House Supports Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission

Creating the 17-member Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission was the top recommendation of the Protect Montana Kids Commission

By Dillon Tabish

HELENA — Montana Representatives on Tuesday endorsed a bill that would create a commission to review child deaths and near deaths caused by abuse and neglect and make recommendations for changes in child protection policies and practices to prevent further injury and death.

Creating the 17-member Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission was the top recommendation of the Protect Montana Kids Commission, which was appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock to review the Division of Child and Family Services as it grappled with huge caseloads, employee turnover and a record number of children in foster care.

Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, said House Bill 303 would allow the review commission to gather information from state caseworkers along with doctors, law enforcement and community service groups to get a clearer picture of causes and possible interventions.

“We have to figure out why so we can stop it,” added Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula.

The state’s first-ever review looked at the deaths of 14 children between July 1, 2015, and Nov. 8, 2016, that had been the subject of a report to Child and Family Services within a year before they died. However, the Child and Family Services Ombudsman’s office did not have access to medical, law enforcement and service group information, leaving it unable to determine the cause of death in some cases.

The ombudsman’s report did give a list of red flags, where the presence of two or more should lead the state to give more credence to a report of child abuse or neglect. They include drug and alcohol abuse, a prior history with the agency, domestic violence and housing or other financial instability. The report also recommended more cooperation between the agency and the courts, law enforcement and physicians.

The Child and Family Services Division and the attorney general’s office support the bill. A similar measure was tabled in a legislative committee in 2015.

“The problem of child abuse in Montana is getting worse, not better,” Kelker said. “We missed our chance to create this commission last session, but I’m glad we’re on track to get it done this time. Montana’s children can’t wait.”

The bill passed the House 98-2 on second reading, with Republican Reps. Jeremy Trebas of Great Falls and Mike Hopkins of Missoula voting against it. A final vote was expected Wednesday.