator of Montana Child and Family Services, insists that the agency complies with a state policy, endorsed by the courts, requiring the placement of a child with a biological parent unless a caseworker finds good cause to recommend otherwise.
“We can’t say, ‘I’m sorry, but I think the grandparent is the better placement,'” Corbally said.
But the grandparents’ network says the system is broken.
“I am like a bulldog,” grandmother Patsy Fercho said. “My teeth are clenched and I’m not letting go.”
Fercho, who lives in eastern Montana, is fighting an agency recommendation and a judge’s order that her grandsons be placed out of state with their birth father. The boys had been living with Fercho after their mother lost custody due to drug use.
Child and Family Services officials declined to speak about Fercho’s or any other case, citing confidentiality laws.
In north-central Montana, John “Jay” Walton is fighting the placement of his grandson with the boy’s father. However, a judge granted restraining orders forbidding Walton from contacting three caseworkers and the boy’s father. The agency also cut off contact with his grandson and two other children taken from Walton’s daughter due to drug use.
Walton complained to the agency’s ombudsman, but the ombudsman’s supervisor advised him the case was closed.
“Everybody keeps saying, ‘They can’t do that,’ but they do,” Walton said.
Again, confidentiality laws ban agency officials from commenting publicly on his complaints. They note state policy is to compel a parent “to perform the moral and legal duty owed to the child,” making non-custodial parents the first placement option unless a caseworker finds the child’s safety would be endangered.
The Child and Family Services’ policy manual says “extended family members do not have priority over placement with the child’s noncustodial parent,” and that a birth parent’s rights can’t be abridged by relatives arguing for the best interests of the child.
Some observers attribute the grandparents’ complaints to agency struggles to manage a caseload that has grown by 20 percent in the past two years, in part to methamphetamine use by parents. Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesman Jon Ebelt said Montana has about 2,500 children in foster care.
At the same time, the annual turnover rate for Child and Family Services employees is 22 percent. That’s down from 42 percent in recent years but is still too high, Corbally said. The agency is trying to improve recruitment and retention of high quality employees and prevent burnout, she said.
The protesters have the attention of lawmakers who pledge to boost agency funding — but not until Montana’s 2017 legislative session.
This year, lawmakers approved $3 million and permission to use $1.35 million in federal money over the next two years to make permanent some caseworker positions that had been temporarily funded since 2013 and for other purposes.
“I see this as one of the agencies that constantly gets money cut from it and it’s totally unjustified,” said Democratic Rep. Kim Dudik of Missoula, a member of the Legislative committee.