HELENA — The Protect Montana Kids Commission is recommending the state create a panel to review child fatalities or near fatalities that occur due to abuse and neglect, examine any trends, educate the public about prevention and recommend policies and practices that might help reduce such occurrences.
Gov. Steve Bullock created the Protect Montana Kids Commission in September in response to complaints about Child and Family Services. He charged its members with several responsibilities including making recommendations to bring more transparency to the system and bring state laws in line with federal requirements and best practices.
The Child and Family Services Division had asked the 2015 Legislature to create the child fatality review commission to meet a federal mandate and to avoid the potential loss of $212,000 in federal funding. The bill died in the House Judiciary Committee.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the Protect Montana Kids Commission also recommended adding to state law the federal definition of “reasonable and prudent parenting,” with regard to children in foster care. It allows foster parents more discretion in allowing their foster children to participate in typical childhood activities without being required to get approval from a caseworker.
Other measures would seek more consistency in the handling of child abuse cases in court, including setting timelines for treatment plans and other hearings. Another would allow open adoptions of children who are removed from their parents’ custody out of respect to Native American culture, which does not believe in the termination of parental rights.
Attorney Matt Lowy recommended that lawmakers clarify that mandatory reporters of child abuse are required to make a report even if they don’t know all the information about the child, such as their address.
The current law says reports must contain the name and addresses of the child and the child’s parents or other persons responsible for the child’s care, and to the extent known the child’s age, nature and extent of injuries and any other pertinent information. Lowy said the “must contain” part was creating a loophole that was preventing some reporting.
The commission also recommends clarifying that judges should appoint an attorney to advocate on a child’s behalf in abuse or neglect cases, if the child can express his or her wishes.
Commission members will discuss their recommendations for changes in policies, workforce culture and best practices at meetings in April and May. Bullock extended the committee’s deadline for making recommendations from March 31 to May 31.
Recommendations from Protect Montana Kids Commission will be reviewed by the governor’s office and the Department of Public Health and Human Services, with some drafted into proposed legislation and others considered for policy changes.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.