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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Advocate, Critic React To Gov's Child Protection Plan

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services

Last week Governor Steve Bullock announced a new, multi-million dollar initiative to reform child protective services in Montana.

That’s the system that follows up on reports of child abuse and neglect. About 1,400 reports a year like that come in. Montana’s Child and Family Services Division can recommend that kids in those situations can be placed in foster care for their own protection.

"We’ve seen a huge increase in kids in the foster care system in the past eight years or so."

That’s Bart Klika, an assistant professor in the school of social work at the University of Montana.

"And a lot of these numbers can be attributed to things like parental drug use, and so in the Governor’s proposal we see funding that would be allocated for substance abuse prevention."

The centerpiece of the governor’s proposal, though, is hiring 33 new people to work in the state’s Child and Family Service’s division. Doing that, and putting more money into the system, Klika says, appears to make sense.

"And I think that the Governor’s proposal includes things about both allocating resources for additional workers but also saying there are some benchmarks that we want to reach as a state with our child welfare system and we’re going to put those pieces into place to make sure that that happens."

But a prominent Republican state lawmaker is not so hot on Governor Bullock’s plans for the Child and Family Services Division. Art Wittich chaired the House Human Services Committee in the last legislative session.

"I think it does need additional funding, but how it’s being spent is the disagreement."

The 33 new hires Bullock’s plan calls for are to be assistants to the social workers who manage the cases of children in the system. The idea is reduce the workload on those social workers so they can spend more time on individual cases.

He also set up a new commission to study Montana’s child welfare laws and system, and allocated $1.5 million to replace the system’s computerized records system.

Rep. Art Wittich (R) HD68
Credit Montana Legislature
Rep. Art Wittich (R) HD68

"To set up a commission, to add more staffing and assistants, that’s the typical big government, Bullock stock dance solution there should be ,more definitive action taken. Well I think top to bottom the decision making has been extremely poor. New people need to come into the system. They need to change the management at the department."

And advocate for kids in Montana’s foster care system disagrees with Wittich.

"I really think it’s vital what they’re doing. Schylar Canfield-Bader, from Butte, grew up in Montana’s foster care system. Now, he works with kids who are in it."

"I think that if you increase manpower, kind of go al non with the increase in case loads that makes complete sense. If the case loads go up, the money doesn't go up and the number of people managing the case loads doesn't go up. That's not a good sign for anybody, either the caseworker or the victim."

It’s been about 10 years since Canfield-Bader was in Montana’s foster care system himself, He’s now a leader in several foster youth advocacy organizations, including the ChildWise Institute.

"I still work closely with youth who are in the foster care system in Montana as well as workers and administrative people who are working in the foster care system today."

Bader-Canfield says Governor Bullock’s initiative makes sense.

"I can only image what that would feel like to all of the sudden to be  given tools that you drastically need to make things happen, updating tech that will allow caseworkers to coordinate remotely. It's critical as well as providing easy access to the information for everybody. I think the most important part this is the man power and the dollars being directly connected to this. The massive inserts that we do need and I'm glad their putting not in the one time here's the emergency release. What we are doing now  this is a multi-year plan."

It’s going to take a while for the changes Governor Bullock is setting in motion take hold. The state still has to contract for re-vamping its case management computer system. It’s already advertised for the 33 new case manager assistant jobs, but it will take time to hire and train new employees.

The measures that Schylar Canfield-Bader says he’ll be looking at down the road to see if the Governor’s plan is really work include whether case workers can get more time to spend with each of their clients, and if Montana can do a better job of finding permanent placements for foster kids, so they don’t have to bounce around as much as he did when he was in the system.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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