New panel looks into child deaths

HELENA (AP) — A new panel has begun looking into recent deaths of children in Montana’s child protective services system.

The Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission, which held its first meeting Thursday, is believed to be the first in the U.S. with the power to dig deep into how those deaths happen, the Helena Independent Record reports.

State lawmakers established the commission last year amid frustration that 28 children since 2015 had died since coming to the attention of Montana’s Child and Family Services Division.

The public portion of the first meeting focused in part on how the commission will decide which deaths it will review. The commission has until August to write a plan to reduce child abuse and neglect over five years.

Commission members include doctors, a tribal representative, child advocates and a former judge.

The panel is similar to the state Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission. The coordinator of that commission, Matthew Dale, told the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission it could expect heightened attention.

“Your team is the only team that has the opportunity to review these cases at a depth that you have,” Dale said. “You will have lots of attention paid to you both in the state but lots of other places as well.”

Dale’s team has been reviewing domestic abuse deaths since 2003.

The new panel will operate under strict secrecy. Meetings and records will be exempt under Montana’s open meetings and public records laws.

Commission members who violate confidentiality can be removed from the panel and face a civil penalty of up to $500.

Also, the commission’s work won’t be subject to subpoena or discovery in a court case and could only be reviewed by a judge behind closed doors. The judge would rule on whether information could be released.

The number of children in foster care in Montana increased more than 12 percent from 2015 to 2016 and reached about 3,300 last year. In a recent legislative audit, the health department attributed some of that increase to turnover among caseworkers.

In 2013, the Legislature established an ombudsman office to report on the number of deaths of children in contact with child protective services. The ombudsman does not review specific cases in detail.

The Protect Montana Kids Commission established in 2015 examines problems with the state’s child protective services and foster care systems but also doesn’t look specifically at child deaths.

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