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New State Program Aims To Reduce Child Deaths, Abuse And Neglect

A baby clutches a parent's finger. Stock photo.
A baby clutches a parent's finger.

The Montana Department of Health launched a new program today aimed at reducing child deaths, along with abuse and neglect among vulnerable families. The First Years Initiative will provide services and resources to new mothers and their children. It’s funded through a federal grant and will be rolled out in stages.

The Initiative will create five home visitor positions to serve around 125 families involved in the state child protection system.

Of the 14 child deaths reported to Montana’s Child and Family Ombudsman over a recent 1-year period, 10 involved children under the age of one.

"That is haunting, and it’s just not ok," says Laura Smith with the department’s public health and safety division.

Smith says home visitors are meant to serve as a bridge for vulnerable mothers to necessary resources.   

"Through this new initiative, they would meet with the family in a community setting and really assess the needs of the mother and child. A concrete example would be the home visitor finding available community resources ranging from health care to WIC to transportation to mental health counseling, and would assist with finding housing."

Smith says home visitors will also coach new mothers on child development and parenting skills. They would then report their client’s progress to Child and Family Services over a series of months.

Because it is federally funded, Smith says state budget cuts should not impact the Initiative, which she hopes will expand in the coming years.

"We will be able to look — after this first stage — look at the data we have and then make a determination about where we want to go from here throughout the rest of the state," Smith says.

In the next few months, as part of the Initiative, Smith says they will unveil a partnership with the Montana Healthcare Foundation that focuses on prenatal and postpartum care for mothers with substance abuse disorders.

A study commissioned by Congress in 2016 showed that early childhood home visitation services had the most promise in preventing child fatalities and reducing child abuse and neglect.

Beau is a former Morning Edition host and producer and engineer for the MTPR program "Capitol Talk." He worked as a reporter, and hosted Freeforms once a month.
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