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Montana is the child removal capital of America, and that’s bad for children

by Richard Wexler
| January 30, 2022 12:00 AM

Auditors for the Montana Legislature have now made clear that Montana’s “child welfare” system is not about children and does not promote their welfare. Perhaps now, thanks to a performance audit of the Child and Family Services Division, lawmakers will face up to the harm done by Montana’s dubious distinction, child removal capital of America.

The audit reveals that Montana’s extreme outlier status does not keep children safe, and it reveals that the all-purpose knee-jerk excuse from CFSD – it’s drugs, you know – doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

But the report is mistaken in suggesting that if everyone just got the paperwork in order and understood the “practice model” things would change. Saving Montana children from their saviors requires much more.

Montana’s outlier status is even worse than the audit suggests. When you zero-in on the number of children each state takes away during the course of a year and factor-in rates of child poverty, Montana tears apart families at, by far, the highest rate in America. – a rate well over triple the national average, and more than quadruple the rate in places that are, relatively speaking, national models for keeping children safe. (If you don’t factor in poverty, Montana is merely second-worst in America.) As the audit points out, there is no evidence that Montana children are three times safer than the national average.

The problem with all this is not that it hurts parents, though of course it does, the problem is that it hurts children.

The typical cases that dominate CFSD caseloads are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.” Other cases fall between the extremes. We saw how much separation from everyone he or she knows and loves can traumatize a child when it happened at the Mexican border. Though CFSD workers mean well, the trauma is no different in Montana.

So it’s no wonder study after study finds that in typical cases children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

That harm occurs even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than agencies like CFSD typically acknowledge. Multiple studies found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

Even that isn’t the worst of it. The more that workers are overwhelmed with false allegations, poverty cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find the relatively few children in real danger. That’s almost always the real reason for the horror stories about children left in dangerous homes. Montana’s worst-in-the-nation take-the-child-and-run approach makes all children less safe.

Yes, all this applies when the issue is substance use – as we know from what happened during a previous “Worst Drug Plague Ever,” crack cocaine. Researchers found that actual physical development of infants born with cocaine in their systems was better when those infants were left with mothers able to care for them, rather than placed in foster care. More recently, the Missoulianand University of Montana journalism students teamed up to out-report some of America’s largest news organizations and bring readers a true understanding of how the same sort of harm is done to children of mothers who use opioids. That’s why in most cases, where substance use really impairs parenting, drug treatment for the parent is a better option than foster care for the child.

In any event, Montana’s rush to tear apart families is so extreme that even if the scourge of drug use were eliminated tomorrow and no child needed to be taken, Montana still would be taking children at double the national average.

Another crucial omission from the audit is any mention of the racial bias that plagues child welfare in Montana – and everywhere else. In Montana, Native American children are 10% of the child population – but one-third of the children in foster care.

So any real change must be built around providing concrete help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty – even small amounts of money make a huge difference – and facing up to racism.

But it also requires something else, due process of law. The power of police in blue uniforms is nothing compared to the power of the “family police” from CFSD. They have the power to walk into any home in Montana and walk right out with the child – all they have to do is say it’s an “emergency.” If that child is lucky, his parents may get a hearing in a week where they can fight to get the child back – more likely it will be at least three weeks. That is an eternity for a young child. Even after three weeks, the family is likely to be represented by an overwhelmed public defender they may have just met who can offer nothing more than: “Jump through CFSD’s hoops if you ever want to see your child again.”

Real change requires high-quality family defense, a model that has been shown to reduce needless foster care with no compromise of child safety – not by getting “bad parents” off, but by coming up with better options than the cookie-cutter “service plans” often doled out by agencies like CFSD. And, because foster care is expensive, this kind of defense adds no additional cost for states.

Make these changes, and Montana could someday earn another distinction: National model for getting child welfare right.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org