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Nearly 4,000 Montana children were in Montana’s foster care system last week when the Montana Department of Justice reported that 14 children died in 2017 after having been the subject of child abuse or neglect complaints to the state.

Those numbers — 14 fatalities last year and 3,925 children in protective care right now — quantify Montana's challenge. Child protection caseworkers, who are overworked and underpaid, must decide every day whether children can safely remain in their parents’ homes or if they need to be removed to be safe. State law requires these caseworkers and the courts to strive to reunify parents and children, but sometimes that isn’t possible. Often, children are in out-of-home placements for months or years. Just over half of the children in foster care are in kinship placements with relatives.

The Division of Child and Family Services has been criticized for being too quick to remove children on complaints of neglect and abuse.

10 infant deaths

On the other hand, the Child Fatality Review Report indicates that there have been tragedies when children weren't removed. All of the 14 children who died had been reported to the state child protection agency within 12 months of their deaths. Ten of the 14 deaths were children under age 1, two were ages 2-3 and two were 4 years or older.

A few days before the child death report was released, the state health department announced an initiative to prevent child abuse. Within a couple of months, Director Sheila Hogan told The Gazette, the department plans to contract with Montana health care and child advocacy organizations that are already doing home visits to add a total of five professional home visitors to work with some of the department’s “at risk families.”

This pilot project is a step in the right direction, but strikes us as woefully inadequate to meeting the needs of 3,925 kids — all of whom are at high risk for abuse or neglect in their own homes.

Budget constraints

The small expansion of home visiting is possible because of federal funding. Meanwhile, services to at-risk children have been reduced for lack of state funding. The Second Chance Homes, which in Billings sheltered up to 40 drug-addicted mothers and their children a year ago, no longer have state contracts. The last house in Billings still has three families, but will close later this month, said Amy Fladmo, executive director of the Center for Children and Families. All of the mothers in the program have substance abuse disorders, and the majority participated in intensive outpatient treatment while living at the shelter. Second Chance Homes also sheltered pregnant drug addicts.

Hogan said the department plans to redirect some federal substance abuse block grant funds to shelters for addicted mothers and will be requesting proposals from Montana organizations soon. We urge Hogan to move forward with family shelter grants quickly because they are desperately needed. Yet we are puzzled why Second Chance Homes that were already providing this service have been cut off.

In this tight budget biennium, the state needs to work more effectively with community services. Administrators must listen to these community partners and to the state’s front-line workers.

Caseload tripled

The child protection system needs many more front-line workers. The number of child abuse and neglect cases in Yellowstone County has tripled since 2014 — to 574 children in 2017 — but the protection staff hasn’t. So caseworkers often are responsible for caseloads more than double what is considered a full load. Statewide, child protection specialist turnover is running 35 percent, according to the department.

“Our front-line workers have a very difficult job,” Hogan said. Child protection casework jobs are exempt from the department’s hiring freeze, Hogan said. She said caseworker vacancies will be filled but “it will take time.”

The department is commended for emphasizing best practices, such as home visiting, which has been shown to reduce the incidence of child abuse and neglect. However, the initiatives announced so far are too small and involve families where abuse and neglect have already been reported.

How much better it would be if Montana invested in comprehensive child abuse prevention so that the incidence of child abuse actually decreases. The Child and Family Ombudsman’s report and the work of the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission established by the 2017 Legislature will provide guidance to the department and the 2019 Legislature. Much as we’d like to say that existing resources can simply be redeployed, it’s going to take more money to effectively deal with Montana’s still growing child abuse and neglect crisis.

— The Billings Gazette

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