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Child & Family Services Struggling With Caseloads, Documentation Problems

Hearing room at the Montana Capitol.
William Marcus
/
Montana Public Radio
Members of a legislative committee overseeing Montana’s Child and Family Services Division heard several storylines Monday for the reasons why the Division is struggling with child abuse and neglect casework.";

Members of a legislative committee overseeing Montana’s Child and Family Services Division heard several storylines Monday for the reasons why the Division is struggling with child abuse and neglect casework.

A main topic of the hearing was an audit report released last fall that found several problems with how the department is investigating cases, using casework data and documenting information.

Child and Family Services Administrator Sarah Corbally agreed with most of the audit. But said her department is lacking the resources needed to deal with the number of incoming cases, and said audit didn’t represent the scale of their work.

“As of last month we have 2,818 children in foster care. This exceeds the highest number on your chart by more than 500 children. All of these children have to be served by our agency on an ongoing basis. All of these children and families have significant ongoing needs.”

The audit report found extensive weakness in Montana Child Protective Service’s documentation, with many intake reports incomplete, and investigations taking much longer than the law allows.

And while number of child welfare cases does fluctuate from year to year, the audit found over the last decade the number of cases has remained generally consistent.

“And that seems to be the most significant issue – our ability to meet statutory timelines within our existing resources. We do disagree that our workload has remained static. We believe that it truly has increased,” Corbally says.

Will Soller worked on the audit report of child abuse and neglect  casework.

“We think some of the changes that the department is facing are not exclusively resource based.”

“I think there has been a fairly frequent narrative that CPS activity, that there is an increasing volume of reports and investigations out there and they are simply overwhelmed with the number of reports. And we just think that is not the whole story,” says Soller.

The audit report found more problems with how the cases were handled rather than the number of cases swamping workers. The audit said, as a result of poor documentation, the department is frequently unable to justify the decision it makes when assessing investigation reports of child abuse or neglect.

The audit report says the data system used to manage case information is old, not user friendly, and limits caseworker's ability to do their jobs.

Child and Family Service Division Sarah Corbally says an updated case management system will be in place by the end of 2016, but problems with staffing may take longer to resolve.

An issue that wasn’t a dispute during Monday’s hearing is the difficulty of the work done by child abuse and neglect caseworkers, and Corbally says that often leads to child welfare caseworkers burning out.

“Until we're able to recruit and retain qualified staff, we think we'll continue to struggle. And the number one issue we hear that is driving staff to leave, is work load. The number of investigations carried by the average Montana child protection specialist is four times the number recommended by the Child Welfare league of America.”

She said Montana lags behind neighboring states when it comes to pay and workload expectations for its child welfare caseworkers.

In October Governor Steve Bullock created the Protect Montana Kids Commission to help address the issue of child abuse and neglect  in Montana. Their next meeting is January 26 in Helena.

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