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Yellowstone County has about 880 children in foster care because of abuse or neglect in their own homes. Statewide, nearly 4,000 children newborn through age 17 are in the foster care system.

Those numbers reveal why Yellowstone County child protection workers have been especially overloaded in a state that has seen substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect more than double in the past five years.

The Division of Child and Family Services Child protection office in Livingston is closing and the staff members are being transferred — one to Bozeman and five to Billings. The Livingston office is serving about 24 children in foster care in Park and Sweet Grass counties with caseworkers responsible for 11 children on average, according to Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesman Jon Ebelt.

In Billings, according to Ebelt, each caseworker is responsible for 60 children on average. Caseloads at times have been much higher than 60 during the past two years as the Billings office lost social workers to burnout and better paying, less stressful jobs. The depleted staff kept working, doing the best they could with too few workers for so many children.

“In Billings, caseloads are four times higher than in other areas of the state,” Ebelt told Gazette reporter Matt Hoffman. “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.”

We aren’t happy that the Livingston office will close. That is likely to mean more travel time for foster children, foster parents and birth parents for visits, meetings and services that will help these kids reunite safely with parents or get other safe, permanent homes.

It’s an outrage that Montana’s budget cuts have placed our most needy and vulnerable children at the back of the line. Neither DPHHS nor the legislature have championed what children need. Instead, they are trying to make do with a budget that is based on serving half as many kids as are in the system today.

We call on DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan to speak up clearly and publicly about staff shortages and turnover that results in poor communications and unnecessary delays in getting kids out of the system.

Since the 2017 Legislature adjourned, vacancies have not been filled quickly and budget cuts nixed computer system upgrades that would help these crucial professionals do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. CPS relies on a slow, obsolete computer system.

In 2013, a bill to start the process of bringing Montana’s children protection system up to national standards of the Council on Accreditation died in House committee. Instead, the legislature cut the budget, costing the Division of Child and Family Services 27 positions.

The Council on Accreditation’s website says that a manageable workload “makes it possible for workers to meet practice requirements; does not impede the achievement of outcomes; and takes into consideration the qualifications and competencies of the worker and case status and complexity.”

“Generally, investigative workers should manage no more than 12 active investigations at a time including no more than 8 new investigations per month. Ongoing and preventive services workers should be working with no more than 15-18 families (cases) at a time, with no more than 10 children that are in an out-of-home placement,” according to the Council on Accreditation.

As Gov. Steve Bullock prepares his executive budget proposal for the 2019-2020 biennium, he should include a request for the staffing needed to move toward national standards

We call on legislators in Park, Sweet Grass, and Yellowstone counties to unite to advocate for the good of all Montana children. The closure of the Livingston office is a symptom of a much bigger problem that Hogan, Bullock and the 2019 Legislature must resolve.

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