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As some readers might know, Montana has for years had some of the highest rates of kids in foster care of any state in the country. For some time I’ve been needled by the why behind that trend.
We know a few things about the state’s child protective system, which removes kids from the custody of their parents or guardians when it determines they’re at substantial risk of abuse or neglect. First, even as the state’s overall caseload has decreased since its recent peak five years ago, about 2,300 children remained in foster care as of September, roughly 12 among every 1,000 kids. Secondly, according to state records, removals are largely driven by neglect, not abuse. Thirdly, child removal rates aren’t consistent across Montana towns and communities. The racial demographics of Montana’s caseload are one example of this disproportionality: While Native Americans make up about 7% of state residents, they represent more than a third of the state foster care caseload, according to 2021 data.
We also see disparities between different parts of the state. For example, Butte’s Silver Bow County had more kids in foster care than Missoula County in July 2022, according to state data, despite having about a third of the population. Roosevelt County, which spans most of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, counted 168 kids in state care at that same point, nearly the same as Silver Bow despite having about a quarter the population.
The questions those statistics raise were the driving force behind my application to be part of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Data Fellowship this year. Next week, I’m excited to join the cohort of journalists headed to L.A. from around the country to apply new data skills to our specific journalistic inquiries.
I hope my project will eventually be enlightening to me and you, our readers. The goal is to try to add context to Montana’s child removal rates by looking at the underlying risk factors for child maltreatment and family separations in local communities.
How are specific contributing factors — drug use, housing instability, abandonment, food insecurity, mental illness and others — contributing to our foster care rates? How common are those risk factors in different parts of Montana? This data project will try to create a sort of heat map to see where child removals are most likely to take place, and what kinds of interventions and community resources exist to help safely keep families together. We hope that sifting through more data will help us hone in on the “why” behind these and other questions.
Are you involved in the foster care system? What ideas do you have about how our reporting can be most relevant and informative? We’d be grateful to hear your thoughts as this project goes on. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Percentage of collisions on U.S. Highway 191 between Four Corners and West Yellowstone involving wild animals, according to a recent study by the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, a Bozeman-based nonprofit that examines transportation issues through an ecological lens.
That figure exceeds the statewide average of 10%, which is itself high relative to national averages. According to insurance company State Farm, Montana drivers have the second-highest odds of hitting an animal of any state in the U.S.
In addition to highlighting 11 particularly problematic segments of U.S. 191 and MT-64 (the spur highway that services Big Sky), the 165-page report recommends improvements. Those range from building overpasses and underpasses so wildlife can avoid traffic to animal-detection systems and traffic-calming measures.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
3 Questions For
An individual fired two rounds from a shotgun at the entrance of Planned Parenthood of Montana’s Helena health clinic last week. After the shooting, which caused no reported injuries, reporter Mara Silvers caught up with Dr. Sam Dickman, the organization’s chief medical officer and one of the few abortion providers in the state, to ask about his perspective on the situation.
You work at the Helena clinic fairly regularly, right? How are you doing — emotionally, mentally — after last week’s shooting?
Yes, I regularly care for patients at the Helena health center. We have a truly amazing crew there, but the shooting last week was traumatic, and my colleagues and I spent the past week emotionally processing and recovering from the attack. It’s not the kind of thing anyone should have to go through at their workplace.
Everyone responds to trauma differently — for me, the main feeling was sadness. Nobody benefits from this kind of violence. Of course, I’m grateful that nobody was injured or killed, but coming back to the clinic is hard. My colleagues who work in the clinic every day have been incredibly resilient and courageous — they re-opened today [Thursday] and we’re very glad to be seeing patients there again.
You worked in Texas before taking this position with Planned Parenthood of Montana. How have violence or threats impacted your prior medical work experience, if at all, and is that a phenomenon you were trained to navigate when preparing to become an abortion provider?
When I think about the impact of violence in my work, I mostly worry about my patients. Homicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant women in the U.S. And laws that restrict access to abortion services end up putting those patients at even higher risk of violence.
Texas was a wonderful place to work — I loved it there — but there were also serious threats of violence against me and my colleagues. I have to take precautions for my own safety, in the same way that we think about making sure our clinics are safe for patients and staff.
Montana has a long and tragic history of anti-abortion violence — attacks on some of the real leaders of reproductive rights in this state. My colleague Susan Cahill had a clinic up in Kalispell that was attacked multiple times by anti-abortion terrorists, most recently in 2014, and in the decades before that there were violent attacks against Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula and Susan Wicklund’s clinic in Bozeman. Sadly, across the country now it’s basically assumed that clinics that provide abortion services will need to have extra security measures.
We can’t say much about the motive or intentions at play here without the shooter in custody. That said, Montana is one of the few states in the Mountain West that has maintained legal protections for abortion since the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Republican-backed laws seeking to restrict abortion at many stages of pregnancy have been temporarily enjoined while legal challenges, including some filed by Planned Parenthood of Montana, proceed. How much do you think the political feud over abortion access in Montana plays into violence and threats carried out by individuals?
Nobody supports violent extremists, and the kind of violence we saw last week at our Helena health center is condemned basically across the political spectrum. It hurts patients, it hurts providers, and it just underscores the fact that medical care shouldn’t be messed with. I think basically everyone believes you should have a right to get health care privately and safely, and it’s absurd and terrifying to think about someone using violence to prevent that.
But even if we put aside these totally outrageous violent tactics, it’s also important to note that personal freedom is incredibly important to voters in Montana and they’ve made it very clear that they don’t want more restrictions on abortion access.
The Helena Police Department has shared surveillance footage of the suspected shooter and asked for the public’s help in indentifying the person. Their investigation is ongoing.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Former Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden died on Sunday in Phoenix, where he was retired, his family announced in a press release. He was 98. No cause of death has been reported.
Schwinden, a Democrat who served consecutive terms as governor from 1981 to 1989, is remembered as a farmer, lawmaker and historian with an unvarnished style. His 30-year political career coincided with a time of profound redefinition in Montana, stretching from the latter days of oligopoly to the beginning of a new constitutional order in the 1970s and a heyday for Montana progressivism that faded when Schwinden declined to seek a third term in 1989.
Born near Tule Creek, north of Poplar and Wolf Point, Schwinden was a prime example of Montana prairie populism, longtime friend and colleague Evan Barrett told Montana Free Press, helping form the mold for later rural Democrats like Brian Schweitzer and Jon Tester. Hailing from northeastern Montana — an area, at the time of his birth, sometimes referred to as the “Red Corner” due to its agrarian socialist tendencies — he was a progressive crusader while in the Legislature, earning the nickname “Red Ted.”
He was elected to a governor’s office shaped by dramatic changes consequent to a new 1972 Constitution that occurred during the tenure of his predecessors, Democratic governors Forrest Anderson and Tom Judge. But his governorship was also marked by the tail end of an international energy crisis, national “stagflation” and recession, as well as the state’s difficult economic transition from the natural resource sector to service and tourism. Those phenomena contributed to a revenue crisis Schwinden addressed with budget cuts, earning him a reputation as a fiscal conservative.
“He was part of the transition, the progressive change in Montana,” Barrett said. “He was part of it, and then he had to manage it.”
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
You can take comedian-musician Reggie Watts out of Great Falls — where he grew up before moving to New York and, eventually, Los Angeles — but apparently you can’t take Great Falls out of Reggie Watts. That’s one lesson to be wrung from Watts’ new book, a memoir titled “Great Falls, MT: Fast Times, Post-Punk Weirdos, and a Tale of Coming Home Again.” The book is scheduled for released Oct. 17, and Watts is marking the occasion with a series of standup return engagements this month in Bozeman (Oct. 23), Missoula (Oct. 24) and Great Falls (Oct. 27).
For a preview of the book and Watts’ favorite hometown haunts, among other musings, check out MTFP contributor Max Savage Levenson’s “The Sit-Down” interview with Watts this week.
Following the Law ⚖️
Lawyers sparred in federal court in Missoula Thursday over Montana’s pending ban on social media platform TikTok, which — if it isn’t blocked by federal judge Donald Molloy — will take effect Jan. 1.
The first-of-its-kind ban was championed by Attorney General Austin Knudsen and passed by the Montana Legislature earlier this year on the rationale that the Chinese-owned platform promotes dangerous social media challenges and allegedly exposes user data to China’s communist government. This week’s court arguments centered on whether the law tramples on the First Amendment free speech rights of the company and its Montana users, as well as whether the state has intruded too far into the federal government’s exclusive role in setting the nation’s foreign policy.
A ruling from Molloy on whether to block the law while litigation continues is pending.
Attorneys for both sides agreed on one point Thursday, however: Even if the law survives its legal challenge, it won’t apply to most Montana tribal communities.
While the letter of the law specifies that the ban applies anywhere within “the territorial jurisdiction of Montana,” that doesn’t necessarily mean the state’s full geographic extent, since the seven Indian reservations contained within Montana are legally sovereign tribal nations.
Molloy noted in court Thursday that the state has full criminal jurisdiction on only one of the seven reservations, the Flathead Indian Reservation, where state authorities have an explicit (if politically fraught) arrangement with Lake County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Elsewhere in Montana Indian Country, responsibility for prosecuting a crime committed on a reservation falls variously on either tribal, federal or state authorities depending on the severity of the offense and whether the defendant and/or victim are classified as Indian.
An attorney representing TikTok, Alexander Berengaut, made a point Thursday of arguing that the jurisdictional checkerboard would complicate the company’s efforts to comply with the ban, which could in theory see it charged $10,000 a day for each Montanan who’s allowed to illegally access the service. The company, he said, would likely be forced to err on the side of caution if it isn’t able to reliably determine whether users are or aren’t located on tribal territory.
“People who would lawfully be able to access TikTok in those situations would nonetheless have an undue burden inflicted upon them,” Berengaut said.
The attorney representing the state in Thursday’s proceedings, Christian Corrigan, agreed that the ban wouldn’t apply to the six tribal jurisdictions without state criminal justice authority: the Blackfeet, Rocky Boy’s, Fort Belknap, Fort Peck, Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations.
Corrigan added, too, that the attorney general’s position is that the law requires the company to do a merely “reasonable job” ensuring the app isn’t available to Montanans.
Also, ICYMI: The TikTok ban isn’t Montana’s only new tech privacy law.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
“I hope [libraries] require various degrees. I know they will, I would hope they will. But is it our place to tell them they have to? I don’t believe it is. I think it’s degrading to those libraries.”
— Montana State Library Commissioner Tammy Hall addressing her colleagues Wednesday about her motion to relax professional standards for library directors at the state’s eight largest public libraries.
Despite vocal opposition from several library directors and trustees and a task force recommendation to maintain it, the commission voted 5-2 to eliminate a requirement that those eight libraries employ directors with a graduate degree in library sciences in order to qualify for state funding.
The change, which is now open for a 30-day public comment period, was supported by two trustees from the only library that’s currently out of compliance: Kalispell’s ImagineIF Library, where the board hired a director without a master’s degree last year in the midst of a broader ongoing culture clash. One of those trustees, Carmen Cuthbertson, is also a voting member of the state library commission.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — Equal parts news feature, natural history explainer and conservation quandary, this story about smallmouth bass infiltrating the Colorado River included great descriptive details. I particularly enjoyed the line about “maws so cavernous they can gulp down prey more than half their own size.” Unfortunately, for Montana’s native fish, the warm-water piscivores have also recently been spotted in the Bitterroot River.
Alex — The Washington Post this week published the results of an extensive investigation into the number of firearms seized in public schools nationwide. Based on media reports and records kept by large school districts, the Post team estimated that more than 1,150 guns were brought to schools last year by students of all ages — including a 4-year-old in Texas — but were intercepted before anyone fired them.
Arren — Kevin Phillips, the architect of the so-called Southern Strategy that in the 1960s propelled the Republican Party to victory in the south and Sun Belt on the power of racial resentment, died this week, the New York Times reports.
Eric — Is it time to give up on social media as a place to find actual human connection? The New Yorker seems to think so.
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