The federal government says it will strip Montana of a child abuse prevention grant if the state does not start providing the public with mandatory details about children who die from abuse and neglect.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services has for years kept secret details about children who die at their caregivers' hands — including those killed while the agency had reason to know they were in danger — saying a state confidentiality law prevents release of the information.
An eight-month investigation by The Associated Press into child abuse deaths across the country revealed last December that Montana's law violates a rule that all states receiving federal prevention and treatment program grants must "allow the public to access information when child abuse or neglect results in a child fatality," with few exceptions.
Montana routinely keeps that information secret, allowing the state to escape public scrutiny and withhold information that could be used to craft policies and laws to better protect its most vulnerable children.
JooYeun Chang, associate commissioner for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Children's Bureau, warned in an Aug. 13 letter that the state will lose the annual grant if Montana fails to comply with the disclosure requirement.
The AP obtained the letter from Montana officials after filing a federal Freedom of Information Act request with HHS.
It would be highly unusual for the federal government to strip a state of a federal grant related to child abuse prevention. But that still may not force state lawmakers to take action because the $120,000 grant represents a tiny slice of the Montana agency's annual $70 million budget.
HHS would not comment on whether the state could face additional penalties or consequences should it fail to comply.
HHS is responsible for implementing and enforcing federal child welfare laws and programs, but the agency rarely holds states accountable for failing to follow its regulations. The letter said the Children's Bureau has had several discussions with Montana officials about those rules since 2013.
"We don't want an accident of geography to influence whether a child is protected from one state to another, so it's important that the federal government is stepping in here," said Michael Petit, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, which is reviewing prevention policies nationwide.
Petit said the "rare letter" to Montana could have a positive impact in other problematic jurisdictions. "The mere fact that the feds are stepping in creates a stir and I don't think there is a state that wants to get in a battle with the federal government and be labeled as failing to protect children," he said.
Montana department spokesman Jon Ebelt acknowledged that state law conflicts with the federal disclosure rules. The agency proposed legislation to bring the state into compliance during the legislative session earlier this year, but the bill was never brought up for a vote before the session ended. Montana lawmakers will not meet again until 2017.
"Unfortunately, the legislature failed to pass this bill and has put this funding at risk," Ebelt said in an email.
Chang wrote that the state will lose the grant unless the agency develops an improvement plan by Monday and comes into full compliance after the 2017 state legislative session. The state's plan must address how the agency will follow the rules before any bill is passed.
"If the state is unable to comply fully prior to the passage of state legislation, it must provide a state attorney general's opinion as to why that is the case," the letter said.
Ebelt said his agency will ask for an attorney general's opinion, as directed, and for the legislature to pass a bill in 2017 bringing the state into compliance.
As part of the AP investigation, reporters canvassed the 50 states, the District of Columbia and all branches of the military, circumventing a system that does a terrible job of accounting for child deaths.
AP found that at least 786 children died of abuse and neglect in the U.S. over a six-year span in plain view of child protection authorities. One of those victims was Mattisyn Blaz, a 2-month-old from Butte, Montana, who was killed by her father, a man already known to child welfare personnel and police as someone who could be violent with his family. The state kept secret all information about the case, but AP uncovered the involvement of child welfare authorities by reviewing hundreds of pages of court records from the father's murder trial and conducting numerous interviews with Mattisyn's relatives and prosecutors.
The AP investigation focused on children who died from abuse or neglect even while authorities were investigating their families or providing some form of protective services. But the actual number of children who died under such circumstances is likely much higher because some states withhold vital information.
The data collection system on child deaths is so flawed that no one can even say with accuracy how many children overall die from abuse or neglect every year. The federal government estimates an average of about 1,650 deaths annually in recent years; many believe the actual number is twice as high.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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