Montana’s new child protection leader

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 CFSD also is hindered by its outdated 20-year-old computer system.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.