In November of 2020, on the one year anniversary of five-year-old Tony Renova’s death in Great Falls, I spoke to family members and CPS workers to find out how Tony fell through the cracks of the system. The little boy spent most of his life with a loving foster family, but was returned to his biological parents in 2019. Just months later, they were arrested for beating him to death. Since that story, my inbox has been full of concerned Montanans with calls for “Help Me Taylor.”
So I took your concerns and tracked down a Montana legislator who’s going to help do something about it. His name is Dennis Lenz, he’s a Republican Congressman representing a district just outside of Billings.
His plan is to introduce two new bills: HB 90 and HB 39. Together, they’re meant to help streamline the court proceedings, moving some of the deadlines up. That way, parents and social workers know sooner rather than later what needs to be done to keep kids safe. It may sound like a small change, and it is. But Lenz tells me he came in hot last legislative session with a handful of bills that didn’t pass. This new strategy--taking smaller steps over the course of several sessions--he says might be the key.
“I was hoping to effect change. I was hoping to make social workers more responsible, and more professional, and retain them… it was an uphill battle last time,” says Lenz.
When I spoke to Dana Toole from the Department of Justice last November, she said many of the issues in CPS can be connected to the constant struggle of being overworked and underpaid. It’s a problem Lenz says he recognizes, but it may go deeper.
“I agree on some level that social workers don’t feel supported… as I interact on some of these cases, I get the feeling that they’re just trying to want to get it done and move on if there’s nothing glaring… but that isn’t quite right,” he said. “If we could take some of those cases off, if we could move this through quicker, I can’t help but think that’s going to help.”
Lenz tells me he’s currently waiting on Governor Gianforte to name a new director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which oversees the CPS program. From there, he can introduce the legislation which he’s confident will pass.
“If we can do this better, how encouraging that would be to everybody… mom and dad got their act together and we stayed together and that was important.”
There’s a whole other side of this, and that’s foster parents’ rights. If you remember in Tony Renova’s case, he was removed from his foster family after years of living with them, and when the moment came there was literally nothing they could do. Lenz says he’s already begun working on legislation surrounding that, although we shouldn’t expect to see this session. I will of course be following these bills as they make their way through the legislature… make sure to follow me on social media for any updates.
And if you have a problem that needs a solution, contact me here.