HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The head of the state health department says child protection workers in Billings are facing "crisis level caseloads" leading the Division of Child and Family Services to decide to close its Livingston office and move that office's caseworker jobs to Billings.
The decision to close the Livingston office on Aug. 6 was criticized by caseworkers, law enforcement and court appointed special advocates, or CASA's, who advocate on behalf of abused children in court.
"Our priority is to make sure kids in Yellowstone, Park and every county in the state are safe and provided timely services and resources," said Sheila Hogan, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services.
"As we adjust resources to respond to crisis level caseloads in Billings, we are committed to working with stakeholders in Livingston to make sure the transition process takes into account their ideas and concerns.
"Their leadership team will be meeting with stakeholders next week to ensure our plan moving forward addresses community concerns," Hogan said Wednesday.
The concerns include caseworker travel time from Bozeman to nearby counties.
"I think the solution is to give Billings more staff for what they need to do, but I don't see why they would close our office," Park County Sheriff Scott Hamilton told The Billings Gazette . "Instead of having just one place to worry about, now they're going to have at least three to worry about."
Officials with CASA of Yellowstone County and a Billings lawmaker were glad to hear about the additional help for Billings-based caseworkers.
State Rep. Kathy Kelker, however, said closing Livingston's office wasn't ideal.
"It's not going to be easy and hopefully it's not going to be the way it is for years and years," Kelker said.
Things like supervised home visits are "just hard to pull off if you're in some other community or the staff has to travel."
Child protection workers in Billings have an average caseload of 60 children, and Yellowstone County received 785 new reports of child abuse or neglect in the past five months, Hogan said. She compared that to Livingston, whose caseworkers have an average caseload of nine children while Park County received 72 new reports of abuse. Adding five new caseworkers in Billings would still leave a caseload of 44, or nearly four times the current caseload in Bozeman.
Montana has nearly 4,000 children in foster care, including almost 850 in Billings and Yellowstone County. The Bozeman office has 79 children in its care while Livingston has 32 children, the state said.
The state is seeking applications for 13 caseworker jobs, including five in Kalispell. It is advertising for a supervisor for Billings.