- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana courts are working to streamline their handling of child abuse and neglect cases and improve the results for children and their families, officials told the Protect Montana Kids Commission on Thursday.

District Judge Ingrid Gustafson of Billings said that before she hears such cases, social workers, parents and a mediator hold a pre-hearing conference to identify what led to the court’s involvement and to determine if the parents are willing to make improvements.

If the parents are open to getting help, the mediator and social workers will pinpoint what kind of treatment, evaluation or education the parents might need, she said.

The court has developed systems for getting contact information to the parents’ court-appointed attorneys to eliminate other delays, Gustafson said.

Five years ago, the District Court in Yellowstone County terminated parental rights in 45 percent of abuse and neglect cases, everyone involved was frustrated and it was taking almost two years to close a case.

A retired judge looked at the system and found it was taking around six months from when children were taken away from their parents before they got a treatment plan. Parents were given a laundry list of things to do - including mental health evaluations, chemical dependency evaluations, anger assessments, parenting classes and counseling - all while getting a job, suitable housing and being available for random urinalysis.

“We had a system that set people up to fail,” Gustafson said.

Now, the pre-hearing conferences are held within 72 hours of when a child is removed, the parents’ court-appointed attorneys are notified immediately and those who are willing to work with the court can get working on their treatment plan right away, she said.

The District Court in Yellowstone County is now terminating parental rights in 26 percent of such cases and is processing them more quickly, despite an increasing caseload. Gustafson’s court is terminating rights in 16 percent of cases. Her court has used the same system for five years.

Gustafson said she believes the reduction in terminations, due to working with the families, has saved the state around $1 million in foster-care costs during the past five years. “I have been pretty shocked at the parents - that with the right help - have been able to get their children back and they’re doing a pretty good job,” she said.

Social workers and attorneys reported they were happier with their work and felt they were doing something meaningful, Gustafson told the commission, which is evaluating the state Child and Family Services Division. The commission is tasked with forwarding any recommendations for changes in policies, practices and state law to the governor’s office by late March.

Gustafson and District Judge Mike Menahan said it would be nice for the courts to have money available to help low-income parents with transportation and the cost of drug testing so they could meet the requirements of their treatment plans.

The committee also heard from panelists involved in foster and kinship care and from teenagers who had been removed from their parents’ custody.

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