Last September, Governor Steve Bullock created the Protect Montana Kids Commission to address growing concerns over the state’s child abuse and neglect caseload.
People in the system have long been complaining that state courts are overwhelmed with the number of incoming child abuse and neglect cases. And the director of the state agency that handles foster care cases says they're understaffed and need more resources to support the number of kids in care.
On Thursday, the Commission spent the afternoon listening to stories of child abuse, abandonment and neglect from six kids who have gone through the state’s foster system.
They’re the first youth to testify before the Commission. Here's a glimpse of what their stories sounded like:
Gabrielle Wheeler from Missoula is 17 years old.
“So my bedroom was actually in the hallway, and I just laid a cot down and I would sleep on that," Wheeler told the commission. "My dad came out one morning and I was there, and he was really mad, so it got taken out on me. So it, I reacted for the first time.
"My mom came out, woke up, woke everybody up in the house and they said if you can't obey our rules we're going to send you away," Wheeler continued. "And I was like ‘what rules?' They had me pack my bags and they said they were taking me to an adoption center. At 13 that was really scary. I was just really confused about what was happening, so I just sat in the back seat, like, I couldn't believe it was actually happening like that.
"Growing up with by biological parents was a struggle and there were lots of trials because, like I said, they were abusive. And (Child Protective Services) turned up saying there was nothing - that the house was clean and there was food in the cupboards, and there weren't any visible bruises and so they couldn’t do anything."
Isaac Brito from Florida is 18 years old.
“I was really dumbfounded why basically the complete opposite of everything I asked for happened," he said.
"My mother sent me a transcript of the court case, and it turned out that because my caseworker was such good friends with my grandparents, she completely lied about everything I told her, that she said she would advocate for me and said the complete opposite. The whole idea of the court process was really intimidating to me."
Shalbilyn TallWhiteman went through the foster system on the Blackfeet reservation.
“I know that tribal law is very different than state law," she said, "but I just don’t think it is fair. I mean, I'm an American citizen right? I deserve to have a (court-appointed special advocate) or an attorney. I just don’t think that me or reservation kids are protected.”
Crystal LaMere from Great Falls is 17 years old.
“The hardest part," she said, "is you get attached to somebody and they leave. I’ve had so many caseworkers since I’ve been in the system, and it's like I can't get close to them because every time I get close to one of them they just leave again. So, I’m really having a hard time trying to trust caseworkers now.”
Shea Lachman is 19 years old.
“In a perfect world, I wouldn't think that foster care should be here, of course. But I really, really, think that when you are training your foster parents and what not, that love and unconditional love is a really, really, great, key component to raising a child," Lachman said.
"I feel like growing up and making sure every single child is loved and taken care of to the best of their abilities is most important, and will help them grow into a better person and have healthy relationships. ”
Charlie Heil from Missoula is 18 years old.
“I was placed in care at 16 and I was only in a group home for a month. And I’ve lived with the same foster family for coming up on two years this May.
"I feel like I’ve had a really different experience in foster care than what their stories are because my foster parents are amazing and I love them - they’re awesome. And I’ve had a great case worker, I’ve had two great case workers. I had a great therapist and (court appointed special advocate) worker and attorney. So, I don’t have a big story or anything.”
All the young people who testified are members of the Montana Foster Youth Advisory Board.
Governor Steve Bullock recently extended the Protect Montana Kids Commission’s deadline to submit recommendations to state leaders on ways to improve the state’s child protection system. That deadline is May 31.
The Commission next meets on March 16.