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The Department of Public Health and Human Services building in Helena.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services building in Helena

The state has hired two longtime employees to lead its child protective services division.

Marti Vining, who has been a regional administrator in central Montana for the Child and Family Services Division for the last seven years, will be the new division administrator.

Vining has also been a child protection specialist and supervisor, in addition to working as a social worker for the Cascade County Health Department, focusing on case management and home visitation services to high-risk families and pregnant women.

Vining replaces Maurita Johnson, who resigned after 16 months on the job.

“Protecting Montana’s kids and strengthening families is my passion,” Vining said in a department press release. “We have a strong team of child protection workers across Montana, and I look forward to working closely with them and our community partners to move this critical work forward together.”

Nikki Grossberg will be the new deputy administrator for the division. She was regional administrator for the division's western Montana region for the last seven years, and has worked as a child protection specialist and supervisor in the past.

“I look forward to teaming up with staff statewide to leverage all available resources to help support children and families, and our staff,” Grossberg said in a press release.

Vining and Grossberg will transition into the new positions in coming weeks. Department director Sheila Hogan emphasized their experience in a statement announcing the hirings.

“Marti and Nikki are proven leaders with incredible experience working within the child protection system and who during their careers have shown the ability to think outside the box to solve complex issues,” Hogan said. “They both excel at working with families, supporting staff, and have a keen understanding of state law, agency policy and the judicial system as it pertains to the complex child protection system.”

Hogan is working to overhaul the state's child protective services, which in recent years has come under fire.

Former administrator Johnson left during a turbulent time in which the state continued to set records for the highest number of children in foster care, reaching 3,454 in 2017. That number has more than doubled since 2008.

Data from the agency has show the rise is caused in part by an increase to methamphetamine drug use by parents; 64 percent of open placements involve drugs and of that 67 percent involve meth.

At a past legislative hearings, former administrator Johnson also cited inexperienced caseworkers as part of the problem, though the agency in January said it has decreased its turnover rate among child protection specialists and supervisors by 10 percent.

In a recent legislative audit, division administrators also attributed some of the foster care increase to a failure by the agency to fully follow its own procedures. However, officials said that the agency is making significant progress, they are committed to the safety-based model, but that it takes time to perfect.

Turnover has also been very high among caseworkers, who say their caseloads are excessive.

In an attempt to address the issue, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock formed the Protect Montana Kids Commission in 2015 and asked the group to develop legislation to fix the problems it studies.

The Department of Justice has also hired a child and family ombudsman to work with parents and families who have children in the system and are upset about their experiences.

Additionally, two commissions have been tasked with reviewing deaths of children who have come into contact with child protective services. In the first two-plus years since reporting has been required, the state has documented 28 children who died.

The division's new First Years Initiative directs specialized resources to some of the most at-risk children and families as an attempt to prevent deaths, and decrease abuse and neglect. The program rolled out in five counties and is expected to expand to 15 statewide.

There's also a new partnership with Billings Clinic and the University of Montana to provide consultation on complex child protection services cases.

In coming weeks, the state health department is also introducing teams of a licensed behavioral health and addiction counselor and one to two peer support specialists or community health workers. That team will partner with a child protection specialists on open investigations to identify and coordinate treatment and recovery needs of family members with a substance use disorder.

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