Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- The Senate passed a bill 41-9 Tuesday that would require law enforcement and child protection agents to file a warrant before removing a child from the custody of their parents unless they have reason to believe the child is in immediate danger of sexual or physical abuse.

The bill was the subject of heated debate Monday on how soon is too soon to remove a child from a potentially unhealthy situation.

House Bill 37 would also place clearer regulations on child abuse and neglect proceedings once they’ve started. The bill would ensure the proceedings are timely and that parents and children are appointed legal counsel. 

Republican Rep. Jennifer Carlson is the sponsor of the bill but Sen. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, carried it in the Senate. Lenz said the bill would help reduce the number of kids who are taken from their parents only to be returned, which can be very traumatic for them.

“I think it’s a good way for us to approach it differently than we've been going. We have been moving slowly in that direction, reducing the number of kids in foster care, slowly changing the laws,” Lenz said.  

Opponents said the bill would leave kids stranded in bad situations and complicate the removal process for law enforcement. Republican Senator Steve Fitzpatrick from Great Falls said this would seriously limit help for kids who need it. He said under the bill, he could see a situation where a child is being neglected or hurt, law enforcement finds out about it and nothing can be done to help the kid until officers leave to get a warrant. 

“Our child abuse and neglect statute’s there for the protection of the children. Parents have rights, but so do kids. We should be protecting kids. We shouldn't be looking for ways to make it harder to take kids out of situations where there's abuse, where there's neglect, where they can be harmed,” Fitzpatrick said. 

Proponents of the bill said getting a warrant in these cases just takes a phone call and kids that are in immediate danger won’t have to stay and wait for a warrant. Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, is a proponent and was a member of the interim committee that created the bill. 

“If I walked in and thought, ‘oh, this child is being neglected -- hasn't been fed.’ I would still have to go get that warrant.” Gross said. “And it's been our understanding throughout the interim and up until this point that the warrant would be able to be received in a very timely manner within a few hours, that judges are accustomed to receiving all hours calls of the night.”

The bill will now move on to the governor's desk for a signature or veto.