Two bills aimed at improving how child protective services in Montana work took steps forward in the Capitol on Thursday, including legislation to require warrants for removals unless there's an emergency, while another aimed at eliminating anonymous reports of suspected abuse or neglect was voted down.
A bill that came out of nearly two years worth of work done by lawmakers and others involved in child protection services during the interim was passed out of committee after some major amendments.
“This bill will be a huge win for children and families and a giant step towards improving Montana’s child welfare system,” said Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Churchill, after her House Bill 37 passed out of a committee on an 18-1 bipartisan vote.
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“This bill is the result of nearly two years of legislative committee work — and many years of legwork by legislators before that. I am very encouraged to finally have broad bipartisan support for child welfare reform,” Carlson continued.
During its initial hearing last week, those who testified both in support and against the bill reiterated they all shared the same goals of keeping kids safe and working to reunify families but they differed on the best ways to achieve that. Amendments to Carlson’s bill on Thursday were intended to address the concerns raised by opponents.
One amendment changed the bill from saying that emergency removals without a warrant could only happen if a child was at risk of sexual abuse or serious bodily injury to a threshold of sexual abuse and physical abuse.
The change came over concern that some types of abuse could have fallen through the cracks because of how serious bodily injury is defined in law. Supporters of the amendment said physical abuse is still a very high standard.
Another amendment changed the bill to no longer require a police officer to be present during some types of removals. During the bill’s hearing, there were concerns that the presence of law enforcement could elevate tensions during a removal from a home and that local law enforcement offices would not have enough resources
Another change was meant to alleviate concerns from court-appointed special advocates and guardian ad litems about a proposal in the bill that would have limited the amount of information they could receive about a case. The amendment removed that limitation on access.
Another major change in an amendment from Carlson offered a compromise between the bill’s original goal of holding an initial court hearing within 72 hours of removal and the five days previously proposed.
Under the change, emergency protective services hearings would happen within three business days of removal, with a delayed effective day so that courts would have time to prepare.
“This would give some time to implement what I believe, what most people believe, is the best. The sooner we can have judicial oversight, that is the better, (but we also are recognizing) sometimes things move at the speed of government,” Carlson said.
Carlson added she was not a big fan of the change, but that she thought it was “a compromise that allows the very important parts of this bill to move forward.”
In the Senate, lawmakers split on bills from Sen. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, voting down one that would have eliminated anonymous reporting of suspected abuse and neglect cases and advancing another that would improve the process for legislators who are allowed to review documents about abuse and neglect cases.
On a 19-31 vote the Senate halted the progress of Senate Bill 114, which would have eliminated anonymous reporting for suspected abuse and neglect. On the Senate floor, Lez said he had concerns that many anonymous calls are not investigated, meaning they might be done in retribution and not because of actual suspected abuse.
But Sens. Walt Sales, Jeff Welborn and Wendy McKamey, all Republicans, shared concerns citing personal situations that they said would possibly let abuse continue if not for anonymous reporting.
Welborn said while he felt Lenz’s bill was well-intended, it would have bad consequences and pointed to abuse or neglect he’d observed while doing his job as an auctioneer that involved going out to people’s homes. He said he witnessed bad situations he would not have been able to report if he couldn't do so anonymously.
But on a 49-1 vote the Senate advanced on second reading Lenz’s Senate Bill 116, which builds upon a past bill that gives lawmakers the ability to review case records if a family requests it. The bill would let lawmakers take notes to discuss what they read with families, among other changes to the timeline for the health department to provide the information. Lawyers must agree to confidentiality for what they view otherwise.
In initial hearings for two more of Lenz’s bills this week, he advocated for legislation that would block drug testing from being a requirement in a treatment plan during a child abuse and neglect case, unless the court finds that substance use contributed to the child's removal. There were no opponents to the bill and the state health department, which is tasked with child protective services, spoke in support of it.
Another bill would say child support payments to the state for children entering foster care may only happen in very rare circumstances that would not impede reunification or a successful placement for a child.