Gazette opinion: Standing up for abused Montana kids

April 14, 2017

The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office has filed court cases for the protection of 135 children since Jan. 1, according to District Court records.

Last year, the office filed civil abuse and neglect cases involving 531 Yellowstone County children — 114 more than in 2015. These numbers show that abuse and neglect of children is a huge problem in Montana’s most populous county.

The 2017 Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock have addressed the child abuse/neglect epidemic by enacting several changes in Montana law. Additional changes are needed before the Legislature adjourns in the next couple of weeks.

But those new laws alone won’t reduce the caseload that results from threats to the lives and health of thousands of Montana’s children. Parental drug abuse, domestic violence and untreated mental illness are major factors. Many parents who fail to provide safe homes for their kids grew up in dysfunctional families. Child neglect and abuse can pass from generation to generation. One crucial step in breaking that cycle is to address those contributing factors.

Montanans can’t simply guess what will help; we have limited resources and children are hurting right now. We must use prevention programs that have been shown to measurably improve the lives of children. For example: The Family Tree Center, the Billings Exchange Clubs’ Child Abuse Prevention Center, uses such “best practices” to help parents learn to deal with challenges and parent safely.

Stacy Dreessen of Family Tree Center notes the dramatic increase in substantiated child abuse and neglect cases: 1,052 statewide in 2014, 2359 cases in 2016. Nowhere has the increase been more severe than in Yellowstone County. According to the Montana Child and Family Services Division, Yellowstone County had 477 child abuse/neglect cases in fiscal 2016. The county had 283 cases in the first six months of fiscal 2017, putting it on track for the worst year yet.

Family Tree Center teaches parenting classes in the community and at Montana Women’s Prison. The nonprofit organization offers home visits by trained parent mentors and provides child care while parents attend classes, search for jobs or go to medical appointments.

One bill that still needs approval would establish a child fatality and near fatality review commission. House Bill 303, sponsored by Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, would carry out recommendations from the Department of Justice and the Protect Montana Kids Commission appointed by the governor.

By authorizing an independent review of the worst cases, Montanans will learn more about the causes and prevention of child abuse. A similar commission reviewing domestic violence fatalities has generated important information for revising laws that deal with that common problem.

A federal grant will cover the relatively small cost of holding commission meetings once or twice a year and the costs associated with investigation. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is collaborating with the DOJ to make this accountability measure work.

We call on the House to accept the bill as amended in the Senate and to send it to the governor for his signature.

Earlier this week, Bullock signed four other bills recommended by the commission, and sponsored by Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad; and Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City. These new statutes aim to:

Expedite reunification, adoption or guardianship to provide permanent homes for children who have been neglected or abusedUse court appointed special advocates to speak up for each child.Require foster homes to support the child’s development with cultural, social and enriching activities.Give kids 14 and older more input into the court plan.Allow legislators to review confidential child welfare records for the purpose of evaluating the adequacy of laws and rules.

Bullock and legislators have made a good start to improve services to children and parents. In the contentious partisan atmosphere of the Montana Capitol, that’s a significant accomplishment.