Gov. Gianforte supports religious incursion into state’s child welfare programs  - TAI News
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Greg Gianforte speaks during the 2017 Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Montana’s conservative Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte got a chance on April 28 to boast before a friendly audience gathered in Missoula for a rally headlined by Donald Trump Jr.

Gianforte told the crowd: “When I came into office, we had a problem in Montana. We had the second-highest number of kids in foster care per capita in the entire country. That was bad.”

He went on to claim that he had reduced the number by 45% in three years. “Every child deserves a permanent loving home,” said Gianforte at that rally, according to the Missoula Current.

“Loving” is a judgment call, but the numbers point to a firmer conclusion. About 1,500 kids in the state, more than a third of them Native American, have been channeled into a tightly organized network of evangelical Christian churches and to guardians aligned with Gianforte’s personal religious beliefs. The phenomenon is the result of commitments in place long before Gianforte took office in 2021.

The preface to this religious incursion into the state’s child welfare programs can be clearly read in the record of the Gianforte Family Foundation. The governor is rich and uses the foundation to channel his charitable giving, which is strongly skewed to culture war causes, mostly religious, such as anti-abortion groups and organizations trying to funnel public money to religious schools. His foundation has been particularly generous to two organizations, Child Bridge and Promise686, with donations of more than $1.6 million to the former and $50,000 to the latter as of 2022.

Both Child Bridge and Promise686 are now central players in the numbers cited by Gianforte in his Missoula speech. Promise686, based in Atlanta, Georgia, derives its name from a biblical verse, Psalms 68:6. It exists as a ministry to move children who are wards of the state into a network of Christian church-based caregivers.

“Promise686 doesn’t decide whether a child goes into the child welfare system…that’s up to the state. However, we know when the state does intervene, it’s time for the Church to intervene,” the organization’s website says.

Child Bridge is similarly positioned but focuses on moving kids from foster care to permanent homes.

“God charged us with finding those Christians, families to care for vulnerable children who have suffered abuse and neglect,” says the Child Bridge website.

When Gianforte took office in 2020, Promise686 ramped up in Montana, creating a state chapter and hiring a state director, Aaron Scofield, a graduate of a Canadian seminary and Williams Baptist College. Scofield, a former staffer of Child Bridge, said in an interview that Child Bridge and his organization divide the labor, with Promise686 concentrating on services for kids and families in foster care and Child Bridge working to place some of them in permanent homes. 

Promise686 works through a network of churches, labeling each node on the network a FAM, which stands for Family Advocacy Ministry. “We aim to empower 165+ FAMs in local Montana churches by the end of 2025, creating Christ-centered, child-focused ministries,” the website says.

In the interview, Scofield confirmed that goal and added numbers to develop a larger picture. He said that in 2021, its first year in Montana Promise686 handled only about 100 kids in foster care, but more than doubled that number the next year. It doubled the number again the next year and is on track to handle 1,000 kids this year. He said this year’s total accounts for about half the kids in state care now, and the group fully intends to keep increasing the number of kids under its care. He didn’t say it, but that extrapolates to a near complete takeover of foster care next year. There are now about 2,400 kids in foster care in the state, a number that is steadily declining.

The group runs the network on proprietary software called CarePortal. The group’s social media feed offers a description of CarePortal on Facebook: “It’s ministry. It’s love in action. It’s Jesus.”

That software links with the state through a special arrangement enabled by legislation passed during the 2023 session establishing a volunteer program in the Office of Faith and Community Based Services within the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services. That state office runs a website to connect people in need with a variety of services but under adoption services lists only two organizations, Child Bridge and Promise686, both evangelical Protestant. Those two alone roughly account for nearly all of the activity cited by the governor in his rally speech.

Scofield acknowledged that his religious network has dominated the state’s system, but said the local churches on the network are open to help from anyone, religious or otherwise. 

“The driving force, yes, is primarily the church, but there is a space for businesses. There is a space for individuals who love their community and want to serve vulnerable kids to get involved,” he said.

In addition to his foundation’s donations and his opening of state offices to Christian organizations, the governor has used his bully pulpit to explicitly promote Promise686. In December 2023, Gianforte launched a giving campaign and used his press office to urge all Montanans to donate to a list of his favorite charities. He highlighted Promise686.

Evangelical Protestants are a minority in Montana, only about 28% of the population. People with no religious affiliation make up a larger group, about 30%.

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