McGrath: Revise Laws Protecting Children
HELENA – In a speech to the Montana Leadership Summit on the Protection of Children, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath today called for a thorough review and revamping of state laws meant to protect abused and neglected Montana children.
The summit – subtitled “Children Can’t Wait” – is aimed at improving consistency, continuity and uniformity of child-protective court practices statewide. It was sponsored by the Montana Supreme Court, the Office of the Public Defender, the Department of Public Health and Human Services and the Attorney General’s Office.
The 1999 Legislature approved the creation of a Child Protection Unit within the Department of Justice. The unit includes two attorneys in Billings with 115 open cases and two in Missoula with 116 open cases. The unit’s mission is to resolve the legal status of children who have been in foster care for more than 15 out of the most recent 22 months. Under federal law, Montana must file petitions to terminate parental rights in such cases.
“Too often, this system is confrontational,” McGrath said, “and that is seldom the best way to help a child. Attorneys for the state are pitted against attorneys for the parents, and it encourages the most extreme positions, rather than focusing on what is best for the child.”
McGrath’s office has proposed to the Interim Legislative Committee on Children, Families, Health and Human Services that Montana review the laws that govern child protective services.
“It’s time to streamline and simplify Montana law so the court system can work for kids,” McGrath said. “This should be the means to the end, not the end itself.
“As they are now, Montana’s child-protection laws are often unreadable and unworkable,” he said. “Attorneys struggle to try to make sense out of them, which means that a parent or volunteer advocate often has no chance of understanding them.”
McGrath said the state must address delays caused by attorneys in the form of unnecessary continuances; it must improve timely access to information for parents, investigators and children’s advocates; it must clarify the roles of guardians ad litem, special advocates and attorneys, and reduce “dead time” between adjudication and the eventual termination of parental rights.
“Kids shouldn’t be kept waiting while attorneys try to work around parts of the law that are at odds with each other,” McGrath said. “For the kids who are left waiting, this time is tragic.”