Pre-Hearing Conference (PHC) Pilot Project

Pre-Hearing Conference (PHC) Pilot Project

The state of Montana is the legal parent to thousands of children because of allegations of abuse and neglect. Courts play a critical role in determining their future because once lawsuits alleging abuse or neglect are filed, courts ultimately decide what happens to the children. No child enters or leaves foster care without a court order. A judge decides where a child will live, with whom, and for how long.

In proportion to its population, Montana has a high number of children in foster care, totaling about 3,624 as of 12/31/19. As a result, child abuse and neglect cases are overwhelming the district courts in some judicial districts around the state.

According to a report from the Montana Supreme Court’s Office of the Court Administrator, the 1st Judicial District, Lewis and Clark County, had 41 abuse and neglect cases in 2010. In 2015, the number had risen to 141. In the 8th Judicial District, Cascade County, the number of cases increased from 166 to 386 in the same time period. Not only are the urban counties affected, but so are rural counties. For example, the 9th Judicial District, comprising Glacier, Pondera, Teton, and Toole counties, saw its abuse and neglect cases increase from 18 to 144 between 2010 and 2015.

To improve the court process for kids in the child welfare system, CIP developed and launched a pilot program called the pre-hearing conference (PHC) project, which operates in seven judicial districts in Montana.

Those districts are:

  • 1st J.D. – Lewis & Clark County
  • 2nd J.D. -- Butte-Silverbow County
  • 4th J.D. - Missoula County
  • 6th J.D. – Park and Sweetgrass counties
  • 11th J.D. – Flathead County
  • 13th J.D. - Yellowstone County
  • 18th J.D. – Gallatin County

At its most basic, a PHC is a conversation among the parties that occurs before the first court hearing. The participants consist of parents, Child and Family Services Division (CFSD) Child Protection Specialists (CPS), attorneys, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers, foster parents, family members, and children, if appropriate. The PHC’s are conducted by a neutral facilitator, who is paid by CIP. The facilitator’s role is to make sure everyone in the room can speak openly and honestly about the pending case. Facilitators are not allowed to give legal advice. Judges do not participate.

The purpose of the PHC is to talk about the four main issues in the case:

  1. The child’s placement
  2. Improved family time (visitation) between parent and child
  3. Treatment services for the family
  4. Conditions of return

PHC’s provide an opportunity for all parties to establish a mutual understanding of what is in the best interest of the children, and to begin working toward reunification of the family as a team. PHC’s seek to establish trust between the parties by fostering open discussions among them.

Besides introducing the parties and their roles as they relate to the children, and trying to move the process from adversarial to cooperative, the general goals of a pre-hearing conference include:

  • Identifying any needs or issues related to the children
  • Gathering input from family and friends concerning family history, safety issues, and support available to the family
  • Identifying possible relative and kin placements for children early in the case
  • Identifying possible relative and other resources for supervision of increased visitation (family time)
  • Identifying services the parents would agree to begin immediately
  • Discussing and reaching agreements regarding placement, family time, and services for the family
  • Establishing realistic conditions of return: Can the children safely return home? If not, what conditions must be met before they can safely return home?

The outcomes CIP hopes to achieve through the PHC pilot project are:

  1. Increased rate of family reunification
  2. Decreased number of days to effective resolution (the date on which the case is resolved in some manner)
  3. Increased buy-in from the parties by providing a safe and neutral environment
  4. Decreased judicial workload

As part of the PHC project, and in line with the federal Children’s Bureau’s requirements, CIP is collecting and analyzing data to determine whether cases are started and  completed in a timely manner with higher rates of return and placement with family. At the bottom of this page, in the "links" section, there are two PHC data analysis reports. One is a two-page summary, while the second is a longer report.

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  • 14 September 2017
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Next Questions and Setting Court Expectations 

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS FOR EVERY DN HEARING

Note: Montana has nearly the highest number of children in foster care in the nation relative to the state's population. In 2016, Montana had the highest rate of child removal in the country. In 2017, Montana had the second highest removal rate. We must do better to reduce removals, to reduce time in foster care and to strengthen and reunite families. If you do nothing else, ASK THESE QUESTIONS AT EVERY HEARING.


  1. Do you know or have reason to know that the child is an Indian child? What potential tribes?

     

  2. What has been done to prevent removal?

     

  3. What is being done to decrease the child's time in foster care?

     

  4. What are the specific safety issues preventing the child from being returned home today?

     

  5. What efforts has the Department made to place the child with a relative or kin (friend or other individual identified by parent)?

     

  6. How are the Department, parents, and others supporting stability for the child (in placement, school, etc.)?

     

  7. What other efforts must be made to support the child and promote timely permanency in case the safety issues cannot be ameliorated?

     

  8. Ask parent: How do you think things are going?

NEXT QUESTIONS AND SETTING COURT EXPECTATIONS

Note: Holding all parties accountable improves parent engagement and timely permanency. The following are suggested to develop a plan as to how the case will proceed, what is expected of each party, and the timeframe for completion of tasks and their review by the Court.


  1. What has been accomplished since the last hearing?
    1. Parent?
    2. Department?

     

  2. What is the plan for unsupervised visits?

    (Presumption that visits should be unsupervised can be changed only if substantial safety risks are present. A generalized belief the parent may not return the child or the parent has history of drug use, etc., is not enough to prevent unsupervised visits.)

  3. Can visitation be increased or less restrictive?

     

  4. Engage parents – ask:
    1. How do you think things are going? What do you think you need at this time?
    2. What do you think your child needs at this time?
    3. How can we be assured child will be safe with you during visits?
    4. Find out about parent's living, work, and family situations
    5. Do you understand what you need to do for child to be returned?
    6. Is anything interfering with your ability to do the tasks necessary for your child to be returned?

     

  5. What must be accomplished before the next hearing?
    1. What will parent do?
    2. What will the Department do?

     

  6. Set next hearing in open court

     

  7. Summarize the plan and the Court's expectations – what will CPS/ SW do, what will parent do, what will attys do prior to next hearing.

     

    Bench Card – Next Questions and Setting Court ExpectationsCIP Logo