Legislative Audit Committee February 2022
Legislative Auditor Angus Maciver, left, and committee chair Denise Hayman, right, at the Legislative Audit Committee meeting on Feb. 8, 2022.

HELENA — State lawmakers on Tuesday tried to understand how child protection investigations, family court involvement and parental drug use may have contributed to a 115% increase in the number of minors in state foster care between 2010 and 2019. As of 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 16 out of 1,000 Montana kids were in state care, the second-highest rate in the country.

“We were trying to kind of follow as many threads as we could,” Legislative Audit Division staff member Jeremy Verhasselt told lawmakers. “There are many factors at play.”

The audit division, overseen by the Legislative Audit Committee, reported in December that the number of kids in state care began notably increasing a few years after the Department of Public Health and Human Services began implementing the Safety Assessment and Management System, or SAMS, a method for investigating reports of child abuse and neglect by evaluating safety risks within a child’s holistic living environment, rather than a single incident. 

But in 2014 the state discontinued its contract with Action for Child Protection, the company that created SAMS, leading to inconsistencies with implementation, the report found. Elements of the model that Montana put in place without the company’s help, auditors said, had to do with “changed focus contact with families” and “mitigating safety issues in the home.” The period of significant caseload growth coincided with the state’s decision to stop working with Action for Child Protection. The number of children under state care peaked at more than 4,000 in 2018.

DPHHS officials agreed with the audit’s recommendations to update SAMS program documentation and provide regional administrators with better training on the model. They did not say whether the department intends to renew its contract with Action for Child Protection. 

Lawmakers, auditors and department officials acknowledged the delicate balance between deciding to remove a child from an unsafe living situation and employing in-home safety plans or preventative services to keep children safely in their homes.

“We’re going to have to approach all of these factors, not just one single thing.”

State Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls

Since the audit division’s collection of 2019 data, health department staff said, DPHHS has worked to clarify its investigation procedures and train child protective workers to document, evaluate and pursue abuse and neglect cases. The head of the Child and Family Services Division, which handles child protection cases, said there are more plans to shore up the process in the months ahead, including reviving a committee that was originally established when the state first began using the SAMS model.

We will be reinstating our safety committee to help review the SAMS model and to ensure all elements are appropriate and aligned with best practices,” said Nikki Grossberg, acting administrator for CFSD. “The safety committee will conduct regular reviews of cases to help measure fidelity to the model moving forward.”

The audit report pointed to several other reasons for the increased caseload leading up to 2019, including a lengthy timeline for court procedures after a child is involuntarily removed from the home. Nearly 46% of the state’s abuse and neglect investigations included court action for children and families, auditors found, making Montana 7th in the nation in that category. 

“That definitely is a process that’s just going to take a certain amount of time to get from one end to the other,” Verhasselt said, explaining to lawmakers why court involvement can keep children in the system longer.

Drug and alcohol use by parents also contributed to the foster care caseload, though audit staff and health department officials agreed that it’s difficult to summarize how often substance use disorders were the leading factor in decisions to remove children from their homes. Audit staff pointed out that Montana’s 47% rate of child removal cases where drugs and alcohol were a factor was not far above the national average of 40%, and that some states with higher reports of substance use might have fewer overall numbers of kids in state care.

The numbers of Montana adoptions and children placed in guardianship care have been growing in recent years as the total number of kids in foster care ticks steadily downward. In January, 3,021 foster care cases were reported on the state’s website, the lowest number since February 2016. Grossberg said those trends indicate positive change.

“All of these efforts have improved the number of children exiting foster care to permanency,” Grossberg said. “For the past three fiscal years, we’ve had more children exit foster care than enter it.”

The department recently announced plans to add more services designed to minimize child removals in the first place. The federal government in early January approved DPHHS’ five-year plan to implement the Family First Services Prevention Program. That will allow the state to allocate federal funding for family and caretaker services before a child is removed, a use of funds that was previously not allowed. 

Tuesday’s meeting prompted several more suggestions for how to study systems related to child welfare, including assessing funding for district courts to understand where prosecutors, public defense attorneys and judges may be under-resourced and overburdened with child and family cases. 

Several lawmakers agreed with the importance of a broad and comprehensive approach to identifying the causes of Montana’s foster care caseload.

“There’s not one thing we can point a finger at and say, bam, that’s it,” said Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls. “I think there’s multiple factors. And I think as a Legislature and as a society, if we’re going to approach this, we’re going to have to approach all of these factors, not just one single thing.”

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.