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More than 25 years ago, the idea of sending mentors into the homes where abused children lived with their parents was brand new to Montana.

A fledgling nonprofit organization in Billings received the first state contract for home visiting. Family Support Network was inspired by a foster daughter who was living with Barbara and Michael Sample’s family. The teen girl wanted to talk to her birth mother. That simply wasn’t allowed at the time, Barbara Sample recalled in a recent interview at The Gazette.

“I called and invited the mom to dinner,” Sample recalled. “We’re still in touch.” This year, Sample was invited to the wedding of her former foster daughter’s daughter.

Sample, who had already helped found Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids to assist families with special needs children, joined forces with local social workers and other children’s advocates. Family Support Network was born.

“We went to the Legislature and asked for money for in-home services,” she recalled. Family Support Network became the state’s pilot project. Trained FSN staff visited homes to help parents and children learn skills to build stronger families – such as sitting down together for a family meal, setting reasonable rules for behavior, making a schedule to get everyone’s regular chores and activities done.

FSN also facilitates visits between parents and children who have been removed. Those visits may be supervised by staff who give parents cues on safe and healthy interactions with their children.

Now there are private nonprofit organizations providing in-home services throughout the state, although not enough in every community. For example, FSN has a contract to provide services in Park and Gallatin counties, but executive Director Shawn Byrne said he hasn’t been able to recruit staff there. The state contract and Medicaid reimbursement constrain what FSN can pay, which is about $2 an hour below what it would take to hire qualified workers in Bozeman.

Among recent success stories, Byrne is pleased to have a former client on his staff, a mom who stayed in recovery and got her kids back. Another staff member is a foster mother.

FSN offers parenting classes in Billings as well as in Roundup, Hardin, Crow Agency and Wyola. Those Big Horn County courses are led by an instructor who is a member of the Crow Tribe.

During the year ended in June, FSN served 272 families with 477 children. Recently more than 850 Yellowstone County children were in foster care, with 60 percent in kinship care of relatives or family friends.

FSN couldn’t do the work it does without strategic partnerships, including a collaboration with InterMountain Children’s Home that allows FSN to provide needed professional counseling, Byrne said.

The explosion of substance abuse – particularly meth – has complicated the work FSN does. “We went from traditional abuse – yelling, screaming, hitting – to drugs, the nightmare of drugs,” Sample said.

Along with drug abuse, FSN staff see a lot of hunger and lack of basic necessities, such as diapers, Byrne added.

FSN remains a small organization with about 20 staff members. It depends on volunteers and community organizations for help with things clients need.

“It’s too important to fail,” Byrne said.

FSN in one of the many private, nonprofits that make Billings a better place to live. Congratulations to its staff and supporters on 25 years of service.

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