Billings will get more Child and Family Services caseworkers, but only at the expense of the division's Livingston office.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services confirmed the closure of the Livingston office Friday. Of that office's six employees, five positions will move to Billings and one will move to Bozeman.
The department cited simple economics: The current Billings average caseload is about 60 children per caseworker, compared to an average of 11 across Gallatin, Park and Sweet Grass counties combined.
"In Billings caseloads are four times higher than in other areas of the state. We are committed to ensuring the Livingston area has appropriate coverage and continued staffing as we ensure that other areas with higher caseloads have adequate resources as well," said department spokesman Jon Ebelt in an emailed statement.
Billings will be glad for any relief, said Shawn Byrne, executive director of Montana Family Support Network, a group that works in conjunction with Child and Family Services in Yellowstone County and surrounding rural counties.
"The need in Yellowstone County, the Billings area, is great. No other way to say it," he said.
Byrne said he's talked to social workers juggling as many as 80 cases.
"You just can't keep up with that," he said.
The department's statement said that Yellowstone County has about 880 children in foster care, compared to about two dozen in Park and Sweet Grass counties.
That's small comfort to advocates in Livingston. In a posted statement, CASA of Park and Sweet Grass counties said the group was "shocked and deeply troubled" by the move.
CASA is a statewide nonprofit that trains volunteers to represent the interests of abused and neglected children in court. The group relies heavily on caseworkers' investigations and services.
"Over the years we have watched the state move toward 'regional hubs' for services during budget shortfalls," the statement said. "It is safe to say that rural Montana is being further isolated with these cuts, as social services fail to extend to communities that need it most."
With the Livingston office closed, Bozeman's office will serve Park and Sweet Grass counties.
Ebelt did not provide additional information about historic case loads or explain the timing of the Livingston closure.
Byrne said he gets why rural advocates are troubled, but that it's hard to look past the caseload disparity, and the state has only "finite resources."
While he's confident that Billings figures are too high, it's hard to say what an ideal caseload would be, given that some cases are more severe than others and demand more time and effort. And he said that more and more cases are severe, rising in conjunction with things like meth use.
"I don't know what the magic number would be, and I don't know if there is one," Byrne said.
He said that it would be ideal for there to be more Child and Family Services caseworkers across the state, but given the way the Legislature has handled recent budgets, it's not likely.
"We're not going to get there anytime soon," he said.