Gov. Steve Bullock announced a series of reforms to improve child protection and welfare in the state during a tour of the First Step Resource Center at Providence St. Patrick Hospital on Monday.

“Every child who walks in through these doors – many of them have challenges we couldn’t even imagine,” Bullock said in announcing the Protect Montana Kids initiative. “Every one of those children can be successes or statistics.”

The initiative is aimed at improving systems used by child protection agencies and increasing resources available to them. Bullock called that mission “the most important responsibility we have as a state.”

Bullock said that over the past eight years, the number of children in foster care has gone up 75 percent – largely due to an increase in the number of kids who are placed there as a result of cases involving drug or alcohol abuse by a parent. Those cases are up 65 percent over the past five years.

The governor’s new initiative has two components. They include the hiring of 33 frontline staff members at child advocacy centers across the state to reduce their caseload, as well as improving evaluations and training and building a new electronic case management system.

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First Step provides medical examinations and forensic interviews to children and adults who have been the victim of sexual abuse or physical assault. It also works with children who have witnessed violence or been in drug endangerment situations.

MC Jenni, care coordinator at First Step, said the center takes referrals from law enforcement, the Montana Child and Family Services Division, as well as parents.

“I can pick up the phone and hear a deep breath and know that is a parent who doesn’t know what to say,” she said.

When children come into the center, they undergo both a forensic interview to discuss what happened to them and a medical examination to determine their physical condition.

Jenni said members of Missoula law enforcement, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and Child and Family Services can watch the interviews in a separate room via video feed and can discuss the information with interviewers like registered nurse Cat Otway.

All of the agencies, including First Step, are part of Missoula’s JUST Response Multidisciplinary Team, which collaborates on issues of violence in the city.

So far in 2015, First Step has handled 332 cases, 79 percent of which were children. Last year, the office saw 413 total cases, 81 percent of which were children.

“Our role is to make it as non-threatening and as non-traumatic as possible,” Otway said. “We see them come in as potential victims and rounding the corner as survivors.”

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Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, joined Bullock during his tour of First Step.

Several changes the governor announced as part of the Protect Montana Kids initiative were included in House Bill 305, which was advanced by Dudik during the 2015 Legislature.

After passing the House, the bill was defeated in a Senate committee. The governor, Dudik said, recognized the importance of protecting Montana children and included some of her bill’s changes in this year’s general budget.

Bullock also signed an executive order to create a commission that will re-examine the way the child protection system works in Montana and suggest changes in policies and practices that are currently in place.

The commission will issue a report on its findings to the governor’s office by the end of March 2016. Bullock has also asked the national child welfare organization Casey Family Programs to assist the commission and conduct an independent review of Montana’s system.

The commission’s recommendations for improvements will eventually go before the 2017 Legislature.

“We need to be ready to act and take those recommendations seriously,” Dudik said. “Children and families are literally counting on us.”

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