Family Matters 

Thorough, secretive and surprisingly powerful, Montana’s \nChild Protective Services confronts controversy every day

Art Dreiling is an easy man to talk to but he is not an easy man to get to.

His comfortable office lies behind a newly installed, state-of-the art security system in an office building on a quiet street just minutes from downtown Missoula. Those who want to see Dreiling—or anyone else in the building—step into a small reception area and then must be buzzed through a locked door after a receptionist has determined that there is a reason for the visit.

The security system is new—a commentary on the times and, also, on the high emotion that Dreiling and his staff sometimes evoke in the people they deal with on a daily basis.

“We had tried to stay away from this heightened sense of staff and clerical security but in the end, we felt it was needed,” Dreiling says. “Especially with emotions and drugs and other problems. It’s a precaution.”

Dreiling is the regional director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Child Protective Services divison. He supervises the activities of a staff of investigators, intervention counselors, psychologists, day-care and foster-care providers, and social workers in the seven northwestern counties of the state.

Under Montana law, Dreiling and his staff are mandated to investigate any allegation of child abuse and/or neglect. Any call—whether it’s a child with head lice or a child who seems to be hungry or a child who appears to have been beaten or is left home alone—must be investigated.

“We’re very busy and we cover a huge territory,” Dreiling says. “The numbers of calls rise all the time. Some people say we don’t move fast enough. Others say we jump in without really understanding a situation. We never please everyone. Repetition is the key. If you see something and you think it is wrong, call us and keep calling. It will be investigated and your report will be held in complete confidentiality.”

And if a CPS investigator finds abuse—or even suspects it—he has a wide array of powers to change the situation.

An investigator can remove a child from a school, a day-care center or a private home, place that child in foster care and keep it there until all suspected problems have been addressed to his satisfaction. And he can do it under a cloak of total secrecy—in the name of protecting the privacy rights of the child.

Dreiling and Ravalli County CPS supervisor, Julie Telfer, acknowledge that their power creates an aura of fear and resentment among the people who become their unwilling clients, but both believe the secrecy is necessary and beneficial.

“There is a lot of controversy about that in the profession today,” Dreiling says, “but in the long run, it is needed. Many of these acts don’t rise to the level of criminal conduct. Those parents need to be able to make mistakes, yet be willing to change, and not have the mistakes made public.”

Telfer adds pragmatically, “You don’t have to be afraid of us if you are not abusing your children. We are only enforcing the law.”

By the Book

Dreiling’s office receives about 1,200 reports of child abuse/neglect each year. Telfer’s office, in the fastest-growing county in the state, received about 400 referrals last year, involving 620 children.

Reports come from multiple sources. Law enforcement, day-care providers, teachers, health-care workers, clergy (outside of the sanctity of the confessional), and private therapists are all required by law to report any suspected neglect or abuse. Referrals also come from neighbors, family members, and strangers who have observed inappropriate behavior, Dreiling says.

All reports are investigated, and all reports are held confidential. A person suspected of mistreating a child does not have the right to know and confront his accuser(s). Those who call in are given anonymity. The confidentiality is necessary for the agency to operate, Dreiling says. “People have to feel free to tell us what they have seen or suspect,” he explains. “Without that protection, many cases of abuse would go unreported.”

However, the privacy can lead to false reporting, Dreiling admits. “In custody cases, particularly, it can get very touchy,” he says. “We have to weigh everything we hear and see and reach qualified decisions.”

The agency sends a licensed social worker to investigate each report. The investigator has three choices. The case can be substantiated, in which case, action is taken. It can be unsubstantiated and therefore subject to more observation and possible future action. Or it can be unfounded—that is, proven to be a false report—and dropped.

Often the cases are then handled in-house, with the parents and CPS staff working together to develop a remedial action plan that emphasizes the best interests of the child. This program works only if the parents are willing to admit they have done something wrong and that they are willing to change. With that cooperation, a family may be involved with CPS for several weeks or months, until the agency believes the problems no longer exist.

If the investigator determines the report has a factual basis and is serious enough, he or she has the power to remove the child or children from any future threat at once. The investigator has the authority to take a child at that moment—from school, day care, a babysitter or the child’s home.

Once a child has been taken into protective custody, it is placed in foster care. Both Dreiling and Telfer say the foster care component of CPS is vital if it is to function properly. Ravalli County has 15 licensed foster homes with 45 children in foster care. Missoula County CPS has between 160 and 180 children in foster care.

“It’s an ever-growing need,” Dreiling says. “We offer training and licensing but we never have enough foster parents.”

Children are also placed in group homes, such as the Casey Program and Missoula Youth Homes. “We have a strong partnership with private agencies,” Dreiling says. “Some children are so damaged they can’t live in a private home and have to be placed with a group home.”

If a child is removed from a home, CPS has 48 working hours to prepare a report and petition for a district court judge, outlining the problems and requesting Temporary Investigative Authority (TIA) for 90 days to allow CPS to finish an investigation and determine a proper course of action. During that time, CPS retains custody of the child.

If a TIA is granted, the court schedules a “show cause” hearing within another 15 to 20 working days for the judge to determine what the level of concern is and what arrangements should be made for the child. The parents are allowed to attend the hearing and testify, if they choose. The first TIA can be renewed for an additional 90 days if needed and many TIAs are renewed, Telfer says.

After the hearing the case goes to an intervention unit that works with the family,” Dreiling says. “The purpose is to give the court as complete a perspective of the problem as possible. The judges are the ones who make the decisions, based on our recommendations and investigations.”

In Ravalli County, about 30 cases go to court in a given year. In Missoula County, Dreiling estimates the number at about 80. All are conducted behind a veil of privacy in closed courtrooms.

A judge can award the state temporary legal custody of a child for six months and then give another six-month extension of that custody. However, a new federal law, designed to keep children out of long-term foster care, requires a “permanency” hearing if a child has been in foster care for 12 to 15 months. If the child is under the age of 12, it can then be put up for adoption and, if 13 or older, long-term foster-care arrangements are made.

“This tells the parents you have so many months to get your act together or we’re going to put your kids up for adoption,” Dreiling says. “We have some parents, who are dealing with addiction problems but who are really trying, and we can and do ask for time extensions, but those are exceptional cases.”

The Nees to Intervene

CPS investigators are faced with tough situations and often have to ask tough questions. They have a highly charged, confrontational job to do, Dreiling says. It used to be that once a case was assigned to an investigator, it was their case permanently. That is no longer the case.

Once an investigation is finished, any resulting case is referred on to a new case worker—an intervention counselor.

“The intervention worker takes the child and family through the entire process. We have some pretty intensive family-based services,” Dreiling says. “All of us who have been in the business for any time understand the anger and the resentment from the average parent. It’s a very personal thing to step in and tell someone they aren’t taking care of their child properly.”

Telfer believes the division between investigators and intervention workers is a good one also. It directs some anger away from the professional working with the family.

“There are a lot of hurt feelings and shame to address in these situations,” Telfer says. “This is an emotionally corrective situation for a family. If we don’t address that, the other services aren’t as effective. The division of duties makes it easier.”

An intervention worker takes over the case and determines what corrective measures are needed. In most of these cases, a court is not asked to intervene and the children are not removed from the home. In some cases, another family member, such as a grandparent or aunt, may take the child for a period of time. Such informal agreements are decided on by the case worker and the family without the official action of a court.

“We offer a lot of intensive services,” Telfer says. “We contract out to other agencies and private individuals to provide in-home assessments and counseling, treatment, therapy, physical care, if needed.”

“The high number of ‘informal’ resolutions points to the fact that 99 percent of the people involved with CPS are not criminals,” Dreiling says. “They are people facing stressors—addictions, economic trouble, anger. They are people who have made mistakes but who can be helped.”

Telfer agrees. “Chemical dependency on the part of the parents is probably the biggest problem we face,” she adds. “There’s often a lot of chaos in these homes but people care about each other.”

Telfer’s office contracts with Friends To Youth, a company that does intensive in-home therapy. A counselor can meet with a family for up to 10 hours a week to teach parenting skills, provide structure and demonstrate positive discipline methods.

“Neglect is probably more prevalent than abuse,” Telfer says. “We see so many families where both parents are employed—some with more than one job. There’s no time for the kids, and families can’t afford day care. A lot of economic factors make it harder to take good care of kids. Neglect calls are rising all the time.”

The only time the privacy rights of families and children are set aside are when criminal charges of child abuse or neglect are filed. In those cases the court and court records are open. Cases that rise to that level are not common, but the number is rising.

Dreiling credits that to increased public awareness of what constitutes abuse and of reporting requirements.

“Child abuse laws were derived from rules established by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” Dreiling says. “We had laws against abusing animals in this country before we had laws about not abusing children. Ideas and attitudes change slowly. We still see a lot of ‘They are mine. I can do what I want.’ Parents repeat bad skills for generations.”

“It’s a cross-generational thing,” Telfer says. “Kids are abused and they learn to abuse their kids and then, if they end up taking care of elderly parents who once abused them, they abuse them too. It takes a lot to break that cycle.”

“CPS workers are agents of society and the law,” Telfer says. They protect the young and the aged—those who cannot protect themselves. It can be a thankless job. People are rarely grateful to have been told they are not good parents.

“We stand up and say, ‘This behavior is not OK. It has to change.’ And that is an emotionally charged situation,” Telfer says. “We want to be caring and supportive and help people change but we’re always enforcing the law. It’s hard to develop a caring relationship with people when they know you always have the stick behind your back.”

But she adds in closing, “You can get positive feedback. Sometimes you help people make an incredible positive change in their lives and they acknowledge that. People need to know it’s not ‘us versus them.’ It’s all of us working for the children.”

Sometimes that leads to mistakes. In one highly publicized Ravalli County case, a baby was taken from its parents before it was two months old. Brought to the hospital with breathing problems, the infant had suffered multiple broken bones and dislocations in its first few weeks of life.

The father was charged with child abuse and the child was placed in a foster home. The case then languished for more than a year. The only caregivers of the child were its parents and they could not be compelled to testify against each other. They remained together and did not talk to social workers or law officers. Then the wife became pregnant again.

When the second child was born, CPS social workers immediately took it from the hospital, while the parents thought it was in the nursery. The parents’ lawyers immediately petitioned the court for a hearing and demanded the child be returned to its parents. They were successful. The judge ruled the newborn child had suffered no danger and the pending case had not been adjudicated so the child could not be kept from its natural parents. However, because a criminal child abuse case was pending against one parent, the judge allowed CPS to enter the home and check on the newborn’s welfare at any time, without prior notice, a compromise the judge believed was in the child’s best interest.

Eventually all charges were dropped against the father in return for the parents agreeing to give up all rights to the first child. That child was adopted by the foster family that had cared for it from the time it was two months old. No further records were available on the welfare of the second child, but the parents were never again charged with child abuse of neglect in any open court proceeding.

VOCAL Opposition?

Newspapers, including the Independent, have received letters from people unhappy with CPS and asking that the department be investigated for its far-reaching powers and secrecy. However, no one contacted by the Independent agreed to be interviewed about problems with CPS.

Shane Mathre is a licensed practical nurse and emergency medical technician who lives in Culbertson, Montana. He is fighting CPS for the return of his three children, whom he claims were “kidnapped” by CPS in December 1999. Mathre refuses to cooperate with CPS or to admit that he has done anything wrong, and so has been denied visitation with the children. He must sign an agreement to work with CPS for reunification of the family if he wants to see the children. To Mathre, signing the agreement is an admission that he did something wrong and he has refused to do so. No criminal charges have been brought against him.

“Laws exist today that are used to deny parents their parental rights and their basic constitutional rights,’ Mathre writes in a letter to the Independent. “You can be falsely and anonymously accused and judges will deny you the right to face your accuser. CPS assumes the right of the accuser, with the assumption that the accused is guilty and that the burden of proof of innocence is on the accused, knowing full well that it is nearly impossible under any circumstances, to prove a negative.”

Mathre has organized a citizens’ group against CPS and the state. V.O.C.A.L. stands for Victims of Child Abuse Laws. The group has a website (www.geocities.com/vocalmt) and, according to Mathre’s letters to the editor, a growing membership across the country.

According to the website, the group is working to restore rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. “Fairness and justice must prevail to best serve the interests of our children,” reads the introduction to the site.

Mathre did not return queries from the Independent and a Montana telephone number listed on the website is no longer in service.

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