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The head of Montana's child protective services has resigned after about 16 months on the job.

Maurita Johnson became head of the Child and Family Services Division of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services in November 2016. Officials with the health department said Monday she chose to resign.

“Maurita Johnson has decided to pursue other opportunities, and we wish her all the best in the future," director Sheila Hogan said in an emailed statement. "Child and Family Services is a top priority for (the department) and we will be posting the position immediately."

Johnson came from Oregon, where she was a district manager for that state's child protection efforts. She started Nov. 5, 2016, and left March 9, 2018.

She took the helm of Child and Family Services during a turbulent time. The state has continued to set records for the highest number of children in foster care, reaching 3,454 in 2017. That number has more than doubled since 2008.

Many in the department attribute the increase to methamphetamine drug use by parents. But in past legislative hearings, department officials have also cited inexperienced caseworkers as part of the problem.

In a recent legislative audit, division administrators also attributed some of the foster care increase to a failure by the agency to fully follow its own procedures. 

Turnover has also been very high among caseworkers, who say their caseloads are excessive.

In an attempt to address the issue, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock formed the Protect Montana Kids Commission in 2015 and asked the group to develop legislation to fix the problems it studies.

The Department of Justice has also hired a child and family ombudsman to work with parents and families who have children in the system and are upset about their experiences.

Additionally, two commissions have been tasked with reviewing deaths of children who have come into contact with child protective services. In the first two-plus years since reporting has been required, the state has documented 28 children who died.

Over the years, a group of grandparents based in Great Falls has become increasingly vocal in its complaints against the department.

When Johnson came on board, the group told the Associated Press it would wait to see how she did and said they felt she had some good plans. They were still cautious, however, saying if she did not enact reforms, they would go back to demonstrations and lobbying the Legislature.

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