State health officials agreed Tuesday to give prosecutors certain methamphetamine-related evidence acquired in child-neglect investigations – after facing stiff criticism at a legislative committee, for their earlier refusal to do so.
A Department of Public Health & Human Services spokesman told MTN News that the agency has “heard and understands the concerns” aired last Friday by prosecutors before a legislative panel.
Prosecutors last week said the state has been refusing to share results of toxicology tests on children suspected of being exposed to methamphetamine – despite a new state law that requires it. The tests are conducted as part of investigations into possible child neglect.
“The department will move forward with sharing toxicology reports with the county attorneys,” said agency spokesman Jon Ebelt.
Lewis & Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher said Tuesday he’s pleased the department is changing its position. The evidence can be used not just to prosecute parents of neglected children, but also to help the family afflicted by drug abuse, he said.
“We can use that information to try to intervene in the lives of adults who may be placing that child at risk, either through prosecution or an appropriate dependent-neglect order,” Gallagher told MTN News in an interview.
Last week, the department’s deputy director, Laura Smith, told the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee that the state is withholding the toxicology reports because of a concern about violating federal privacy laws.
Smith said the department feared if it didn’t follow federal law, as much as $13 million of federal funding could be in jeopardy.
But county attorneys attending the meeting said the federal law doesn’t apply, and that the department only recently raised that issue – even though it had been refusing since last summer to follow state law and provide the information.
Gallagher said prosecutors and law enforcement aren’t the only ones who need evidence of whether children are being exposed to meth and meth use. So do court-appointed child advocates, who were being denied as well, he said.
“We have 1,600 kids in foster care, statewide, at the end of last year, because of meth,” he told the committee Friday. “Keeping these kids out of timely services and (not) bringing these matters to all agencies … is ridiculous.”
State Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, who sponsored the 2017 bill requiring that child-protective services provide the information to prosecutors and others, said he didn’t understand why the state was “obstructing” the law and not following legislative intent.
“They’re inhibiting law enforcement,” he told MTN News Friday. “We know we have a meth epidemic in this state. … When we remove a child from drug-addicted parents and do nothing for the parents, there’s nothing to think we’re going to get that family re-united any sooner.
“Law enforcement has to get involved in extreme cases, because those parents need rehab.”