When a governmental agency goes too far in the name of protecting a child, who calls them out? The Montana Child Protection Alliance is a non-profit organization that points out the overreach of the state Child Protective Services in cases where a child is removed from the home without due process mandated by law.

Denise Johnson with the Alliance gave a comprehensive overview of the issues in an interview with guest host Daniel Zolnikov. At the very beginning, she supported the social workers at CPS in the cases where the child really is in danger or is truly neglected and in poor health. But the system is broken. According to the data, five children are traumatized needlessly for every one who is truly saved, and that trauma affects the kids’ health, learning and well being for years after. Montana has three times more removals from homes per capita than the national average, and many of these are done only on allegations.

The root of this situation is money. CPS only receives federal dollars for kids only upon removal from the homes. That creates an incentive to break apart families for unsubstantiated reasons. The same funds could have supported programs and services to prevent the issues that prompted the CPS removal in the first place.

Another player in this is the Judiciary. Social workers are required by law to obtain a court order for the removal of any child from a home, yet the CPS have been bypassing this step and showing up with law enforcement officers. Again, this can be done based on only an allegation, over the phone and even anonymously. “We don’t have a problem with under-reporting, we have a problem with over-reporting.”

Complaints about child removals can be made to the office of the Ombudsman, but they are buried in cases and have no authority. Bills to enforce accountability in CPS have been vetoed.

I took away two main messages from this visit. The first is that the system needs to focus on the best interests of the children, not just following the bureaucracy and the money.  The second is that when the social worker shows up to remove a child, with a police officer or not, caregivers need to demand the signed court order from a judge. Make the agency accountable.