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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

State Accused Of Not Revealing Child Meth Exposures

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At a legislative hearing today in Helena, the state health department faced accusations from law enforcement that it’s not readily sharing evidence that could protect kids who are being exposed to meth.

Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher wasted no time with state lawmakers today in Helena, saying, "one of my passions is kids and I don’t much like bureaucrats.”

Gallagher and other prosecutors say child protection caseworkers aren’t sharing toxicology tests conducted on children suspected to have been exposed to drugs. Lawmakers passed a bill last year requiring they do that.

But state health department officials say there are lingering questions about whether that’s legal.

The agency’s deputy director, Laura Smith, says improperly releasing that information could violate federal confidentiality statutes, potentially jeopardizing millions of dollars.

"That’s federal funding through SAMHSA," says Smith. "That’s the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Right now that’s approximately over $13 million that goes towards a variety of programs."

Smith points out law enforcement can already get this information through court orders and hearings.

But prosecutors, like Leo Gallagher, argue that’s a waste of time when, by his interpretation, existing law says it’s already ok to share that information with qualified investigators.

"You got 1,600 kids statewide in foster care at the end of last year because of methamphetamine," says Gallagher. "What does that cost financially? What does that cost by way of the human toll? Keeping these kids out of timely services is ridiculous.”

The Health Department’s Laura Smith told lawmakers Friday that other states want answers from the feds on this same issue.

"So we anticipate having clarity from them within the next couple of weeks," says Smith. 

Custer County Attorney Wyatt Glade expressed frustration that he had not heard about that development until today.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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