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Missoulians may have noticed increasing numbers of blue pinwheels popping up around town. It’s part of a month-long, statewide campaign to raise awareness of child abuse and neglect, and to draw attention to prevention efforts.

This annual campaign is more important than ever as Missoula and Montana continue to witness a shocking increase in child abuse cases, leading to a record number of children in state custody and significant burdens on local law enforcement, county prosecutors and the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The Missoula County Attorney’s Office now counts four attorneys dedicated to working on child abuse and neglect cases, which reached a record number in 2017 with 195 cases filed. According to Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst, a significant number of these cases are directly linked to addiction and substance abuse, especially methamphetamine use.

The ongoing turmoil in Montana’s Division of Child and Family Services isn’t helping matters. The most recent legislative audit found that division staff did not always follow established procedures, often because high turnover has resulted in a larger proportion of inexperienced staff, who are saddled with large caseloads. In fact, the head of the division, Maurita Johnson, announced just last month that she is resigning after less than a year and a half on the job.

It’s as good a time as any to be asking: What works to prevent child abuse and neglect in Montana?

Clearly, the methods Montana has long relied on to keep children safe in their homes have not been enough. Last year, the number of children in state foster care hit 3,454 – the highest number recorded and more than double the number of children in care in 2008. And between mid-December 2016 and mid-December 2017, CPS was notified of the deaths of 14 children, 10 of whom were younger than 1 year old.

In response, the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which has been hit hardest by state budget cuts and the related loss of federal matching dollars, announced earlier this year that it is expanding its home visiting program. The new First Years Initiative aims to immediately prevent further child deaths by identifying at-risk pregnant women and families, and connecting them with home visitors who can provide education and intervention where it’s needed most.

It’s an approach that holds a lot of promise. A March 2016 report to Congress noted that a strong majority (83 percent) of states with such programs marked a measurable improvement in at least four of six benchmark areas. Over the three-year study period, states that accepted federal grant money to launch home visit programs saw significant gains in maternal and newborn health, school readiness and achievement, economic self-sufficiency, reduced domestic violence – and 66 percent fewer reports of child maltreatment.

That evidence-based effectiveness is why Watson Children’s Shelter decided to establish its own new program in Missoula. The shelter has provided emergency shelter to children whose families are in crisis since 1977, and opened a second facility in 2010. Rather than continue to build more shelters for the increasing number of children in need of care, the folks at Watson’s decided to concentrate their efforts on prevention.

The new program, based on the national model provided in 35 states by Healthy Families America, launched in Missoula just a few weeks ago and is the only one in Montana. It aims to connect social workers with at-risk parents during pregnancy or within a newborn’s first three months, and then maintain needed services through the child’s next three to five years. With no state money available, Watson’s relied on its fundraising power to pay for staff and other program needs.

The initial goal is to reach 40 families, who participate on an entirely voluntary basis, within the first two years. According to Mike Boehm, executive director of Watson’s, Healthy Families is the only model of its kind that includes an accreditation process, and the Missoula program’s outcomes will be closely tracked to ensure success.

Just as support from generous donors made Watson's new program possible, this month’s awareness activities through the Montana Children’s Trust Fund, which is “administratively attached” to DPHHS, is paid for primarily by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana. The company has now sponsored Strengthening Families Month for four years in a row, and this year gave $10,000 to cover the costs of distributing 4,000 blue pinwheels and other materials across the state.

Apart from its awareness efforts, the Children’s Trust Fund also directly supports local initiatives to prevent abuse and neglect, and last year, provided direct preventive services to more than 11,000 individuals in communities throughout the state.

It’s only smart to better coordinate communication and resource-sharing among community, county and state groups. And in fact, the new First Years Initiative is expected to work on identifying further opportunities for community partnerships.

But scarce dollars can only stretch so far. If Montana hopes to turn the tide on its swelling child abuse problem, it cannot continue to depend on generous donations from private givers to fill the gaps.

Having now been made sufficiently aware of the extent of the problem, Montana’s legislative and executive leaders should take pains to ensure that sufficient funding is set aside for effective child abuse prevention programs.

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