Mike Boehm of Watson Children’s Shelter, which operates two facilities in Missoula that provide housing to children in abuse, neglect or family crisis situations. The shelter is launching a home-visit program.

After 40 years of caring for children removed from their families due to abuse, neglect, or other family crises, Watson Children’s Shelter is launching a new program to prevent the kinds of traumatic situations that land children in their care.

The program, called Healthy Foundations, is a response to the growing demand on children’s homes in Montana in recent years. The number of children in out-of-home care is up 130 percent since 2009, totaling 3,800 kids, said Mike Boehm, executive director of Watson Children’s Shelter in Missoula.

“Over the last five years, we couldn’t build homes fast enough to care for all of them,” Boehm said. “We could try to keep building more beds, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the best thing to do. Let’s work with the high-risk families before the trauma occurs.”

That’s the basis for the new program, set to begin Thursday. Healthy Foundations begins working with parents when they’re expecting a new baby or in the first three months of their baby’s life. Social workers then continue to provide services for the next three to five years, helping parents cope with the difficulties of raising a child while overcoming personal challenges.

Healthy Foundations will run under the umbrella of the national organization Healthy Families America, which launched in 1992 to address — through home-visiting services — high rates of child abuse. It’s the only evidence-based home-visiting model in the country that has an accreditation process, Boehm said, which in part is why they chose it.

The organization also has its own research team to ensure the work is effective.

“They will be researching our outcomes and holding us accountable for that, which we want,” Boehm said, “because we don’t want our funders to fund a good idea, we want them to fund something that works for families.”

It’s the first Healthy Families program in the state, making Montana one of 35 states in the country with a program of its kind. Without state funds to help fund the Healthy Foundations program, Watson Children’s Shelter used fundraising dollars to hire two new staff and pay for the vans and other program needs, “because there are no dollars for prevention work,” Boehm said.

Two new caseworkers, Stacey Firestone and Emma Anderson, will conduct home visits with parents who meet certain risk factors, such as unstable housing, substance abuse issues, mental health issues, food insecurity, or having experienced abuse and neglect in their own childhoods.

Over the years, Healthy Families America identified 13 such risk factors that, when present for parents, increase the likelihood that a child will experience abuse or neglect. The goal of the program is to remove those risk factors by providing services and support, long term.

“One of the reasons we picked the model is the almost 40 years of research behind Healthy Families,” Boehm said. “They have national studies that show the more of those risk factors you have as a family, the more likely you are to abuse or neglect your child. It’s not an accusation, it’s just data.”

Boehm and Anderson, the new program’s director, have been meeting with hospitals and clinics in the area to help jump-start the referral process. If a doctor or social worker thinks a couple could benefit from the program, they’re invited to make a referral, Boehm said.

Healthy Families America also requires that its programs be overseen by a clinician, so medical issues are not missed by social workers. Providence Health and Services will provide that clinical supervision.

Anderson said she hopes to serve 40 families in the first two years. It’s free for families, voluntary, and will serve an hour radius from Missoula.

Anderson, who has a master’s in social work from the University of Washington and worked for several years in Seattle doing investigations with Child Protective Services, said she’s had a lot of experience working with families “once the trauma already occurred.”

“Having experienced that, I knew I really really was passionate and excited about prevention,” she said.

As a long-term prevention program, Healthy Foundations will help parents long after addressing the more immediate needs a couple may have, such as medical care and transportation. Anderson and Firestone plan to focus on other risk factors and challenges over the next three to five years.

“So by the time we’re out of the home, those kids have a really happy, healthy start, and those parents have the tools that they need to safely parent their children and be more stable,” Anderson said.

Watson Children’s Center did not experience any state funding cuts this year, but other mental health and social services around the state have. Boehm said he expects that will negatively affect parents, especially those who need services while their children have been removed from their care. That delay, in turn, will affect their children.

“Instead of 60 days, we fully expect our length of stay for children to increase,” Boehm said “It might end up being 90 days or 100 days or 120 days. We’ll have to see, time will tell. But it stands to reason, if families can’t get the help that they need in the community, their children are going to be in care longer.

Boehm and Anderson said they hope this program will help to meet those parents’ needs. They’ve already begun accepting referrals, and will officially begin the program on Thursday.

Maurita Johnson is the new leader of the agency responsible for protecting Montana children from abuse and neglect. That job has never been more challenging. The number of abused and neglected children coming into the state system continues to grow.

Recently, Montana reached an all-time high number of children in foster care with 3,369 children placed statewide.

On Friday, the Yellowstone County attorney’s office filed its 531st civil child abuse/neglect case of the year. That was an significant increase over 2015 when the office filed for court orders to protect 454 local kids.

Agency officials “have the ability to solve a lot of problems for families,” Johnson told the Associated Press in an interview last month. “Having a kid home with a parent is what we want.”

Those comments reflect the solution-oriented leadership that Montana’s child protection agency so desperately needs.

Johnson, former deputy director of Child Welfare Programs in Oregon, told AP that she visited all six of her division’s regional offices and all seven of the state’s Native American reservations as she got acquainted with the child protection system. That’s a good start.

Child and Family Services Division has been criticized from all sides over the past several years. Some criticism is justified, some isn’t. The CFSD has changed course, again and again, retraining overworked, underpaid front-line staff. The solution must start with stabilizing the workforce that has had tremendous turnover. Small wonder that caseworkers’ average tenure has been less than two years as they are required to carry three or four times the number of cases recommended by independent child welfare organizations.

The Protect Montana Kids Commission appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock last summer recommended changes in how the agency trains and supervises staff. CFSD also is hindered by its outdated 20-year-old computer system.

The commission’s most urgent recommendations are to recruit more caseworkers, to better support caseworkers, foster parents and parents to give each family the best chance of safely reuniting. With too few workers, children are in the system longer, and parents take longer to get on track to being safe parents. For most, getting on track includes addiction treatment. Parental drug abuse has become the most common factor in child abuse and neglect cases in Montana.

Johnson said her plans include more worker training, getting more foster children into permanent homes, connecting with more community services and giving parents clear and reasonable conditions for the return of their children. Johnson and Sheila Hogan, the new director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, will be held accountable for improving services to Montana’s must vulnerable children.

We call on the Bullock administration and the Montana Legislature to ensure that CFSD has the resources needed to protect children — from continued abuse and from languishing in the child protection system.

HELENA – Three months after child welfare workers received reports about methamphetamine use in a Great Falls low-income apartment, police found an infant girl dead in a freezing cold room with the window open in winter.

The baby’s mother had a previous conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia and her live-in boyfriend had been convicted of domestic violence. That gave the case virtually every red flag identified in a new analysis of the deaths of 14 Montana children whose plights had been reported to authorities within a year before they died.

The Montana Child and Family Ombudsman’s report released last week marks the first time the state has examined such deaths. But the report lacks key information that critics say shows the state needs to do more.

It doesn’t say, for example, how all of the children died during that 16-month stretch, in part because lawmakers two years ago decided against creating a commission to review child deaths and near-deaths attributed to abuse and neglect. Such a commission would have had access to medical and legal records that could provide that information.

Responding to complaints about the division, lawmakers instead directed the child welfare agency’s ombudsman to use agency records to review cases in which children died within a year of someone reporting concerns about their safety.

A four-member panel convened by state prosecutors examined 14 child deaths between July 1, 2015, and Nov. 8, 2016, concluding most died of abuse or neglect. Child and Family Services officials said they do not determine the cause of death.

No information about individual cases was made public in the report, but the January 2016 case in Great Falls is believed to be among them.

The girl’s mother has pleaded not guilty to felony criminal endangerment, Cascade County Attorney John Parker said.

The review team found that 12 of the cases involved more than one indicator of abuse including prior history with the agency, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and housing or other financial instability.

The report recommends that within 24 hours of a child abuse report, caseworkers should check the criminal records of all adults in the house and whether previous reports exist involving the same children. When more than one red flag is raised, workers should get more help with their investigation.

“We really would like to honor these children’s lives by taking the information that we’ve learned from them and promoting a system that works better,” said Dana Toole, chief of the Children’s Justice Bureau, who served on the review panel.

The report also recommended more cooperation between the agency and courts, law enforcement and medical personnel.
“It’s a multi-system failure,” Toole said. “It’s not just our child protection system.”

The findings echo those of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, created by Congress to review and recommend strategies to prevent child abuse deaths.

Federal data indicates 1,500 to 1,600 children die due to abuse or neglect each year. But the commission report says there are gaps in how the data is compiled and the true number could be as high as 3,000 annually.

Montana’s Child and Family Services Division has been heavily criticized in recent years over the deaths of children after workers failed to remove them from dangerous situations, as well as allegations that other children were wrongly removed from homes and poor communication with families.

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“We know there is more to accomplish and we’re determined to continue down the current path of comprehensive system improvement,” said Jon Ebelt, spokesman for the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which includes the child welfare division.

The agency has established and recently began using a critical incident review process, which analyzes deaths and near-deaths to determine the factors involved and what the division can do to improve its practices, Ebelt said.

An update to its antiquated computer system is expected this fall after numerous delays. Employees are receiving increased training, he said.

Maurita Johnson, who began work in November as administrator of the Child and Family Services Division, said she supports legislation calling for the creation of a child fatality review committee.

April Hall of Great Falls will also support the bill, as she has for other legislation to improve the state’s child protective services. Her 2-year-old granddaughter, October Perez, was killed by her mother’s boyfriend in June 2011.

Hall has said she made several reports to Child and Family Services about abuse including broken bones, missing teeth, missing hair and other injuries. But caseworkers left the girl in her mother’s custody.

“The pain that child went through – that’s what haunts you,” she said. “And nobody would listen.”