BILLINGS — High caseloads and frequent turnover can leave child protection workers trapped in an overwhelming, endless cycle. And parents whose children are taken out of their homes feel despondent working through a legal system that is set up so they might not get to court to arrange visits with their kids for nearly three weeks.
According to those who work in the field and spoke to state lawmakers here last week, those are some of the problems facing a child protection system that’s seen record-high removal rates in recent years. The child protection specialists, lawyers and judges also offered solutions they said could address some of the problems.
“We’re just stuck in a vicious cycle,” said Brittany Simonson, ongoing staff at the Child and Family Services Division in Billings.
Simonson told lawmakers her caseload is 50, though national recommendations suggest 10-15. She called the workload “possible but not sustainable.”
“I’ve been at such a high caseload for so long that I feel like even 25 would feel like a relief,” Simonson said.
Jared Bangerter, who is an intake worker, said the office has been fully staffed just twice in the last three to five years and has run at half-staff before. Recent numbers from the state health department show the office down the equivalent of three full-time positions. Figures also show a fully staffed office would have a caseload of 38 kids per caseworker, though the average is 42 now.
Bangerter said often child protection specialists are put into dangerous situations and described responding to a report of abuse or neglect once with police who had bullet-proof vests and firearms.
“I had my notepad and pen,” Bangerter said. He also told lawmakers about tragic cases he's worked with horrible abuse and neglect.
“I tell you these things because I want you to understand the secondary trauma that I bring home,” Bangerter said. “That’s part of my job and I deal with that. (But) you combine that with the fact we are constantly understaffed and I’m being exposed to twice as much trauma. (The extra time I’m working), that’s the time that I use to re-center myself, to prepare myself to go back the next day and do this.”
Bangerter and Simonson told lawmakers being better staffed would help ease their challenges. Scott Pederson, a deputy Yellowstone County attorney echoed that, saying he wants to see the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which oversees the Child and Family Services Division, focus on recruiting and retaining good workers.
“We have some really excellent people that work here and frankly they are not paid enough money for what they are asked to do,” Pederson said. “I think every single one of them should get a pay raise today if it were me. The worst thing that could happen for our families is if these people leave. We see such high turnover, especially with the new ones.”
Numbers provided by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services show turnover has not been below 34% in the department since 2014. In the most recent fiscal year it was 43%.
The state's annual Employee Profile from 2017 shows across state government, the turnover rate has been between 13%-14% from 2013-2017.
Yellowstone County District Court Judge Rod Souza said about 25% of all the child abuse and neglect cases in the state are filed in Yellowstone County, which has seen a dramatic increase in cases over the last several years.
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In 2014, there were 184 new petitions filed in Yellowstone County, Souza said. By 2015 that rose to 452, and peaked at 574 in 2017. This year the number of cases has tapered off and the county is on pace for about 415 petitions.
Souza said the driver is unquestionably methamphetamine. The state health department has frequently said about 80% of dependency and neglect cases had drug use as a major factor that led to a child being removed from their home, and of those cases 63% were directly tied to methamphetamine use.
After facing record-high removal rates in recent years, however, numbers have lowered. The number of children entering care each month, with the exception of November 2018 when it was 127, has hovered between 180-218 children a month. In June of this year, however, the number of children entering care dropped to 109 and has been between 100-150 monthly since, according to numbers from the state health department. Those numbers run through September.
“I think some of that can be attributed to a change in department practices and philosophy,” said Pederson, saying the department is trying to engage with families instead of removing children.
Pederson and others who addressed the committee said speeding up the legal process for parents can help mothers and fathers be better involved in reunification efforts.
When a child is removed from a home and a child abuse or neglect petition is filed, typically the first time a parent comes to court is for what’s called a show cause hearing. State law requires that to be held within 20 days.
Taking two-thirds of a month to get to to court can cause people to disengage from their families and from their lives, Pederson said.
“Sometimes they give up, frankly, when they don’t see their kids for that 20 days or longer,” Pederson said.
Early next year Yellowstone County will pilot what the courts there are calling shelter care hearings. Those hearings will allow parents come in before a judge within 72 hours of their child being removed.
Yellowstone County District Court Judge Jessica Fehr, who will see parents for the shelter care hearings, said it’s critical to get mothers and fathers into court more quickly. Fehr said parents will meet in court with defense attorneys, social workers, mediators and any other relevant parties.
Georgette Hogan Boggio works at Elk River Law Office and is the former Big Horn County Attorney. She said parents can struggle in a system that is set up to be punitive toward parents.
“Court is set up as an adversarial, punitive program, and I believe that dependency and neglect (cases) should be restorative, and the structure is simply not there” Boggio said. “I just think about the way that parents come and all have to stand in the hallway, I think about the structure of going to the same place where you go to jail is the same place where you deal with your children.”
Peter Ohman, division administrator for the Office of the Public Defender, said he'd like to see a shift in thinking to try to keep children with their parents as much as possible.
“We see the neglect, there's the removal and the thought is we're helping this child out by removing them. But there's been a lot of research recently … (about) how traumatic that is on the child, to be removed from their home,” Ohman said. “While we think we're doing something good for them, in fact maybe what we're doing is something that's actually more bad for them because of the fact that they're getting taken away from their parents.”