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The Department of Health and Human Services, the largest state agency, has a budget of almost $4 billion. DPHHS is in charge of everything from welfare programs to Child Protective Services. Last fall’s audit of CPS did not paint a rosy picture and pointed out several standards which needed implementing if we are going to truly protect our neediest children.

Audit findings noted the lack of communication with caregivers, do timely investigations, comply with state law and resolve inconsistencies between the law and department policies.

Just before the Audit Committee hearing on the CPS report, Governor Bullock appointed 14 people to check out the system and recommend improvements. This Protect Montana Kids Commission report will be given the end of March.

Some of the people testifying at the audit meeting had heartburn about the "show" and that not one concerned person who pointed out the perceived errors of the department had a voice on the committee including licensed professionals. If we always appoint people who agree with us can we ever find out how to fix the bur under the saddle or do we continue riding and pretending there is no problem?

One former employee of the department also pointed out that the agency now has intake and outtake workers who are the same person. How receptive would a parent be to a worker who has filed the paperwork to remove a child from the home and then tries the reconciliation effort when things are better? I agreed with her that these should always be different people as has happened in years past.

CPS Administrator Sarah Corbally claimed it was a matter of not having enough money, enough workers, enough updates on their computers, enough, enough. I say "no excuses." There will never be "enough" of anything and hope the urgency of these problems isn’t falling on deaf ears. Many workers have said "enough" to the department with a big turnover in recent years. I have a feeling they are as frustrated as some of the parents who testified before the committee.

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DPHHS Director Richard Opper sent me the numbers of children in care for a four-year period. There were 1,698 at the end of 2011 and almost a thousand more children in 2015. Federal funding has increased from $6.9 million to $8.3 million because of the increase. Some testifiers suggested that the $$ increase is the reason the department takes more and more children out of their homes, not based on thorough and timely investigations.

The real heroes in this story should be good decision-makers who protect the most vulnerable. Let’s not get into protectionism mode during an election year and decide to make some real changes for our families. Will we look into the black hole and shine a transparency light in the darkness if nobody is carrying the flashlight? It’s time to give these families a voice and assure that everything is out in the light of day — even in an election year.

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Not all is wrong with CPS since a friend’s family is now caring for two young men who needed a soft landing. All children deserve these types of good decisions by local caseworkers. We should all be carrying a flashlight.

-- State Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, serves on the audit committee.

 

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