By Amy Beth Hanson Associated Press

HELENA (AP) – Montana lawmakers have again been asked to create a team to review child deaths and near-deaths due to abuse and neglect to help the state identify trends and make recommendations for changes in policies and practices to prevent such injuries and deaths.

“This is one bill that should have bipartisan support,” Democratic Rep. Kathy Kelker, of Billings, told the House Judiciary Committee on Monday. “The time has come to put these children first.”

The measure was the top recommendation of the Protect Montana Kids Commission, which was appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock in September 2015 to review and make recommendations to improve the Division of Child and Family Services within the state health department.

Kelker told lawmakers her bill would allow a 17-member Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission to gather information from state caseworkers along with doctors, law enforcement and community service groups that might have contact with children.

The commission needs in the information, “not to be nosy, but to figure out who knew what when and when would it have been more effective to have intervened,” Kelker said.

The state’s first-ever review looked at the deaths of 14 children between July 1, 2015 and Nov. 8, 2016 that had been the subject of a report to Child and Family Services within a year before they died. However, the Child and Family Services Ombudsman’s office did not have access to medical, law enforcement and service group information, leaving it unable to determine the cause of death in some cases.

The report did give a list of red flags, where the presence of two or more should lead the state to give more credence to a report of child abuse or neglect. They include drug and alcohol abuse, a prior history with the agency, domestic violence and housing or other financial instability. The report also recommended more cooperation between the agency and the courts, law enforcement and physicians.

Maurita Johnson, the administrator of the Child and Family Services Division, testified in favor of the bill along with Melissa Schlichting, an assistant attorney general.

“I want to stress to you the importance of two large state agencies working together,” Kelker said, adding that federal grant money is available to pay for at least part of the commission’s costs. A fiscal note had not yet been prepared.

The committee did not act on the bill on Monday. A similar bill was approved on first reading in the House Judiciary Committee in 2015, but was tabled without discussion.

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