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.