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 3,500, and growing. 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 five judicial districts in Montana.
Those districts are:
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 three main issues in the case:
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:
The outcomes CAP hopes to achieve through the PHC pilot project are:
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.