Back in September, KECI News broadcast a story about a 7th-grade girl with cerebral palsy, her sister and the girls’ foster family, who were given a week-long trip to Disney World by the Montana Highway Patrol Foundation. It was a feel-good story about a wish being granted, but for Missoulian Patrick McKee, the story carried a different message.
The family’s foster father, Jeff Glidewell, has an arrest history for child abuse. McKee knows this because Glidewell is now married to McKee’s ex-girlfriend (the mother of McKee’s son), and in 1997 was arrested for abusing the boy. And just this year, Child and Family Services (CFS) placed two young girls in the Glidewell home.
“I thought I was going bonkers,” says McKee of learning about the story. “Those little girls deserve to go to Disney World. But my question is, how did he get these little girls after all this? And why wasn’t the Montana Highway Patrol informed about what they’re doing?”
The answer to the Highway Patrol question is simple: When the patrol sends ill children in foster care to Disney World, as the agency does several times a year, the patrol relies on CFS’ recommendations. McKee’s question about how Glidewell, given his past, was able to become a foster parent in the first place is more complicated.
According to the 1997 police report, Glidewell left bruises on McKee’s son and was drinking when sheriff’s deputies arrived at the scene. Glidewell was given a deferred sentence—and the assault was downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor—after he completed family counseling, substance abuse counseling and additional court-ordered treatment. According to CFS, the misdemeanor charge doesn’t disqualify Glidewell from being a foster parent.
Glidewell could not be reached for comment.
CFS won’t divulge specifics about particular foster families because of confidentiality concerns, but agency family resource specialist Joan Bartkowski does confirm that Glidewell is a licensed foster parent, and that the agency is aware of his background. Barkowski says a stringent screening process is required to qualify as a foster parent: a federal background check of criminal records—including substantiated evidence of abuse or neglect—an extensive interview process and 18 hours of training. There are also follow-up visits in the foster home.
“It’s a pretty lengthy process, and we get to know [prospective foster parents] pretty well,” says Bartkowski. “Then it’s my job to make the recommendation based on if I think they have the skills necessary to be licensed.”
Bartkowski admits the system isn’t “foolproof,” and that it’s impossible to compile every piece of information about a person. But the agency does the best that it can given its budget, and works hard to find loving foster parents, Bartkowski says.
McKee is astonished that Glidewell’s history doesn’t disqualify him from the job, but McKee’s experience with CFS has bred in him a deep skepticism of the agency. As a child, McKee was bounced between his own abusive father and a series of foster homes. A decade later, his half siblings were also abused by his father. McKee never understood why the agency didn’t do more to keep his father, a known abuser, away from his kids. But after a custody battle with the Glidewells over his son—a battle in which McKee says CFS took Glidewell’s side—he says he’s come to some realizations about the agency’s motivations
“My real problem isn’t with Jeff Glidewell or with my dad, it’s with this agency that repeatedly puts kids back into abusive situations,” says McKee. “They should be doing something, doing their job, but because money is involved, because [CFS] gets money for every case they get, they have a motivation to create cases and put kids back into abusive homes.”
McKee’s allegation that the agency is motivated by federal funds and not children’s welfare is a strong one, but he’s not the only person making the claim. Former Montana Rep. Brad Molnar spent months traveling the state visiting with department heads and parents involved in the system when he sat on the Juvenile Justice and Mental Health Committee.
“I found no core good,” says Molnar. “I found a system that is totally protective of the system and funding and all else be damned…The system is completely motivated to move kids around for funding.”
artkowski is aware of the allegation and thinks it’s unfounded.
“I just don’t think you go into this business to make money, I think that everyone that I work with would be happy to put themselves out of a job,” she says. “But we need money to help families.”
Bartkowski says that her agency does rely heavily on federal funding, but it comes with strings. Her agency is accountable for where and how the money is spent, and has to undergo constant audits, she says. She adds that it’s not up to her or her agency where to place kids—that a judge’s decision.
But Molnar and McKee counter that many judges blindly trust social workers about where to place kids. While in the Legislature, Molnar proposed bills that would have allowed for jury trials before kids can be removed from the home. The bills were defeated because the agency argued that jury trials would exempt the state from federal dollars, says Molnar.
McKee says the blind trust of CFS put his son back in Glidewell’s Bonner home.
“The agency went behind my back and worked with the court to help Jeff with his [legal] case,” he says. “They knew if they put him back with Jeff they were guaranteed a case and federal dollars.”
McKee has all but lost hope for a system that, he says, bends over backwards to help abusers. He’s written to Montana’s congressional delegation, national and state department heads and two governors. Each respondent has told him—in so many words—that there’s nothing to be done. He’s lobbied the Legislature, but as Molnar found, that’s also a dead end. In the opinions of both Molnar and McKee, nothing is likely to change without the support of the governor.
“There’s no forward momentum to change,” say Molnar.