Lawmakers hear emotional testimony on child protective services bills

(UM Legislative News Service) In a four-hour hearing Thursday, Montana lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee heard emotional testimony for three different bills that would make it more difficult for state Child and Family Services Division to remove a child from his or her home.

Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, is carrying House Bill 408, House Bill 409, and House Bill 410. He said in the hearing for the first bill that the state is removing too many children from their families.

“We lead the way in taking kids away from their parents,” Lenz said.

HB 408 would require that a child be at risk of serious bodily harm, malnutrition or starvation before he or she can be removed from a home.

Matt Furlong from the Montana Child Protection Alliance spoke in support of the bill. He said he hears grievances from parents of being dissatisfied with foster care, being poorly treated by agency staff and wrongful convictions of abuse.

A number of parents who had children taken away spoke in support of the bill, many saying the removal did more damage than good for their families.

One mother, Deirdre Lechowski Mercado, said her family is still dealing with the fallout from CFSD intervention.

“It traumatized my family to such a degree that my youngest daughter is emotionally disturbed,” Mercado said.

However, opponents to the bill argued that the requirement HB 408 would implement for child removal would put the most vulnerable children at risk.

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said the legislation would “improperly and unduly” hurt children in the state. He said he is sympathetic to the pain parents who lose custody of their children feel, but it’s not his greatest concern.

“I grieve a little bit more for these children in these homes where investigations have to be done,” Lambert said.

Valerie Winfield, a prosecutor of child abuse cases in Cascade County, pointed to the legal definition of serious bodily harm in her testimony against the bill. She said a broken arm, broken teeth, head trauma, sexual abuse and drug abuse are all conditions that are not included in the bill’s definition serious bodily harm.

Winfield said under this bill, children would have to suffer permanent damage before CFSD could intervene.

The committee will have to vote on all three bills individually to decide whether to allow the full House to debate them.

Shaylee Ragar and Tim Pierce are reporters with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at shaylee.ragar@umontana.edu. Tim can be reached at tim.pierce@umontana.edu.