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April Hall knew something was wrong when her 2-year-old granddaughter would come to visit and always had scrapes and bruises on her head.

Then one day the little girl, October Perez, cried when Hall took off her coat. It hurt her arm, and she couldn’t hold a cup. So Hall took the child to the emergency room in Great Falls.

“Call family services,” Hall mouthed to the woman at the hospital desk.

The X-rays showed that October had one broken arm and her other arm was healing from a recent break. The doctor, she said, called it a common break that the child's mother couldn’t explain.

Despite the red flags — two broken arms, recurring bruises, a missing tooth — the grandmother couldn’t persuade state Child and Family Services caseworkers to take the little girl away from the filthy home where she lived with her mother and mother’s boyfriend.

“Family services tells me I have 20 minutes to take her back” to her mother, Hall said. They said there was no proof of abuse.

Instead, the agency tried to teach October’s family better parenting skills. Caseworkers wouldn’t take Hall’s photos of bruises, saying photos could be doctored. They wouldn’t let her take the child to a dentist.

Hall pleaded with them to look into the boyfriend’s record in Oklahoma, where his own parental rights had been taken away when he was convicted on a drug charge. She felt that the workers didn’t care and lied to her.

“These damned boyfriends living with these mothers,” Hall said. “They have more rights than grandparents do, because it’s their household.”

Over six months Hall and others — including her son, October’s father, a soldier in Afghanistan — complained to family services. The grandmother called police when a family member photographed October with three teeth missing. She hired a lawyer. Nothing worked.

“Family services said 'The case is closed, everything will be all right,'” Hall said. “And in three weeks, she was dead.”

After suffering bruises, a broken back and other broken bones, head trauma and brain swelling, October was flown to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. The little girl was declared brain dead on June 25, 2011.

David Hyslop, mother Kristy Phipps’ boyfriend, was convicted in 2012 of deliberate homicide and sentenced to 100 years in prison without possibility of parole.

The tragedy of October Perez turned Hall from a Great Falls grandmother who has been cleaning homes for the past 20 years into an unlikely activist, crusading for stronger protections for Montana kids.

Armed with a Scobey High School education and photos of her blond, blue-eyed granddaughter, Hall has worked with prosecutors and police, grandparents and citizen activists for the past five years.

She passed petitions, met with two governors, drove snowy roads to Helena to pester lawmakers, and overcame her fear of public speaking. She baked cookies to raise money and gave dozens of interviews to news reporters.

“If it helps one kid, that makes it worthwhile,” she said.

Her efforts in the 2013 and 2015 Legislatures helped to pass and strengthen laws aimed at protecting kids.

The “October Perez law,” for which Hall fought in the 2013 session, created a new state ombudsman’s position for child abuse cases.

“The ombudsman — when we got that, it was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my life,” Hall said.

A network of about two dozen grandparents joined the fight in 2015, holding protests against the Child and Family Services agency, from Billings to Miles City, Missoula to Great Falls. They made picket signs, accusing individual caseworkers of placing grandchildren with child molesters and calling for family services leaders to resign.

After meeting with Hall and other activists in the summer of 2015, Gov. Steve Bullock created the Protect Montana Kids Commission. He gave it the task of investigating problems at the Division of Child and Family Services and recommending solutions.

After six months of hearings and meetings, the commission issued its report in May 2016. The commission found that the system is in “crisis,” overwhelmed by too many kids and too few caseworkers, and it issued more than 40 recommendations.

Despite what looks like progress, Hall said flatly, “It hasn’t gotten any better.”

As proof she pointed to the state child and family ombudsman’s December 2016 report. It found that 14 Montana children died whose cases had been reported to authorities within one year before their deaths.

Most of the 14 children died of abuse or neglect. The ombudsman’s report, which covered 16 months ending November 2016, was the first time the state examined such deaths.

The ombudsman found that in 12 fatalities there had been one or more red flags of abuse, such as drug and alcohol use, domestic violence, a prior history with the agency and instability in housing or finances.

“It really tears my heart out,” Hall said. “What good did that do when they’re having this commission? It’s like they’re all talking about it and nothing happened. Those 14 kids shouldn’t have died.

“It hurts our hearts when this happens,” she said. “How long did this baby suffer? How many months? What did they have to live through, and nobody did anything about it?”

Now the task falls to the 2017 Legislature, and to new leadership at Child and Family Services, to solve Montana’s child protection crisis and prevent new tragedies.

'We will not go away'

At first, Hall said she felt like the lone ranger.

Then she was joined by Cheryl Hodges, whose two grandchildren died mysteriously within 12 weeks of each other.

Hodges’ 18-month-old grandson, Darby Hodges, died in 2010 in Kalispell. Weeks later her step-granddaughter, Kiera Pulaski, age 4, died in Republic, Missouri. Both children had been in the care of their mother and her boyfriend. Despite the grandmother’s suspicions, despite her appeal to TV’s Dr. Phil, no one was ever charged.

Hodges testified before the Protect Montana Kids Commission, and charged her grandchildren died partly because of negligence by family services.

“At what point does Child and Family Services become complicit in the death of a child?” Hodges asked. “We’re very emotional. We don’t want it to happen to your grandkids. You don’t want to get that call that your grandchild was beaten to death.

“This system is broken,” from the top down, Hodges said. “This had better change.”

“We,” the grandparents, she said, “will not go away.”

Yet while grandparents like Hall and Hodges complained the state agency did too little to keep kids safe, other grandparents voiced the opposite complaint — accusing the agency of doing too much, taking away grandchildren unnecessarily and bullying their families.

After her own granddaughter was killed, Hall fought “day and night” at the 2013 Legislature to persuade lawmakers to create the ombudsman position to investigate child abuse cases. The job was placed within the Department of Justice — independent of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which oversees the Child and Family Services division.

She recalled going to her first legislative hearing to testify, screwing up her courage and saying, “Did you ever have to get a hold of your son in Afghanistan and tell him you lost the fight back home?” Then she broke into tears. “Nobody fought for (October’s) rights.”

After the bill passed in 2013, Gov. Bullock traveled to Great Falls for a signing ceremony for both the ombudsman bill and a bill that Cascade County Attorney John Parker had campaigned for to allow charging child endangerment as a felony crime.

That was important, Hall said, because when Hyslop was prosecuted, she asked Parker why the other adults living in the tiny house hadn’t also been charged, for she felt certain they must have known something. Prosecutors told her they could only be charged with a misdemeanor.

Two years later, when the 2015 Legislature started up, Hall said she got a call from the Department of Justice, saying the short-term funding for the ombudsman wasn’t going to be renewed. The office was going to be closed.

“So I took a picture of my dead granddaughter at the funeral home and sent it to every legislator, the governor, the attorney general, with a letter,” Hall said. “It said, ‘This is what happens when there’s nobody to turn to when you’re fighting for a child’s life.’

“Boom,” she said. “They passed it.”

Still, Hall said she’s disappointed because the ombudsman’s position isn’t stronger. She wants the ombudsman to be a watchdog, an investigator for people like her, who could gather all the evidence, interview relatives and neighbors and examine medical records, with the goal of preventing deaths like October’s and the other 14 children.

Now, however, the ombudsman is limited to looking at Child and Family Services records, which don’t include some key information. Lawmakers didn’t give the ombudsman access to medical and legal records, or cause-of-death records. A bill to create a fatality review commission in child abuse cases failed in 2015 and is being revived this legislative session, but Hall said she wants people to investigate cases before children lose their lives.

Hall said she is also disappointed because she feels another law passed in 2013 was supposed to let people who report child abuse know what has happened to the case, but it doesn’t always happen.

She said she is tired of hearing “the excuse” that family services is hampered by an ancient computer system. “FedEx can keep track of packages” across the country, Hall said, “and you’re telling me you can’t tell if there are already 15 reports on the same kid?”

Angels and ashes

Hall, 53, lives in a mobile home on a wind-swept road just north of Great Falls with her golden retriever Ruby and cat Emmy. Her neat home is filled with mementos of her granddaughter and angel figures on every shelf.

Hall has life-sized photos from October’s funeral, photos of the little girl wearing a Santa hat and her dad’s combat boots. 

“We always had so much fun,” she said quietly, looking through a big photo album.

She has big binders full of newspaper clippings about October and the fight against child abuse.

Her laptop has dozens of crime scene photos, showing the squalid conditions October lived in — rotten food in the fridge, overflowing garbage next to her high chair, a filthy bathroom, marijuana seedlings and the word REDRUM — "murder" backwards – written in crayon over a closet door.

“I can’t believe (family services) left a kid in that mess,” Hall said.

She has October’s piggy bank. Pink Barbie tricycle. Her last pair of shoes. Half her ashes.

One photo in her album shows October laid out by the funeral home, wearing a crown of flowers, looking like a porcelain doll, her grandmother said, despite the bruises on her limbs.

“It’s the last thing I think about when I go to bed,” Hall said, “and the first thing I think about when I wake up.”

Someday, Hall said she will have to explain to her little grandson when he asks what happened to his sister.

“She’s in Heaven,” Hall will say. “I have to tell him: Nobody would help. Nobody did anything about it. That’s going to be a hard thing.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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