Gazette opinion: Keep Montana kids safe from abuse, neglect

2013-01-09T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Keep Montana kids safe from abuse, neglect The Billings Gazette
January 09, 2013 12:10 am

The 2013 Legislature will be asked to consider four proposals generated by an interim study on childhood trauma.

While each of the bills has merit, none addresses the central and basic problem of too few child protection workers dealing with too many cases of child abuse and neglect.

“The Child and Family Services Division Investigates an average of 8,500 reports of abuse and neglect each year but often finds itself understaffed,” the legislative interim committee’s final report noted.

A separate report from the Child and Family Services Division explains why staff is shorthanded: The 2011 Legislature imposed a 4 percent permanent full time employee reduction to staff and requires a 4 percent vacancy savings in addition to that permanent reduction. For CFSD, this translated into a loss of 27 full time employees. 

Several child deaths over the past two years ignited criticism of the system. Reformers testified to the interim committee as did national child safety experts and CFSD staff.

As a result, this legislation has been introduced:

  • House Bill 75, which would require the Department of Public Health and Human Services to attain accreditation with a national, independent accreditation entity for the child and family services it provides. The bill calls for an appropriation of $100,000 for the biennium.
  • House Bill 76, which would create “an independent office of the child and family ombudsman.” The ombudsman would be appointed by the governor with the consent of the State Senate and administratively attached to the Department of Justice. The bill calls for an appropriation of $250,000 for the biennium. Both HB75 and 76 were introduced by Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez, D-Billings.
  • Senate Bill 65, would authorize DPHHS to “upon request from any reporter of alleged child abuse or neglect, verify whether the report has been received, describe the level of response and timeframe for action that the department has assigned to the report, and confirm that it is being acted upon.” This bill, introduced by Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, addresses the No. 1 concern of professionals who are required by law to report suspected abuse and neglect: They do not know if their report is going to be investigated after they call.
  • Senate Bill 58, calls for transfer of $10 million from the state general fund to the Endowment for Children, which was established in 1985 to fund child abuse and neglect prevention programs. Only interest earned by the endowment is available for spending on programs. This bill was introduced by Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena.

As the committee’s interim study on childhood trauma confirmed, prevention is the most valuable strategy. And the most cost-effective investment is services for children from birth through age 3 when most brain development occurs.

Citizens also asked the committee to ensure that the child protection system, especially foster care, doesn’t become a source of trauma for children.

The last point requires providing better compensation and training to social workers and manageable caseloads. Accreditation would establish professional standards to hold DPHHS accountable. Exempting direct-care social workers from vacancy savings would allow the department to have the full complement of caseworkers authorized by the budget for the entire biennium.

The resolution approved by the 2011 Legislature called for “identifying any appropriate steps Montana policymakers may take to reduce childhood trauma in order to improve the mental health of Montanans.” The Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee has done that. Now it’s up to the 2013 Legislature to act.

Montana’s law and budget must emphasize and fund prevention, set high standards for child protection staff, hold DPHHS accountable and provide sufficient resources to recruit and retain professionals.

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