Losing Tony

Marlo Pronovost
Thursday, December 5, 2019
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         Tony Renova enjoying time with his foster family.

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Montana DOC photos

Stephanie G. Byington and Emilio Renova

Tony Renova spent almost his entire five years in Columbus.

The little boy, known for his love of Super Heroes — Spiderman in particular — lived with a foster family who wanted to adopt him. They were the only family the child had ever known.

Approximately eight months ago, everything changed.

By order of a Crow tribal judge, Tony was returned to his biological parents in Great Falls.

Two weeks ago, Great Falls police were summoned to Tony’s home, where the child was found severely beaten. He was pronounced dead on scene.

His biological parents — Emilio Renova and Stephanie Byington — were arrested for the alleged deliberate homicide of their own child, as well as assault on a minor, child endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child. A third adult in the home, Racso James Birdtail is also charged with evidence tampering. Two other young children in the home have been taken into protective state custody.

All suspects have pleaded not guilty and remain jailed on $500,000 bond each.


The details of Tony’s death are shattering. Police found the boy bleeding from the nose and mouth, covered in bruises and cuts, with a cut on his forehead and a possible broken leg. Authorities believe he was beaten to death. He was declared deceased on scene.

Vigils have been held in Columbus, Great Falls and Billings. Public outrage on the case is widespread. So are the questions about why a child was taken from a stable, loving home and returned to biological parents with criminal records and who allegedly murdered him just months after gaining back custody.


Tony was placed with Jeff and Christy Foster in Columbus in 2014. He was less than a month old and was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Both parents were incarcerated at the time of his birth, according to the family and reports in the Great Falls Tribune.

The couple wanted to adopt Tony and knowing it was important to keep him tied to his heritage, often took him to powwows and other Native American events.

In 2018, the Fosters learned that the Crow Tribal Court was leaning toward returning Tony to his birth parents.

Because the Fosters are not Native American, they were not allowed to plead their case or even attend any of the tribal court proceedings. (Even in district courts, Foster parents have no rights to children for whom they are caring). A tribal judge ruled that Tony be returned to his biological parents. There was a transition period that involved both parents being required to get jobs and somewhere to live. Visitations were initially supervised, which morphed into overnight visits.

The last time the Fosters saw Tony was in March 2019.


Tony was returned to his biological parents by order of a Crow Reservation tribal judge under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). That judge’s order forced CPS to facilitate a reunion between Tony and his alleged killers.

ICWA was enacted in 1978 as a means to protect Native American and Alaska Native children. At the time, studies showed that 85 percent of the native children who were being removed from their homes were being placed outside their families and communities.

Congress’s intent was to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families,” according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association.

The ICWA applies to children who are members of a federally recognized tribe/Alaska Native village or are eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe/Alaska Native village and is the biological child of a member of a federally recognized tribe/Alaska Native village.

The National Indian Child Welfare Association states that the law is not based on race, but rather “applies to children who are citizens (referred to as “members” in ICWA) of a federally recognized tribe.”


Emilio Renova is a registered violent offender who is listed on the Montana Sexual or Violent Offender Registry (SVOR). Until this week, his status on the SVOR was listed as “non-compliant/address verification overdue.”

This week, that was updated to read his location is now in the Cascade County jail.

According to the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC), Renova’s criminal record includes felony aggravated assault in 2009 in Yellowstone County, as well as 2014 robbery conviction, also in Yellowstone County. Renova was given a 10-year sentence for the robbery conviction. DOC’s online database is unclear on if Renova served prison time for that conviction, and when asked for clarification, DOC referred the News to Yellowstone County authorities, who did not respond.

Stephanie Grace Byington is also a 2-time convicted felon. She was convicted of felony endangering the welfare of children in 2012 and felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs in 2013, according to DOC. Both were committed in Yellowstone County.

Byington was sentenced for both offenses in 2013 and received approximately 4.5 years to the DOC.

A criminal record does not preclude a biological parent from regaining custody of a child.


Sometimes the safest place for a child is not at home.

That statement was true for at least 3,946 children in Montana who were placed into foster care during the 2018 fiscal year, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS).

That ranked Montana 31st among all states.

During that same time frame, the U.S. DHHS reported the following for Montana:

•687 parental termination cases (28th nationwide)

•396 children adopted

•977 children waiting for adoption

•2,124 children who left the foster care system

Children are most often in foster care because they are being abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents or other caretakers.

There are currently believed to be more than 4,000 children in the foster care system.


The job of keeping children safe falls to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, under the Montana Child and Family Services Division (CFSD).

That agency’s mission statement is “Keeping Children Safe and Families Strong.”

The division’s statement of purpose is as follows:

“To protect children who have been or are at substantial risk of abuse, neglect or abandonment. We strive to assure that all children have a family who will protect them from harm. We recognize the protective capacities of families and incorporate them in assessments, decision-making and actions with the goal of improving safety, permanency and well being for children. We encourage our communities to strengthen their prevention efforts and to share responsibility for the safety of its children and families.”

The agency’s core values are listed as follows:

•Children have the right to grow and develop in safe and permanent family environments.

•The safety of children is dependent on the actions/omissions of adults.

•When families and communities collaborate, the possibility for success is increased.

•The safety of children in our care is dependent upon multi-level stewardship of human and financial resources.

According to the CFSD website, the length of time a child remains in foster care can range from overnight to years. The time in foster care depends on how soon a child can safely be reunited with his or her family or, if that isn’t possible, how soon a permanent placement can be made.

Reunification is always the primary goal, whenever possible. To that end, CFDS strives to help make parents better caregivers through counseling, parenting education classes, in-home services, mentoring, supervised visits and even transportation.

When possible, children are placed with suitable relatives or tribal members. A district court judge must approve all temporary and permanent out-of-home placements. Where deemed appropriate, such placements must be approved by a tribal court judge.