The state is closing the Livingston office that protects abused and neglected children and moving staff jobs to Billings, where the caseload is four times greater than other areas of Montana.

The move is causing concern both in Livingston and in Bozeman, where Gallatin County’s child protective services will take over responsibility for Park and Sweetgrass counties’ children.

The state Department of Public Health and Human Services is closing the Livingston Child & Family Services Division office as of Aug. 6, confirmed Jon Ebelt, department spokesman in Helena.

“The current average caseload in the Billings CFSD office is about 60 children per caseworker,” Ebelt wrote in a statement, “and the average for Gallatin, Park and Sweetgrass – average of all three – is 11 children per caseworker.”

The news alarmed leaders of the nonprofit CASA programs in Livingston and Bozeman, but came as welcome news in Billings. CASA trains volunteers as “court-appointed special advocates” who represent children’s best interests in abuse and neglect cases that are severe enough to go to court.

“We are shocked and deeply troubled,” Ann Schilling, executive director of CASA of Park and Sweet Grass counties, and Ashley Peterson, development and volunteer director, said in a statement.

“The removal of this (Livingston) office drastically increases the risk of continued child abuse, neglect and harm,” they wrote. “(T)his alternative will be devastating to those in need.”

Kathi Ellison, one of three state child protection specialists based in the Livingston, said the news had been “devastating.” Five workers were offered jobs in Billings, Ebelt said, and one supervisor was offered a position in Bozeman.

As someone who has served more than 25 years in the Livingston and Big Timber areas, Ellison said, she hasn’t yet decided if she would move to Billings to keep her job.

“I have concerns about my community,” Ellison said. “I want the best for them. If Gallatin County takes over, they would try to do their best. But it makes sense to have an office in Livingston.”

In Bozeman, Glenda Noyes, executive director for CASA/GAL of Gallatin County, said she was quite concerned and so was writing to DPHHS and the governor.

“We already struggle to have sufficient caseworkers in Gallatin County,” Noyes said. “In my opinion they’re already overloaded.

“When (Bozeman) workers have to travel, especially in winter (over the pass to Livingston and Big Timber), I don’t believe the kids over there are going to have the protections and services they need,” she said. “I think kids and families are going to suffer a lot.”

In Gallatin County, CASA’s cases of abuse and neglected kids tripled in the last few years, Noyes said. In 2014, CASA served 40 kids total, including 21 new cases. In 2017, it served 135 kids total, including 63 new cases.

Yet Bozeman’s child protective services staff hasn’t tripled, she said. Today it has 10 staff members, including seven caseworkers, and will gain one supervisor, Ebelt said.

“It’s scary for the kids,” said Anita Nybo, former Gallatin County CASA director, who still volunteers. Bozeman’s CPS staff is, she said, “already stretched beyond their limit.”

However in Billings, the number of abused and neglected kids has “skyrocketed,” said Keely McCave, executive director of CASA of Yellowstone County.

At the same time, the child protective services office has suffered from high turnover because of burnout and because social workers can find job opportunities at Billings hospitals, she said.

“I think that’s going to help them out a lot,” McCave said of moving Livingston’s CPS jobs to Billings. More and more child protective specialists are feeling, she said, “crushed under the load” of new abuse and neglect cases.

In 2014, Yellowstone County CASA had 450 abused and neglected kids, she said. The next year, the number of new kids more than doubled, from 180 to 400. In 2016, nearly 600 new children were removed from their homes.

By the end of 2017, Yellowstone County had 950 kids in foster care.

“A lot of it is the meth problem,” McCave said. “Usually around 70 to 75 percent of abuse and neglect cases are drug related. Well over half are meth.”

State Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, said she had spoken with Sheila Hogan, DPHHS director, to express the community’s “huge concern” and urge her to fashion a plan for serving neglected and abused kids.

“Telling people you’re closing and you can go here or nowhere – that isn’t a plan,” Bishop said.

State services are facing budget cuts, she said. But putting all resources in big cities instead of small communities may not have the best outcomes, she said.

This is the fourth major loss to Livingston in the past year, Bishop said. She cited the closing of the Job Service office, Office of Public Assistance, and the Livingston Mental Health Center.

“We’re experiencing incredible hits to services in our community that serve the most vulnerable,” Bishop said.

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

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