By AMY BETH HANSON, Associated Press
HELEN, Mont. (AP) – Montana’s child welfare system plans to emphasize abuse prevention and family education services aimed at keeping children safe in their homes, rather than placing them in foster care, if possible, under a plan recently approved by the federal government.
In 2018, Congress passed the Family First Preventive Services Act to prioritize child safety and avoid the trauma of placing at-risk children in out-of-home care. The law makes federal funding available for preventative services for struggling families rather than allowing the money to be used only once a child is in foster care.
Montana submitted its five-year plan for federal approval in November 2020 and it was approved last month, the Department of Public Health and Human Services said.
Under this plan, families can receive mental health services, addiction treatment and in-home parenting training to help parents retain custody of their children.
The agency offered some of these services, such as the First Years Initiative, in which health departments and nonprofits visit new and expectant parents to teach them about parenting and early childhood development. childhood.
The federal Family First Act also encourages states to place children in a family setting, rather than in group care, if they are to be placed in foster care.
“Our goal is to continue to modernize the child welfare system and improve prevention services to strengthen families and prevent abuse and neglect,” Health Department Director Adam Meier said in a statement. a recent press release.
According to 2019 federal data, Montana had 16 children in care per 1,000 children — the second-highest rate in the nation, legislative auditors told the Legislative Audit Committee on Tuesday.
The agency said while the state had 4,033 children in care in October 2018, that number fell to 3,021 last month as they continued to reduce the time children spend away from home.
The agency now sees more children leaving foster care than entering it, Nikki Grossberg, acting administrator of the Division of Child and Family Services, told the committee.
The audit found that the Child and Family Services Division had moved away from the case management component of its security assessment and management system – the process used to assess and track cases of child abuse and neglect that she began using in 2011.
The audit found that the agency also failed to meet the federal standard for required visits to foster children. Montana makes these visits 61% of the time – which is the last in the country. The national average is 92% of visits made, the auditors said.
The ministry has agreed to review its case management model, update materials and provide staff with more clarity on the use of the model, which focuses on addressing the causes of abuse and neglect towards children.
The audit found that while the agency did a good job of training new employees, it failed to provide ongoing training for long-tenured workers and regional administrators to ensure they understood and followed the model. of security. The refresher training will take place by the end of March, Grossberg told lawmakers.
And, as the agency’s audits have said for years, it needs to upgrade the software system it uses to track cases to make it easier for staff to enter information and for the agency to collect and to use data to track its performance.
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