- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana lawmakers have opened debate on proposals that aim to help the state’s child foster care system and make the agency responsible for protecting neglected and abused kids more accountable.

Legislative committees held hearings Thursday and Friday on bills that would, in turn, strengthen the rights of the more than 3,400 foster children and their parents, and provide an alternative to foster care.

A third bill would allow lawmakers to view confidential case files held by the state Child and Family Services agency, under certain circumstances.

That bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, said his measure and other legislation recommended by the Protect Montana Kids Commission would address a problem that has reached crisis level. Other issues may be subject to partisan wrangling this legislative session, but not this one, he said.

“One thing we’re not going to do is we’re not going to make political points on a 6-year-old kid in a meth house who hasn’t had a meal in three days,” he said.

The Protect Montana Kids Commission was created by Gov. Steve Bullock last year after the state’s child protection agency came under heavy criticism for both wrongly removing children from their homes and failing to do so in dangerous situations. The 3,450 children in foster care is a record number for the state.

Since then, Child and Family Services has hired a new administrator, and the Department of Public Health and Human Services it operates under has a new director. The new CFS head, Maurita Johnson, said the agency supports Moore’s bill.

The measure would allow state lawmakers and Montana’s congressional delegation to view confidential files held by the agency if they receive a written inquiry about whether a child is being properly protected.

The measure would allow lawmakers to determine whether the agency is following the rules and better inform future policy decisions, Moore told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

On Thursday, the House State Administration Committee took up a Protect Montana Kids Commission bill that amounts to a declaration of rights for children and parents in the foster care system, the Great Falls Tribune reported.

The measure says kids should receive good care and treatment, be free from abuse and exploitation, receive a good education and health care. It also says foster parents should be treated with dignity, respect and trust, and be considered a member of a professional team caring for youth.

A bill heard Friday would change the law to allow a group called Safe Families for Children to operate in Montana as an alternative to the state’s foster care system. The Chicago-based organization arranges for parents in crisis to temporarily place their children with volunteer families, and it already operates in eight states, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Roger Web, R-Billings.

“It gives parents the right to exercise their parental rights without government interference,” Webb said.

Officials from the state health department said they were concerned about the bill’s lack of protections for children. Parents can already give friends and family members power of attorney for up to six months for short-term care of their children under state law, but the bill would allow that power of attorney to be renewed indefinitely without knowing how children are doing, department attorney Shannon McDonald said.

The measure includes no provisions for background checks or court oversight, she added.

“Unregulated transfers like this can put children in dangerous situations when they’re placed with unfit adults,” McDonald said.

No immediate action was taken on any of the bills.

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