Several bills introduced in Montana’s state legislature could significantly narrow the front door to foster care. House BIll 37 by Churchill area Republican Rep. Jennifer Carlson would require a warrant to remove a child from home, except in cases where a child is at imminent risk of abuse.
The bill would also change the definition of abuse and neglect, explicitly laying out that substance use, “disorderly living conditions,” or poverty-related factors do not alone constitute abuse or neglect.
The head of the state’s child welfare agency, Nikki Grossberg, spoke in opposition of the bill during a lengthy legislative hearing, arguing that the agency already only removes children under exigent circumstances and that the requirement to get a warrant would hamper their ability to protect children. Grossberg said the agency has successfully worked to divert families away from foster care, resulting in reduced removals over the last five years.
There were roughly 2,900 youth in foster care in Montana last year, down by around 1,000 since 2017, according to data compiled by The Imprint.
This bill advanced through its first committee this week with bipartisan support. It was amended to remove a prior requirement of police presence at every child removal.
“We can no longer operate a child removal system that wrongfully splits up families,” Democratic state Rep. Danny Tenenbaum said at the bill’s hearing.
Meanwhile, a bill from Republican Sen. Dennis Lenz of Billings that aimed to prevent anonymous reports to the state’s child abuse hotline was voted down.
Carlson is carrying another bill that proposes changes to the emergency hearing process in child welfare cases with an aim of getting parents actively involved earlier on. House Bill 16 would require an emergency hearing within 72 hours of removal, and would make available to all parents a pre-conference hearing that addresses the reasons for removal, possible in-home safety plan interventions, parenting schedules and treatment plans for the family.