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Missoulian editorial: How to help patch Montana's torn child safety net
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Missoulian editorial

Missoulian editorial: How to help patch Montana's torn child safety net

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Children are resilient. That’s been demonstrated amply over the past year of pandemic restrictions that disrupted their lives and COVID-19 deaths that left millions of families mourning. Many kids have seen their daily routines undergo one upheaval after another.

It’s been an easier shift for those who already have solid support systems in place, with caring neighbors, attentive teachers, and parents who have the resources to provide stable housing, new clothes for growing bodies and regular meals for growling bellies.

But for others …

A recent analysis by the Associated Press showed that safety nets for vulnerable children have been shredded, even as child welfare officials have seen more urgent and complex cases. Reports of child abuse dropped by more than 400,000, investigations and interventions dropped by 200,000 in 36 states during the first nine months of the pandemic compared to the same time period in 2019. A substantial portion of the drop — 59% — can be attributed to the shift from in-school education to online learning.

Montana saw an immediate drop in calls to the state child abuse and neglect hotline after public schools closed in mid-March 2020. The week before the closures, Child and Family Services Division received 765 hotline calls. In the weeks after, it took 45% fewer reports.

The decision to close public schools to slow the spread of a deadly disease was the right call. It saved countless lives. Yet it also highlighted the important role filled by teachers and school staff in tracking children’s health and well-being.

Child welfare advocates fear that many of the stressors that can trigger violence against children have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Many people lost their jobs or took substantial hits to their incomes, leaving family finances unstable. The availability of child care was drastically reduced. And long periods of isolation cut families off from much-needed social outlets.

Categorized as essential workers, social workers did not let the coronavirus stop them from investigating credible reports of abuse or neglect. But those whose mission is to help prevent abuse or neglect from occurring in the first place had to make some significant changes.

Therapy might take place via video conference. Similarly, parenting classes might be offered online too. Families who didn’t have ready access to a computer or internet connection were prioritized for in-person, socially distanced services.

Later this month, child welfare workers and other stakeholders will share which methods proved most effective during the ever-shifting pandemic landscape. The next Montana Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect Conference, a statewide “virtual” gathering hosted by DPHHS, will take place April 27-29.

They will likely also talk about any relevant legal changes made by the Montana Legislature this session. Several bills introduced this year missed the transmittal deadline; one would have required clergy to report suspect abuse and neglect; another would have made the same requirements of certain public employees. Another bill would have prohibited anonymous reports, and yet another bill would have revised the abuse and neglect laws with regard to adoptive families.

A half-dozen other bill drafts are either on hold or awaiting further action. However, the one child abuse bill that has been passed did so with nearly unanimous support. House Bill 499 passed the House on a 97-2 vote, and the Senate 50-0 last week. It adjusts the language in Montana’s child abuse laws to define “reasonable efforts” to prevent the removal of children from their homes, and to preserve the relationship between children and their parents or primary caregivers.

Increasingly, more people are in agreement that removing children from their homes should be a last resort, and that it’s best to provide families with the support they need to stay healthy and safe — together.

In its report to the 2021 Health and Human Services Joint Appropriation Subcommittee, the Child and Family Services noted that the Montana foster care caseload numbered 3,505 in June 2020, down from 3,950 the year before.

“Child safety is too important to do this work by ourselves,” the report notes.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, as good a time as any to raise awareness about abuse and learn more about how to prevent it. Like many others, nonprofits like Court-Appointed Special Advocates and the Parenting Place in Missoula have had to adapt throughout the months of the pandemic in order to maintain services. They could use a little extra dose of support.

And Montana’s child safety net could use a little patchwork from the community. That means being able to identify the signs of child abuse or neglect, being prepared to offer help if appropriate or, if not, being able to direct families to resources that can help.

This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Executive Editor Jim Van Nostrand and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen. 

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