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Feds approve Montana plan to prevent child abuse, neglect

| February 11, 2022 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's child welfare system plans to emphasize abuse prevention and family education services aimed at keeping children safely in their homes, rather than putting them in foster care, if at all possible, under a plan recently approved by the federal government.

In 2018, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act to prioritize keeping kids safe and avoiding the trauma of placing at-risk children in out-of-home care. The act makes federal funding available for prevention services for struggling families rather than only allowing the money to be used once a child is in foster care.

Montana submitted its five-year plan for federal approval in November 2020 and it was approved last month, the Department of Public Health and Human Services said.

Under the plan families can receive mental health services, substance abuse treatment and in-home parenting skill training to help parents maintain custody of their children.

The agency had been offering some of those services, such as the First Years Initiative, in which health departments and nonprofit agencies visit new and expectant parents to teach them about parenting and early childhood development.

The federal Family First act also gives states incentives to place children in family-like settings, rather than congregate care, if they must be placed in foster care.

"Our goal is to continue to modernize the child welfare system and enhance prevention services to strengthen families and prevent abuse and neglect," health department Director Adam Meier said in a recent statement.

According to federal data from 2019, Montana had 16 kids in care per 1,000 children — the second highest rate in the nation, legislative auditors told the Legislative Audit Committee on Tuesday.

The agency said that while the state had 4.033 kids in care in October 2018, that number had dropped to 3,021 last month as they continue to reduce the amount of time kids spend away from their homes.

The agency is now seeing more children exit foster care than enter it, Nikki Grossberg, acting administrator for the Division of Child and Family Services, told the committee.

The audit found the Division of Child and Family Services had drifted away from following the case management component of its Safety Assessment and Management System — the process used to evaluate and track child abuse and neglect cases that it started using in 2011.

The audit found the agency was also not meeting the federal standard for required visits to children in foster care. Montana completes those visits 61 percent of the time — which is last in the nation. The national average is 92 percent of visits being made, auditors said.

The department agreed to review its case management model, update documents and provide staff more clarity on using the model, which focuses on addressing the causes of child abuse and neglect.

The audit said that while the agency was doing a good job of training new employees, it was not offering ongoing training for long-time workers and regional administrators to make sure they understand and follow the safety model. The refresher training will be done by the end of March, Grossberg told lawmakers.

And, as audits of the agency have said for years, it needs to upgrade the software system it uses to track cases to make it easier for staff to input information and for the agency to gather and use data to track its performance.