Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) – Childrens’ voices and wants are often drowned out in legal proceedings dealing with abuse and neglect, Denise Johnson, the communications director with the Montana Child Protection Alliance told the Senate Judiciary Committee Friday. 

“Their lives are the ones who are most impacted,” Johnson said. “Court decisions can forever change their family composition, connections to their culture and heritage, as well as their overall long-term physical and mental health.”

Johnson spoke in support of Senate Bill 148, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, which would expand childrens’ access to legal representation during these proceedings, with the hope of giving them more of a chance to tell the court what they would like to happen to them. 

Lenz and supporters of the bill said children get support from Court Appointed Special Advocates and guardians ad litem, but they also need legal representation to give them a chance to be heard.

“I have settled it out in the position of who represents the child and in many cases, that is truly only an attorney,” Lenz said.

Jacob Handy spoke in support of the bill, saying his family has gone through such hearings. 

“We've been through family court services and my kids kept feeling as if they never had a voice,” Handy said. “They just felt like, ‘are they ever gonna get to talk to the judge?’ ‘Does anybody care about what I think?’ And, so I totally stand in support of this bill because I've seen it firsthand that kids' voices do get stifled, without legal representation.” 

According to data released through the Administration of Children and Families, in 2020 Montana reported 3,777 child maltreatment cases.

There were no opponents of the bill at the hearing and the committee did not take immediate action. 

Elinor Smith is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.