HELENA – The Division of Child and Family Services is facing an alarming caseload increase with inadequate resources and training, causing staff to burn out and quit, the Protect Montana Kids Commission found after a six-month study of the agency.
The commission is recommending the legislature increase funding for child protection and for the court system, prosecutors and public defenders' offices to help handle the increasing number of child abuse cases.
Commissioners were scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon to approve their final recommendations for changes in legislation, funding, workplace culture and retention and communication.
Gov. Steve Bullock created the commission in response to concerns from family members who complained they were disrespected by caseworkers, that the agency ignored the recommendations of some counselors and workers seemed to lack training. A legislative audit later found the agency didn't always adequately document cases or close cases within federal timelines.
The commission "wishes to convey its deep concern for the state of the child protection system and implores the Montana Legislature to support these recommendations and increase the resources allocated for prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect," the commission wrote in its draft recommendations. "It is apparent that if Montana does not do more to prevent child abuse and neglect, it will face growing challenges in is other systems, such as corrections, mental health and schools."
Montana has a record 3,179 children in foster care this year, up more than 100 percent from 1,507 children in 2008, the commission learned. Much of the increase is due to parental drug use. In 2010, 230 Montana children were in foster care due to parental drug use. The number now exceeds 1,000.
"The growing number of children being served by the child protection system in Montana is alarming," the commissioners wrote, while also noting that 97 child protection specialists left the agency in 2015. A staffer stays on the job an average of less than two years. DCFS currently has job listings for 11 child protection specialists, with an annual salary ranging from $34,700 to $43,400
Commission members recommended that hiring and training new workers should be a priority, and in the long term the agency should work with colleges that offer related degrees to seek new employees. The agency should set caseload standards, improve training, gain accreditation and look at revising the pay structure and offer a way for caseworkers to stay in the job and advance their careers, the commission said. The agency is also replacing its director and hiring a deputy director, which the commission said should be the highest priority.
The commission also recommended some legislative changes including creating a child abuse and neglect fatality review commission, improving transparency to meet federal requirements, creating a foster youth and foster parent bill of rights and requiring an attorney to be appointed to children involved in abuse and neglect cases if they are old enough to express their wishes.
In the long term, the commission suggests the agency continue to improve its communication strategies and create a workplace culture that encourages collective responsibility for safety and quality among all participants in the child protection system.
The agency should also be open for opportunities to partner with other agencies for services such as home studies, licensing and training foster and adoptive families and provide greater education to the extended families of children regarding their rights in child abuse cases, commissioners said.