- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The Montana House has endorsed a bill that would require the state health department to work with other organizations to develop a plan to prevent child abuse and neglect in the face of an increase in the number of abuse cases and the number of children in foster care.

The House supported the bill 71-28 Monday after discussion over whether the agency should already have such a plan and whether lawmakers needed to direct the agency to do its job. House Bill 517 still faces a third-reading vote.

Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, said her bill would require the department to work with state department heads, the Montana Children’s Trust Fund board, the state advisory council for Child and Family Services, former members of the Protect Montana Kids Commission and representatives of tribal communities along with other state and local agencies that work to reduce or prevent child abuse.

The Protect Montana Kids Commission, appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock, studied the Division of Child and Family Services between December 2015 and May 2016 and made numerous recommendations to the Department of Public Health and Human Services to improve the division’s work.

Dudik’s bill calls for a comprehensive plan that would discuss the degree to which child abuse and neglect is occurring, the effects of the abuse, the risk factors that lead to child abuse and neglect and factors and prevention efforts that reduce the potential for abuse. The report would have to recommend prevention strategies and set out measurable goals to reduce abuse and neglect.

Between 2010 and 2016, the number of child abuse cases more than doubled to 2,433 and the number of kids in foster care is at record levels, Dudik said. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of children in foster care because of parental meth use increased from 230 to 1,050 while another 250 children were in care because of parental prescription drug abuse.

Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, said it’s the agency’s job to have a child abuse prevention plan, but she still supported the bill.

Rep. Marilyn Ryan, D-Missoula, said the agency’s caseload changed rapidly.

“I don’t know that anybody knew how to respond to the kind of meth issue that we’ve seen in the last two years,” Ryan said. “This needs to be done.”

The bill would require the department to forward its plan to two legislative committees by Aug. 15, 2018, giving lawmakers time to review it and recommend changes before the 2019 session.

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