Fifteen months ago, Montana’s Child Protective Services division (CPS) took Shane Mathre’s children from him. Last weekend, Mathre finished a three-week “March on Montana” from Culbertson at the North Dakota border, where he lives, to the Idaho/Montana border on Lookout Pass. The march was intended, Mathre says, to raise awareness of what he believes is the state-sanctioned kidnapping of his children.
Mathre, a licensed practical nurse, has not seen or spoken to his children since they were taken from their school. He has received one letter from his 8-year-old son but heard nothing from his 12-year-old daughter or his 5-year-old son.
And he admits that lack of contact is his own fault. He cannot bring himself to pay the price demanded by CPS for having contact with his children. To see them or speak with them, Mathre must admit that he is an abusive, neglectful parent. If he makes that admission, CPS will set up a treatment and reconciliation program for Mathre and the children.
By refusing to cooperate, Mathre is cut off from the children—not even allowed to know where they are living. He does know that his younger son has had serious emotional problems since the separation and has been taken from the foster home in which all three children were placed and moved to youth treatment facility in another town, away from his brother and sister.
“I won’t admit I did something that I didn’t do,” Mathre says. “That’s not the legacy I want to leave for my children, even if they don’t hear it from me until they are adults. This is wrong, wrong, wrong. But I’m poor, without resources, and to CPS that makes me an abusive parent.”
On a Thursday in March 1999, the younger boy’s teacher complained to CPS that the child came to school with a bloody nose and that his coat smelled of cat urine. A CPS caseworker came to Mathre’s home the following day to investigate. At that time, the older son admitted hitting his younger brother, causing the nosebleed. Nothing happened over the weekend. On Monday, the children were taken from school under authorization of an Emergency Removal Order that had been issued the previous Thursday, before the investigation.
“Child abuse is a crime,” Mathre asks. “If I have committed a crime, arrest me, throw me in jail, give me my day in court. If they can show I did anything wrong, prove it. But that’s not what they want.”
Mathre says his main failings are that he is a single father and that he lives at the poverty level. He received welfare assistance while he was attending school to get his nursing degree. He lives in a 1970s-model mobile home which he is renovating. He is now working as a nurse and paying his own way.
“People look at my long hair and my earring and think they see something they don’t like,” Mathre says. “I’m being judged on my appearance and my income. I’m a good father. My children had what they needed. I love them. But that wasn’t enough for the CPS Gestapo.”
The Independent requested an interview with officials at the CPS eastern regional office in Miles City to respond to Mathre’s charges. In a telephone interview, area supervisor Grant Larson referred all questions to the regional director Eric Barnowski, who did not return phone calls by press time.
Mathre has been to court a number of times since the children were taken. CPS was given six months of custody, but that was extended on the grounds that Mathre was uncooperative.
He has never been accused of anything, so he has never been allowed to present any kind of defense. If Mathre were accused of a crime, the state would have to appoint an attorney to defend him. But as long as the case remains a civil one, CPS is not obligated to provide anything to Mathre. In many cases, parents are not even allowed to know what the allegations are or who made them, because, as officials have repeatedly stated, confidentiality is CPS’ paramount concern.
The next court hearing will probably be one to terminate Mathre’s parental rights, which means the children will remain wards of the state or possibly be adopted. Mathre is now seeking an attorney to help him avoid that final separation.
In trying to find other people who have been faced with similar problems, Mathre discovered the national organization called VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws). He founded a chapter in Montana with a website at www.geocities.com/vocalmt and is using his March on Montana to spread word statewide about CPS abuses of parental rights.
“This is an outrage and we need that outrage to be heard in Helena,” Mathre says. “I guarantee you, I have a voice that will carry that far.”
Mathre started in Culbertson and averaged walking about 40 miles a day. He passed through Sidney, Glendive, Billings, Bozeman, Butte and a dozen other Montana towns, stopping to speak to groups of interested people and the media in each of them.
“I’ve had great response from papers and radio stations in small towns. The mainstream media has not been very interested and we’ve had no response from television,” Mathre says. “But we’re not giving up.”
On Sunday, Mathre met with Idaho media at the Idaho/Montana border on Lookout Pass and then he started east again. On Monday he was scheduled to do a two-hour radio talk show in Billings.
He hopes to work with other groups who have the same concerns to bring a Family Bill of Rights to the 2001 Montana Legislature. He believes the Children’s Rights Amendment to the Montana Constitution must be repealed in favor of a more family-oriented amendment.
“All control to the children means all control to the state,” Mathre explains. “Children are minors, so they must be wards of the state if they‘re not with their parents. The state—CPS—is taking thousands of children each year, without any oversight or justification for their actions. They answer to no one as long as they can claim it is in the child’s best interests.”