State health department to give test results to prosecutors
By AMY BETH HANSON
Jan. 24, 2018
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's health department will begin complying with a state law that requires it to share with prosecutors the results of drug toxicology tests done on children in abuse and neglect cases, the agency director said in an email to regional Division of Child and Family Services supervisors.
Two county prosecutors criticized the Department of Public Health and Human Services last week during a legislative interim committee meeting for not following a law passed by the 2017 Legislature. The law requires the department to share with prosecutors case records in abuse and neglect cases if it's suspected that the child was exposed to illegal drugs.
On Friday, Deputy Director Laura Smith said that department was seeking clarification from a federal agency on whether it could release the records without a court order.
Custer County Attorney Wyatt Glade gave members of the Child, Family, Health, and Human Services Committee his interpretation of the state law, arguing the confidentiality law that protects records in cases of people who are being treated for substance abuse does not apply when child abuse and neglect should be reported to state agencies.
On Tuesday, Director Sheila Hogan emailed regional Child and Family Services supervisors directing them to share the toxicology reports with local county attorneys to fully comply with the 2017 law.
The change was first reported by MTN News.
Health Department spokesman Jon Ebelt said Wednesday that after further talks with the federal agency, the state concluded that sharing toxicology reports with prosecutors would not violate federal confidentiality rules.
"I'm very thankful that the department has decided to follow the letter of the law," Glade said Wednesday.
The issue of drug-exposed children in the state is growing. Montana has 3,925 children in foster care — up from 3,300 in December 2016. About two-thirds of the foster care placements are due to parental drug use, health officials have said.
Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher said last week that he understood Child and Family Services was concerned that turning over toxicology test results might interfere with adults getting treatment and being reunited with their children, but he argued it also prevents adequate advocacy on behalf of the children.
Glade said Monday that he hoped that charging people with endangering the welfare of children would offer another incentive for them to complete chemical dependency treatment.
"We can provide better monitoring, better structure and greater accountability during the criminal process," Glade argued.
The Montana County Attorney's Association is seeking legislation that would create a pretrial diversion program for people in similar situations, giving them the opportunity to suspend the criminal case while they complete treatment, said Glade, who is vice president of the organization. If they complete treatment, the charge would be dropped.