Thursday, December 27, 2007

State discriminated against disabled mom, investigator rules

Of The Gazette Staff

The state agency charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect violated the rights of a disabled Livingston woman and retaliated against her when she complained of discrimination, a state hearings officer has found.

In a 49-page ruling issued Friday, Terry Spear, a hearings officer with the state Department of Labor and Industries, found that employees with the Child and Family Services Division of the Montana Department of Health and Human Services violated state anti-discrimination laws when they launched an investigation without good cause into whether Geri Glass could properly care for her newborn son.

Glass, a 29-year-old tetraplegic, filed the discrimination and retaliation complaint with the Montana Human Rights Bureau in April 2005. A hearing was held into Glass' complaint over seven days in April 2006.

Glass said Wednesday that she is relieved by the ruling and hopes the state agency "gets a little respect for people."

"The treatment was pretty much you do as we say or we're taking your son," Glass said. "Finally, after a year and a half, there are some grounds where they can't mess with me anymore."

Glass' son, Gage, was a newborn in December 2004 when her troubles with the state agency started. Glass, who uses a wheelchair but has partial use of her arms and hands, said her son recently celebrated his third birthday and is healthy. Glass was disabled in a 1996 car crash.

Tim Kelly, Glass' attorney, said he will soon file for damages against the state agency for trauma and emotional distress. A remedial phase hearing will be scheduled before Spear within the next few months, Kelly said.

Kelly said he was gratified by the ruling, which found several instances where state child welfare employees skirted or ignored normal procedures meant to protect children from abuse and neglect. In extreme cases, the agency can involuntarily remove children from their home and place them in foster care while seeking to have parental rights terminated in state court.

"This agency has enormous power, and it shows how power can be corrupted if it's not strictly supervised," Kelly said. "I think the only abuse and neglect that was committed was by the agency, and it was from the bottom all the way to the top."

Jon Ebelt, a spokesman for the state agency, said Wednesday that the ruling remains under review by agency administration and legal staff. The review has been slowed by the Christmas holiday, he said, and meetings have yet to be scheduled on the issue.

Spear found state employees retaliated against Glass when she complained their actions were discriminatory. Among Spear's finding were that agency employees made false statements about the extent of Glass' disability, refused to act on her complaints of discrimination and withheld information about how to make a complaint to the agency.

The child welfare workers failed to conduct an independent investigation into Glass' ability to parent, Spear said, and imposed "different and more burdensome requirements on her" than on other parents.

Spear also noted that a story in The Billings Gazette on Feb. 20, 2005, may have been the catalyst for the agency to close its investigation into Glass.

"The article got the immediate attention of the top administrators at DPHHS," Spear wrote in the ruling. "In various combinations, they held meetings and exchanged e-mails about Geri and Gage, primarily concerning the public image of DPHHS, without addressing the substance or handling of Geri's discrimination compliant."

The agency closed its investigation into Glass 15 days after the publication of the news story, Spear noted in the ruling.

Spear also found that the agency has failed to properly train its employees in anti-discrimination laws. It is unclear, Spear said, what steps the agency has taken to comply with state law.

The state agency "knows that it has a duty to analyze its operations to see if it complies with Montana nondiscrimination laws," Speer said. "It has done no such analysis of (the Child and Family Services Division) for at least the last 16 years."

Kelly said the upcoming hearing on damages will include an effort to compel the state agency to provide training for its employees on anti-discrimination laws.

Ebelt, the agency spokesman, said he can't comment on whether the agency has training deficiencies.

"If there are training issues, that will definitely be reviewed, but no decisions have been made on that one way or the other," he said.

Original Article -

Published on Thursday, December 27, 2007

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