- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Gov. Steve Bullock is proposing a plan to improve the effectiveness and oversight of the Division of Children and Family Services by hiring more caseworkers, improving their supervision and creating a commission to study the system and recommend improvements.

“One of our most important obligations is to protect child victims of abuse and neglect. Unfortunately, for decades our child and family services system has been overburdened and under-resourced, compromising the ability of front-line workers to effectively do their jobs,” Bullock said in announcing his Protect Montana Kids Initiative.

Monday’s announcement in Missoula comes nearly two months after mental health counselors and families of children involved in the system met with Bullock to air their complaints and request numerous changes within the agency.

The initiative calls for hiring 33 more caseworkers, improving staff training and updating the agency’s computerized case management system. The plan also calls for standardized case review guidelines and creating a team to review incidents of serious child injury or death to recommend any necessary policy changes.

Bullock also issued an executive order to create a commission to examine the child protection system and propose legislative updates and other recommendations for improvement.

Family members testified before the legislature and held protests near Division of Children and Family Services offices in several Montana cities before being invited to sit down with the governor and several staff members in late July.

At that meeting, they complained about being bullied by or facing retaliation from caseworkers, or that their requests for information were ignored. They suggested caseworkers be required to have more education and training, that there be standards for investigations and that legal cases move forward at the required pace.

The families also sought an outside investigation of the agency.

“I think it’s a start,” said Robin Castle, a licensed clinical professional counselor from Great Falls who has protested with families and met with Bullock. She would like to see licensing requirements for caseworkers and education requirements including child development, ethics and some type of internship.

Agency officials have said a 75 percent increase of the number of children in foster care compared to eight years ago, attributable in large part to an increase in cases involving drug and alcohol use, has stretched caseworkers to their limits.

Earlier this year, Montana lawmakers rejected bills that called for several of the changes, including hiring 27 more caseworkers, improving the agency’s computer system and taking steps toward accreditation and determining reasonable caseloads. A legislative committee also rejected a bill that would have created a child abuse and neglect commission to look at child deaths and near deaths to determine the cause and recommend policies, practices and services to reduce such incidents. The bill also would have allowed the commission to release the basic information required to receive a $120,000 grant under the federal Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act.

However, lawmakers did include in the main budget bill a request for an additional $3 million in state funding over the next two years - which allowed the agency to tap into $1.35 million in federal funding. The governor’s plan, which will be paid for with those funds, includes more money for treating substance abuse in parents, increasing home visits and the increased use of proven therapies.

April Hall has been lobbying for improvements to the child protective services system since her granddaughter, October Perez, was beaten to death in June 2011 in Great Falls. David Hyslop, the boyfriend of October’s mother, was convicted of deliberate homicide and sentenced to 100 years in prison without the possibility of parole.

Hall had made a dozen calls to child protective services to report October’s injuries, including broken bones and missing teeth, but the agency did not remove her from her mother’s custody.

“It makes my day that he’s actually doing something,” Hall said of Bullock. “We’ve been fighting those people for a long time.”

“People are starting to pay attention that there’s a problem, that we have a very broken system,” Hall said.

Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula - who sponsored the bill seeking additional workers and caseload standards - called the governor’s initiative an important first step.

“We must continue to find ways to improve our state’s child and family services system to make it more transparent and better serve its clients, this includes passing legislation,” Dudik said in a statement.

Staffers emphasized that the governor’s proposal will make recommendations for the agency moving forward, but does not address the individual cases of the families who spoke with him.

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