A broken system in need of repair

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Just days after the Daily Inter Lake published a special report detailing troubling accusations of poor management within the state’s child protection system, the state Legislature heard a slate of bills seeking to make changes to what many have described to us as a broken system.

Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, is carrying the legislation that aims to increase accountability within the Montana Child and Family Services system, reduce caseworker turnover and raise the criteria for removing a child from their home. The substance of those bills is still being debated in committee, but we’ve heard from enough former and current caseworkers, and local families impacted by the system, to know changes are needed.

The sources we talked to for our special report said most of the agency’s issues boil down to one overarching problem: poor management. Substandard leadership from the top has, in some instances, led to caseworkers removing children from their homes without enough cause, as well as overbearing caseloads and high turnover among staff.

One source described employee departures in the Kalispell office over the last few years as a “mass exodus,” leading to a significant loss of experienced staff members. With that staff shortage — the state agency is currently advertising for 22 child protection specialists — the workload for caseworkers can be as much as three times what is recommended.

Former and current caseworkers also alleged that they have been asked to remove children when they believed it was unnecessary and removal would be traumatic for the child and would violate the “least intrusive, least restrictive” rule. Regional administrators and supervisors ultimately give the final call on whether or not to remove a child, but sources told us that in some instances those managers are making a judgment call to remove a child despite having not “laid eyes” on the situation.

“If the powers at the higher level don’t listen to those who are doing the hard work and have feet on the ground, the system does not work,” Melanie Sherman, a former caseworker at the Kalispell office, told us.

Sherman and other sources allege managers use intimidation when employees and families push against management’s calls to remove children from homes without substantial evidence to do so.

We also heard about a lack of resources and guidance made available to struggling parents who have lost their children — something that works against the agency’s goal of reunification.

Montana has nearly 4,000 children in foster care. That is the second-highest rate in the nation, behind only West Virginia.

This number is too high. Clearly, something has to change. It’s time Montana looks at regulations and laws in other states with better success rates.

Complaints against Child and Family Services aren’t new. In fact, four years ago Gov. Steve Bullock created the Protect Montana Kids Commission in response to accusations against the state system. That group’s work led to the passage of several bills by the 2017 Legislature.

We’re glad to see the Legislature taking up the topic again in 2019 — there is much more work to be done. And we applaud the courage of the sources in our special report who stepped forward to share their concerns. For them, it’s not about a blame game or finger-pointing, it’s about what’s best for the families being impacted by a defective system.

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