New dangers for Montana's 2,400 foster kids


By PAT BELLINGHAUSEN

(HELENA -- Yoga pants is such a popular topic that it was suggested I write about yoga pants and other pointless pieces of legislation floating around the Montana Capitol. So I'm writing about yoga pants, but first I want to tell readers about a real crisis that demands lawmakers' action.
Montana's child protection system is struggling with a 60 percent increase in child abuse and neglect cases since 2008. The number of Montana kids in foster care was 2,398 last November, -- a 20 percent increase in the past two years.
The Montana Child Abuse Hotline rang nearly 100 times a day last year.
Child and Family Services Division social workers have investigated more reports, placed more children in out-of-home care and worked with more parents and other kin to safely reunify families. The increase in paid foster care hasn't been as great as the surge in the number of neglected or abused children because CFSD has been placing more children with relatives who can keep them safe.
"We're sort of drowning," Sarah Corbally, CFSD administrator told a legislative appropriations subcommittee last week.
There are many reasons why more abuse and neglect is being reported. A leading contributor is the surge in methamphetamine abuse by parents, who become unable to change diapers and feed their children. Untreated mental illnesses and domestic violence are factors in many cases.
As a court-appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children in Yellowstone County, I and other unpaid, volunteer CASA's see these kids in their homes, foster homes and schools. An alarming number of children coming into foster care are babies who were exposed to drugs before they were born.
I have seen overloaded caseworkers still manage to find a good fit in foster care to keep siblings together. Kids in foster care have asked me why their caseworker doesn't come to see them. She has lots of kids to take care of, I replied. That's tougher because most have special needs for things like counseling, speech therapy and remedial education.
To cope with the burgeoning numbers of abused and neglected children, the Bullock administration asked the 2013 Legislature for 13 additional front-line case workers. That request was denied.
Then the number of child abuse cases grew 20 percent. Gov. Steve Bullock used money appropriated to his office to hire temporary child protection workers. The division converted some existing positions into front-line caseworkers and revamped the supervisory structure to become more efficient. CFSD had a 42 percent annual staff turnover when the 2013 session convened. Since then, it implemented new training, based on findings from a University of Montana study. The division supplied caseworkers with computer tablets, so they no longer have to make case notes on paper and type them into a desk top.
Turnover is down to 22 percent, but Corbally said it's still too high.
Montana isn't even close to meeting federal standards for caseworker visits with foster children The Bullock administration has asked the 2015 Legislature for $3 million for the biennium to permanently fund the emergency/temporary caseworker positions it nixed last session. The money would be used to bring Montana's child protection system up to national accreditation standards within two years.
Last week, the House Health and Human Service Committee voted to fund only $1 million of the $3 million request in HB305 -- as if CFSD could simply not serve two-thirds of Montana's neglected and abused children. Further, the motion by committee chairman Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, requires $500,000 of the $1 million to come from the governor's office budget.
It's early in the session for budget decisions with plenty of time for changes. Child protection is a place where change is desperately needed.
When a lawmaker says he thinks wearing yoga pants should be illegal, the news buzzes across the state. When lawmakers say no to protecting abused and neglected kids, Montanans ought to be buzzing with outrage.
For the record, yoga pants opponent Rep. David Moore didn't actually mention yoga pants in his bill to revise the state indecent exposure law, but sought to criminalize the wearing of "a device, costume or covering that gives the appearance or simulates" genitals or the female breast. Fortunately, that bill's flaws were exposed in the House Judiciary Committee, which killed it Wednesday.