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Family

Montanans rightfully expect a high degree of transparency and accountability from our state government agencies. When it comes to the agency charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect, public accountability is of the utmost importance.

So it is wrong for the Department of Public Health and Human Services to try to keep hidden the reports generated by the ombudsman’s office — especially since some of these reports highlight problems in the Child and Family Services Division.

To be clear, the names of the families involved and other identifying details in each case need not be made public. That information is easily redacted. But a general outline of each case — and in particular, details about the way the state has handled them — must be publicly available if Montanans are to have any hope of ensuring that the agency acting on our behalf is meeting its fundamental obligations.

Montana’s CFS has earned particular scrutiny in recent years as the number of children removed from their homes and placed in state care increased sharply, leaving too few caseworkers with too-high caseloads, leading to widespread burnout and rapid employee turnover.

Amid this turmoil, parents and relatives have alleged that CFS managers abused their positions to remove children without sufficient cause or placed them in homes where they were at higher risk of mistreatment. And on the other hand, the division has also been criticized for not removing children from potentially dangerous situations.

In 2018, a state commission review found that 12 children had died within a year of being reported to Montana CFS. Of these, one death led to deliberate homicide charges and a second death was charged as a negligent homicide. The rest were ruled to be suicides, accidents, the result of medical conditions or otherwise undetermined.

CFS is certainly in a difficult position, tasked with maintaining a careful balance between minimizing the trauma of separating children from their families while also removing children from dangerous environments. But Montana is not the only state grappling with this balance. It does, however, have the second-highest rate of children placed in foster care. With 16.8 children in state care for every 1,000 children, Montana comes in second only to West Virginia — and more than double the rate of neighboring states, according to the latest federal data.

Anything Montana can do to improve this system should be encouraged. But effective solutions can only follow reliable information about the problems.

For instance, legislative audits have found that CFS staff don’t always follow their own procedures. This is partially due to the fact that high turnover has left the division with a lot of inexperienced staff. It’s also likely made worse by the sheer number of cases. From June 2013 to June 2018, the foster care caseload in Montana ballooned from more than 2,200 to more than 3,950.

A slight majority of these children, 53%, are placed with relatives, and 65% of children in foster care are eventually returned to their parents. In fiscal year 2018, 2,349 children entered care, which was actually a slight decrease from the previous year, when 2,367 kids entered care. Meanwhile, 2,173 children exited care in FY 2018, a sizable increase from the 1,856 that exited care the year prior.

The number of kids in care appears to have stabilized now at about 3,900, according to the latest biennial report from CFS. That’s still a lot by any measure.

Similarly, the Montana Department of Justice Office of the Child and Family Ombudsman has also seen an increase in calls and formal requests for assistance. This independent, impartial arm of the DOJ was established five years ago to hear complaints and offer recommendations. The number of contacts it receives has risen each year from just 83 in 2014 to more than 300 in 2018.

However, only a small number of these calls result in “Findings Reports.” Earlier this month, the Missoulian reported that the ombudsman’s office has sent 42 reports to the Department of Public Health and Human Services. Parents or other family members shared seven of these reports with the Missoulian, and they are posted online with the news story. They show that CFS employees have not always followed best practices and official procedures.

In one case, a mother was given “arbitrary and unreasonable expectations” as a requirement of regaining custody of a child. In another case, a mother was punished with reduced visiting time with her child — despite a court order requiring a certain number of visitation hours. In yet another case, a child was placed with a complete stranger even though several family members were willing to provide care.

Individually, such lapses are cause for concern. By making them publicly available, Montanans can be made aware of any systemic problems, and call for an appropriate response from the folks in charge at CFS.

The Montana Department of Justice planned to post the redacted reports on its website, but DPHHS objected, arguing that Finding Reports are actually confidential information. Last week, the DOJ filed a petition asking a district court judge to issue a declaratory judgment that would guide their actions going forward.

The courts should side with Montana’s strong tradition of public transparency and uphold the people’s right to know how their government is working.

If families are being treated unfairly or reports of child abuse being mishandled, the people of Montana ought to demand a stop to it. But first, Montanans have to be made aware of it.

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