Today, a so-called Bill of Rights for kids in foster care and the parents that take care of them got its first hearing in the state legislature. Although guidelines outlining those rights already exist now, they’re just administrative policy and not a part of state law.
House Bill 182 would codify a list of policy rules for Montana’s foster care system. It says kids must be informed about what is happening to them; that they can socialize, go to church, they have a right to contact people outside the foster system and receive quality medical care, be treated like any other kid.
The bill’s sponsor Frank Garner, a Republican from Kalispell says making these requirements part of Montana law, shows support for improving the state’s struggling foster care system.
"This is about us as a body, as a policy making group, saying these are the expectations we have for one of the most important assets in our state: our foster families and our foster kids," says Garner.
But, the bill doesn’t give foster kids or foster parents new ways to sue if they believe their rights have been violated. A representative from Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, which oversees the foster care system, told lawmakers that they would encourage an amendment, which would allow bill of rights complaints to be filed through the health department’s grievance process.
Crystal LaMere, from Great Falls, testified in support of the bill today in the House State Administration Committee. LaMere was in the state’s foster care for five years before she recently aged-out after turning 18-years old. She says it was mostly a good experience, and for the better part of her time in the foster care, she was treated like a regular kid.
But LaMere says she should have been given more of a voice in what happened to her while she was in the system.
"I was in one foster placement, and the only social interaction I was able to have was when I was at church," says LaMere. "I only got to see people while I was at church. I remember being placed in a group home in Billings, I told my case working I didn’t feel safe being there because I knew of the stories of there. And she put me there anyways. And three days after I was there I attempted suicide."
After she got out of the hospital, LaMere says her caseworker wanted to put her back in the same home. LaMere protested, but she says her caseworker insisted.
"In the system you feel like less of a person because your family, technically, disowns you," LaMere says. "And you see all these other families and you wonder, ‘why can’t I have that?’ I just think it is important for foster kids to have the same rights other kids have, because we're kids. We’re the same thing, same people, just part of the state."
The bill comes out of the Protect Montana Kids Commission created in 2015 by Governor Steve Bullock. No one testified against it during its first hearing. Although, some lawmakers questioned if this bill would create more work for already burdened caseworkers.
Sheila Hogan, recently appointed Director of Montana’s Department of Health and Human Services, doesn’t expect this legislation to make caseworker’s jobs more difficult. She says her department is building a new system to help caseworkers with their paperwork.
"We will have a case management system that will help with the stacks of paperwork," says Hogan. "It will be a tool for the people in the field, so it will be less of a paperwork chase and more of a one-on-one relationship communication."
Hogan says the new case management system is expected to be ready in October. There are 3,454 kids in foster care in Montana, as of this month.