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Montana’s system for protecting abused and neglected children is in crisis.

The Protect Montana Kids Commission, created by Gov. Steve Bullock in 2015, spent six months last year investigating the problems, hearing from the public and reaching that conclusion.

Now the question is what will the governor, state agencies and 2017 Legislature do about it.

The Protect Montana Kids Commission reported its findings in May 2016:

— The number of Montana kids in foster care has more than doubled.

— The problem keeps growing. In 2008 there were 1,507 children in foster care. By 2016, the number of foster kids had grown 111 percent to 3,179. And as of this month, the number has risen again to 3,454 kids.

— Parents hooked on meth is the single biggest reason Montana children end up in foster care.

More than 1,000 foster kids had parents who were using methamphetamine. That’s four times as many as in 2010.

Poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, mental health, domestic violence, opioid addition and alcoholism are other reasons that more kids are ending up in foster care.

Montana's Child Abuse Hotline received 35,812 calls in 2015. Half the calls, 17,754, alleged abuse or neglect. That led to 8,908 investigations.

Child abuse and neglect cases filed in court more than doubled to 2,321 — up 125 percent from 2010 to 2015.

Yet the caseworkers handling the flood of calls, the permanent staff in the state Division of Child and Family Services, actually decreased 4 percent. The 2013 Legislature provided more money for Child and Family Services, but ordered reductions in employees.

In Montana, the commission found, caseworkers carry workloads that "far exceed national standards.”

The agency had 178 people to investigate new and ongoing cases, but it would have needed at least 121 more caseworkers to keep up. The agency was also shorthanded on supervisors.

The results are stress, burnout and high turnover.

In 2015, Child and Family Services lost 97 child protection specialists. The average time people stayed on the job was less than two years.

Filling vacancies was hard, so supervisors often had to take over children's cases directly. That meant less time for them to train new caseworkers or foster families.

Things won't change, the commission said, without more resources. That is, money and people.

After receiving the Protect Montana Kids Commission report and its more than 40 recommendations, Bullock wrote in July that the challenges were so great, “we cannot wait for legislative action.”

For decades, the child services system had been “overburdened and under-resourced,” Bullock wrote. “Our most vulnerable citizens deserve more.”

He said he had already directed the Department of Public Health and Human Services to hire 33 additional “frontline” staff at Child and Family Services.

The additional workers were transferred from other areas within DPHHS to its Child and Family Services division, explained Jon Ebelt said, department spokesman.

As the 2017 Legislature convened in January, the governor proposed $74 million in state spending cuts.

Yet for Child and Family Services, the governor asked the Legislature to increase spending, by some $16 million over the next two years.

That money would be used to handle expected increases in caseloads, Ebelt said. The money would go to foster care, subsidized adoption and subsidized guardianship caseloads.

The Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services is scheduled to hear the Child and Family Services budget this Wednesday and Thursday, and possibly vote on Friday.

The Human Services Appropriations committee has already voted to cut $93 million from the umbrella agency, the Department of Public Health and Human Services, or four times more than the nearly $19 million the governor proposed.

The governor’s budget calls for no increase in the current 381 full-time employees in Child and Family Services. That number is up from 353 full-time employees in his request two years ago.

In addition to increasing staff and filling vacancies, the Protect Montana Kids Commission recommended hiring a new administrator. That happened in November, when Maurita Johnson was hired from Oregon’s child welfare agency to take over Montana’s troubled Child and Family Services.

Johnson told the Associated Press she aims to train more workers, get more foster kids into permanent homes, do a better job evaluating whether children are in danger, and give parents “clear and reasonable” conditions for having their children returned home.

The Protect Montana Kids Commission also blamed the agency’s 25-year-old computer system, CAPS, that doesn't let staff share information in a timely way. The 2013 Legislature provided a small amount of money to begin building a modern system.

The first phase of the new computer system is expected to be ready by October, Ebelt said. It should make the system more efficient as calls of abuse or neglect come into the central hotline, are assigned to people in the field, and investigations and outcomes are recorded.

Montana's district courts are also feeling the strain. Child abuse and neglect cases more than doubled in six years, up 125 percent from 1,030 to 2,321 in 2015. Judges, county attorneys, public defenders and Court Appointed Special Advocate — CASA — program managers all reported they need more staff to protect kids.

Several of the commission’s proposed solutions are going before the 2017 Legislature. For example, the commission called for:

— Creating a child abuse and neglect review commission, to collect data on and review child abuse fatalities and near-fatalities, and inform the public "what steps need to be taken to prevent future tragedies." The bill died in 2015 in the House Judiciary Committee.

This session, House Bill 303, to create a child abuse and neglect review commission, has been introduced by Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, and assigned again to the Judiciary Committee.

— Creating a bill of rights for foster children and foster parents, reviving a bill that failed in 2015.

Frank Garner (R)

Garner

HB 182, carried by Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, has had one hearing and is awaiting action in the House State Administration Committee. Garner, former Kalispell police chief, said he’s “very optimistic” that the bill has a chance of passing this time.

— Speeding up court cases for "youth in need of care," and adding timelines for court action. HB 173, sponsored by Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, would set a deadline for ordering a treatment plan and set a 30-day deadline for a hearing once a petition to terminate parental rights is filed.

Another bill, HB 201, would let judges appoint an attorney or qualified person, as guardian ad litem for a child in a neglect or abuse case, to represent the best interests of the child, if a special advocate isn’t available.

The commission also recommended:

— Changing the law to clarify that the state can take reports of child abuse and neglect even if the reporting person doesn't have all the information now required, like an address.

— Asking the Legislature to pay for free tuition for all teenagers who "age out" of the foster care system at age 18.

The commission also recommended changes in caseworker training and recruitment, increasing transparency and communications, and creating a confidential way to communicate "to alleviate concerns of retaliation" towards staff, foster youth, families and providers.

"Although it may seem a large investment," the commission report said, "the cost of doing nothing will be far greater in the future."

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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