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As the number of Montana children in foster care grew from 2,206 in June of 2013 to 3,951 in June 2018, the number of child protection workers didn't keep pace.

Child protection specialists wound up with dozens more children than national accreditation standards recommend. Overloaded workers struggled to get children and parents needed services in a timely fashion. Workers burned out, leaving even fewer workers and higher caseloads.

The salary range for a Montana state child protection specialist starts at $35,000 a year for a job that requires a college degree and uncommon ability to deal with stress, criticism and the problems of child abuse and neglect.

Currently, there are 43 protection workers with two years of service or less. As of last week, the state Child and Family Services Division had 28 child protection job openings — a 14 percent vacancy rate.

Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, has proposed a straight-forward plan to boost child protection worker recruitment and retention. Moore, who serves on the new Montana Child Fatality Review Commission, proposes a limited educational loan repayment program that would be available to child protection specialists after a full year of service at CFSD.

Moore introduced House Bill 339 and asked the State Administration Committee to send the measure on to the appropriations committee. He proposed $1 million in funding for the upcoming biennium, with incentives of $3,000 in direct educational loan repayment after one year of service, $4,000 after two years and $5,000 after three years. Depending on the number of employees qualifying and applying, the incentive might have to be prorated.

Addressing the committee on Feb. 13, Moore noted the high turnover among child protection workers: 35 percent for each of the past two years.

"High turnover begets high turnover," Tucker Finley, a child protection specialist, told the committee. "This incentive would keep more people in the field and reduce their financial strain."

"This bill would get people in the field and keep them there," said another child protection specialist who added that he has $50,000 in educational debt and is working toward an advanced degree while carrying a caseload of 50 children in 27 families.

Asked by Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, to give examples of the challenges for child protection workers, division administrator Marti Vining told of going out to a residence last fall on a report of children in a meth house. When Vining and other staff arrived, they could see a toddler and three preschoolers through a window. The children were crying, but no adult answered the door. The child protection workers called law enforcement officers who got parents to answer the door. The parents were actively using meth and the house was unsafe and filthy with a toilet overflowing with feces.

That's the type of call Montana child protection workers answer every day. They have to make urgent decisions about whether to remove children from an unsafe home into the care of relatives or a licensed foster home — or to keep them with their parents. They often must decide between the trauma of separation and the danger of leaving children in a home that may be unsafe.

"There's a special place in heaven" for people who do this work, Moore said.

We urge the State Administration Committee to support HB339, and encourage appropriators to put some funding in it. Keeping child protection specialists on the job will save the state money overall by retaining experienced staff, reducing the need for training new staff and reducing overtime pay for overloaded staff.

Nearly one in four children in the foster care system are from Yellowstone County and caseloads here have been especially high. We call on Yellowstone County lawmakers to join Moore in valuing the workers who are responsible for stopping child neglect and abuse. Support and fund HB339.

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The Billings Gazette

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