HELENA — While Child and Family Services leaders aren’t asking the governor or Legislature for more caseworkers in a tight budget year, some of their employees feel much differently.

Several letters obtained by Lee Newspapers from child protection specialists plead for more employees.

“I am flabbergasted that management with (the Department of Public Health and Human Services) is not begging you for funds to hire more staff,” one employee wrote to legislators. “We desperately need more workers and clerical support.”

The Joint Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee last week heard testimony from Child and Family Services leadership as the Legislature considers at least $1 million in cuts to the division, mostly through leaving positions vacant and trimming an increase in funds the agency received last legislative session. The Legislature is considering about $93 million in cuts over the entire health department. The committee will set budgets sometime this week.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s plan also proposes $1 million in cuts, but puts $16 million back into the division over two years. That money is directed to help pay for the cost of children in care, such as foster families or subsidized adoption and guardianship.

Appropriations committee members Wednesday and Thursday questioned division officials why they weren’t asking for more employees. About 380 work in the division, which has field offices around the state.

The health department Friday said it's in the process of implementing recommendations from the Protect Montana Kids Commission, a 14-member group appointed by Bullock to examine the division, and that the changes will improve things for children and employees.

"The department will continue to support the division team through technology advancements, training and organizational improvements," a statement from spokesman Jon Ebelt said.

Ebelt said Bullock has transferred 27 permanent positions to the division over the last year.

Former division administrator Sarah Corbally told the committee Thursday she met a caseworker in court who had 47 children on her caseload. Employees who wrote letters to legislators said they had similar caseloads.

New division administrator Maurita Johnson, when asked by lawmakers Wednesday, told the committee the number of children in foster care could be increasing in part because less-experienced workers remove children from homes more often than workers with longevity. Those employees feel less confident in leaving children in possibly abusive homes, Johnson said. The division has also cited an increase in the abuse of methamphetamine as a cause.

Workers who wrote to lawmakers disagreed.

“It was brought to my attention that upper management for DPHHS were testifying in front of you folks this week and reported that we did not need more staff and that the extraordinary number of children in foster care we have is due in part to the number of new workers from the agency,” one employee wrote. “This could not be further from the truth.”

Another wrote: "First and foremost, there is not a single person I work with that is incapable of effectively doing their job. Quite the opposite, I have never worked with a more dedicated, ethical, educated and outstanding group of individuals. We put ourselves in positions that most people wouldn’t dare tread to protect the innocent lives of children. We spend countless hours away from our own children and families to assure the safety of one child."

One employee wrote that managers responded to a lack of available foster homes by saying that children would have to stay in sleeping bags, supervised by field workers, overnight in Child and Family Services offices, though the letter writer said that didn’t happen and temporary placements were found for children.

“I plead to this committee to look at the numbers. Look at the workload and caseload numbers that increase everyday. These children deserve to have a safe place to lay their heads down at night without the fear of what will happen the next day.”

Jim Fitzgerald, the chief operating officer of Intermountain, a nonprofit that provides a range of services to children in the western part of the state, said workforce vacancies are crippling the division.

“We need logical and consistent caseloads for these workers,” he said. “They are just being ground into dust. ... We are not going to get the job done if we can’t get some consistent, thorough support for those folks that are going down in the field as well as those folks in the division."

Ebelt said the division has done things to make it work more efficiently — staff members now have cellphones and tablets that allow them to work from the field and a new case management system is expected to be in place by October.

The division is also working to enhance its training, which now includes a simulation lab, for field staff and supervisors.

A sixth regional manager was added in Kalispell to help with workload distribution, Ebelt said, and under a new organizational structure regional supervisors report directly to the new division administrator, who started in November.

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Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.