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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

State Health Department Reverses Course On Child Drug Exposure Policy

Shards of methamphetamine hydrochloride, also known as crystal meth.
Radspunk (GFDL)
Shards of methamphetamine hydrochloride, also known as crystal meth.

Montana’s health department is now sharing with prosecutors results of drug toxicology tests conducted on children suspected to have been exposed to drugs. The Department previously didn’t comply with this state law because they said doing so would jeopardize federal funding.

Health Department Director Sheila Hogan gave regional Child and Family Services supervisors Tuesday the go-ahead to share those toxicology reports with county attorneys.

“I’m glad we’re all on the same page.," says Leo Gallagher, the Lewis and Clark County Attorney. 

State lawmakers passed a bill last year requiring child protection caseworkers to share certain toxicology tests conducted during investigations of suspected child neglect. But until now, health officials balked at doing that.

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services
Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services

During a legislative hearing last week, Health Department Deputy Director Laura Smith said releasing that information could violate federal confidentiality statutes. And doing that, she said, could potentially jeopardize millions of dollars.

“That’s federal funding through SAMHSA, 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 said.

After further talks with the feds, the state concluded that sharing those reports would not violate the law.

County Attorney Leo Gallagher says prosecution is not the primary purpose of the recent state law requiring the health department to share those toxicology tests.

"We county attorneys represent the department in dependent neglect actions in which children have been removed from their home because of abuse or neglect by a parent. It’s our goal, as it is with the department, to protect those children and to try to get the family reunited if possible," Gallagher says.

He says this week’s announcement is a welcome, if long overdue, about-face from the health department.  
"I believe that but for the Legislature’s intervention we would still be having an argument with the [Health] Department."

Montana has almost 4,000 children in foster care and about two-thirds of those placements are due to parental drug use.

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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