Jillian Johnsrud always wanted to be a foster parent. On her first date with the man who would later become her husband, she had an out-of the-ordinary question.
"'How do you feel about fostering or adopting from foster care?' … which is an odd first date question. But he was just a champ about it. He was like, 'you know, my parents are foster parents and I have a foster brother right now. And I think I really like that!'"
Johnsrud and her husband, Adam, have been foster parents for over a decade. They live in the Flathead Valley. They’ve fostered and adopted four children, including three young siblings.
But working with Montana's foster care caseworkers has made her dream much more difficult. Like the time when a caseworker came for their monthly visit with her family.
"I think in our area they’re better at checking the box than actually meeting the need. So, someone was pretty good about showing up at our house for 15 minutes and being like 'are the kid’s educational needs met? Their clothing needs? Their mental health needs? Check, check check.' And even if I was like, 'No! They’re really hard! We’re really having a hard time with this!' It’s like 'Oh, well I just, I already checked it. So we’re good. I actually don’t have time to fix this problem.'"
This was especially difficult for Johnsrud and her foster children. Like many children in the foster care system, one has a mental disability. And this isn’t something that just Johnsrud's family experiences. Self-audits and investigations from Montana Child and Family Services, or CFS, say that caseworkers here experience an overload of work. That leads to lax completion of paperwork. Nearly every aspect of their workload has seen significant increases just in the past three years. Sometimes there’s no evidence that caseworkers visited at all.
It doesn’t matter what kind of case it is. Foster care, legal cases, even follow-ups on child abuse calls. In 2015, only 30 percent of child abuse investigation paperwork and research in Montana was done on time, down from 80 percent five years ago.
"Montana stands out."
That’s Joyce Funda, a Kalispell attorney who is a part of the governor’s Protect Montana Kids Commission that’s looking for solutions to Montana’s CFS problems. She’s also the director of Montana CASA workers, who advocate for children in court.
"Some states have actually had a decline in dependent neglect cases. But the states who have an increase are generally experiencing increases at about 2 - 3 percent. We have alarming, spiky increases. They’re not just spikes. It’s almost a crescendo."
It’s difficult to find out exactly why this is happening in Montana because each case is different and complicated. CFS says it’s likely because of a spike in meth use and domestic violence in Montana.
Brent Lashinski, who supervises the CFS branch in Helena, says they had to remove 30 percent more children from their families each year for the past few years.
"And almost all of that’s directly attributable to methamphetamine," according to Lashinski.
In addition to dealing with this high caseload, CFS branches across Montana are experiencing high turnover rates. Lashinski says it’s mostly because there are less stressful, higher-paying jobs outside of CFS.
"In 2015, we had a worker leave approximately one per month throughout the entire year. We have 16 positions, and we were at 16 filled for about, one month I think, last year."
Lashinski himself has to handle a some cases too, because there’s just not enough staff to keep up. And that’s not in his job description.
Another reason caseworkers don’t stick around, some say, is because of the way their jobs are structured. CFS uses a system called "one family, one caseworker," adopted in 2011. The idea is that one family is assigned to one caseworker throughout their entire experience with CFS, from the first visit to custody battles in court.
"Where they felt it was a better outcome for people where you could work with the family from the very beginning to the very end of the case and get kids successfully reunited."
Lashinski says this setup worked well for a while, and that he really liked it. But with the system’s current situation, he says it’s just not working.
"It was so much at one time that it was hard for people to compartmentalize; so people who were really good at one thing and not as good at another thing, where it’s really hard to be good at both of those things. So it’s a real struggle for people to stay caught up with both of them."
Joyce Funda from the Protect Montana Kids Commission says that the system was controversial from the start.
"And this is just my opinion. That it would seem to me that if a person came knocking on their door and removed their children, and then they later found that they were working with that same person on a treatment plan and a plan to get their children back, that it could create some emotional biases and discord."
The Helena branch has started to separate the workflow into different categories. But other branches continue to operate under this system.
Meanwhile, there’s been a number of anti child-abuse protests held outside government buildings across Montana. The protesters are asking for big changes. Immediately.
Individual CFS branches have made small changes. But they can’t do anything big, because they keep getting denied funding. Over the past few years, a couple of state house bills asking for more funding were dropped. The Protect Montana Kids Commission is currently drafting a proposal for more funding. Here’s commission member Joyce Funda again.
"What we are discovering is that it is a very wide, systemic problem, and a very deep systemic problem. And it is going to require an awful lot of work to get it to a point where it is a well-functioning system."
But first the commission must come up with a list of recommendations, then it must be approved by the legislature, and then signed by the governor. And there’s really no timeline for when everything will get done.
"The welfare of our children, I think, really should be a collective responsibility in the state of Montana," says Funda. "And by that, I mean that while there’s certainly problems with the department, no question about it; but it doesn’t mean that the department is singularly responsible for making that better. It is the responsibility of the government. That is the legislature, both with funding and with legislation. It’s the responsibility of the communities. So we need to examine why do we have those cases?"
The commission’s recommendations for changes will be brought to the next legislative session in January. Montana CFS is also searching for a new state administrator. The former head left in April to pursue a career in law.
That leaves foster families like Jillian Johnsrud’s having to continuing to face tough challenges. I asked her what advice she has for people who might want to start foster families.
"It’s unreasonably hard. And just be prepared for that. So that’s something you definitely have to feel really called to do because there’s no rational reason to torture yourself like that. There’s kids in crisis. And those kids need placements that night. And there’s always more pressing things, but the important things get put on the back burner for two years."