Montana baby welfare reforms obtain bipartisan help

A stack of child welfare reforms sailed through major votes in the House and Senate this week as the 68th Legislature steadily progresses through its 90-day session.

The bills dealing with child neglect and abuse removals, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, and Sen. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, are not the only proposals introduced so far or expected in coming months. But the bipartisan approval of the measures indicates an interest in reforming Montana’s child protective system. The state’s rate of child removals is more than double the national average, according to the most recently available data.

The trend of late-January bill passages kicked off with the unanimous approval on Wednesday of House Bill 37, the product of nearly two years of lawmaker study and a heavy round of revisions after its first committee hearing this month.

“We know that removing children from their home is a traumatic experience. We know that children involved in the foster care system have worse outcomes in education, mental health, judicial involvement. And we want to do the best thing for children and families,” Carlson said on the house floor. “One of the best things we can do for children is to have them stay in their home when it is safe for them to do so.”

As amended, the bill requires state child protective workers to obtain a warrant from a district court judge to remove a child, unless in high-risk circumstances of physical or sexual abuse. HB 37 also stipulates that “substance use by a parent or guardian, disorderly living conditions, other factors closely related to economic status, or a child’s obesity do not alone constitute physical or psychological harm to a child.”

The bill would mandate that children be represented in court proceedings by an attorney and create a timeline for the state to hold an initial hearing within three days of a child’s removal, beginning in 2025. Another bill that passed the House week, House Bill 16, schedules hearings within five business days of a removal and would require statewide pre-hearing conferences with parents, attorneys and other stakeholders, starting this summer.

Democrats expressed support for both HB 16 and HB 37 on Wednesday, saying the bills represent both parties’ shared values ​​around protecting children and families, upholding due process, and ensuring the state’s child welfare system is operating with integrity.

“Families are best when they’re kept together,” said Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston. “And when a removal needs to happen, everyone is due that process that helps them know that this has been vetted and that they’re going to know the full reason why those children were removed as soon as possible, and have an opportunity to enter into the process for reunification.”

In the Senate, the majority of lawmakers have voted in favor of 11 bills sponsored by Lenz that would reform various parts of the child welfare system. Only one proposal to eliminate anonymous reporting of child abuse and neglect, Senate Bill 114, has so far failed to pass muster on the Senate floor.

On Thursday, Republicans and Democrats approved another much-watched bill to tighten the definitions of psychological abuse and neglect in child protective cases. After incorporating amendments raised during the bill’s committee hearing, Senate Bill 115 would require those conditions to be identified by a licensed psychologist, professional counselor, clinical social worker, psychiatrist, pediatrician or nurse practitioner with a focus in psychiatry.

The bill’s expanded list of licensed practitioners was requested by the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence after the group raised concerns that qualified health care providers might be limited in some parts of the state, leading to a delay in necessary child removals.

“We certainly do not believe that this has solved the tremendous problem of access to health care services for children throughout Montana, but at least the list is more expansive than it was originally and children have a better chance to be identified and provided protection,” said Beth Brenneman, a coalition lobbyist, in a Thursday statement.

SB 115 passed with just two dissenting votes.

Another bill, Senate Bill 151, would direct the state health department to limit the circumstances in which parents would be obligated to pay child support to the health department when their child is in foster care. In comments on the Senate floor Thursday, Lenz said the proposal is designed to lessen the financial burdens of already struggling families.

“Often they end up being impoverished by this. They’re required to pay child support and other things,” Lenz said. “The intent with this is not to defeat the person.”

On the Senate floor, some Democrats interpreted the bill as still being overly burdensome for poor families and leaving open the possibility of child support payments being required, though Lenz said that was not the case.

That measure elicited the most opposition of any child welfare reform that lawmakers considered that day. It passed 31-18 with Democrats and some Republicans opposed.

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