Officials directly involved in the child welfare system in Montana have long been searching for a response to the fast-rising number of children who fall into foster care, and now lawmakers are going to study two of the more promising pilot programs courts have used to try to address the increase and improve the outcome for the children.
To understand the severity of the problem, consider that a legislative services study released in August 2020 found that 2,357 kids entered out-of-home care in 2019, compared with 995 in 2010. By studying the pilot programs, lawmakers hope to better understand why child removals have soared and what measures they might take to support efforts to ease the strain on the system.
In one of the court innovations the work group will study, participating judges in Yellowstone County hold an “emergency protective services” hearing with the parents (and other interested parties) within 72 hours of a child being removed from their home — the standard in most states. Current Montana law gives judges 20 days to set up a hearing.
One goal is to keep birth parents engaged by letting them meet their attorneys earlier in the process. The pilot court also seeks to accelerate access to a family dynamics evaluation, substance abuse evaluation and, if necessary, treatment services. The hope is that these services will allow family reunification within 20 days, which would reduce truma for all family members and ease the burden on the foster care system.
The second pilot program to be studied, which is in use in several counties, brings together parents, state investigators, attorneys on both sides and court appointed advocates for a mediated pre-hearing conference about what is in the best interest of the child who has been removed for reasons of neglect or abuse. This meeting takes place before any court hearing, and no judge is present. The government-paid mediator’s role is to act as a neutral arbiter to bring the group to a consensus about what steps will be required for the child’s return home.
The legislative working group will include lawmakers from both parties, state health leaders, a judge, a prosecutor, a public defender and other experts.