Nearly 2,200 Montana children enter the foster care system every year due to abuse or neglect by a parent, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.  Montana currently has approximately 4,000 children in foster care.

One of the largest factors leading to these children being in foster care is substance abuse as well as other issues like domestic violence and mental health challenges. Too many times the parents of these children never learned appropriate parenting skills in their families growing up so they have no healthy baseline for how to raise their own children.

Protecting Montana’s children is something the Montana Legislature prioritized over the past legislative sessions. It created the Montana Child Abuse Court Diversion Project in the 2015 session, modified in the 2017 session, by nearly unanimous agreement.

This project provides child protection specialists, commonly called social workers, up to 180 days to work to strengthen family protective abilities so the families can successfully care for their children.  The family can work for up to 180 days while the child is in or out of the home without DPHHS having to resort to a court action.

The idea is that if the child could be safely maintained in the home and the parent’s parenting skills improved so the child is safe, it is a better outcome for the child than if the child was removed from the home and placed in foster care. This completely voluntary program uses a trained facilitator to assist the parent to navigate the child protection system. A case-by-case determination is made regarding whether a case is eligible for the project or if it is inappropriate (such as in a sexual abuse case).

The project has shown promising results in keeping Montana’s children safe and decreasing the number of children who have to go into foster care. Programs currently exist in Anaconda, Helena, Great Falls and Kalispell.  Tracking of involvement of families and outcomes for children is done to determine if this model is successful for improving family safety abilities.

Of the 132 children involved in the program since July of 2017 through October 26, 2018, 56.1 percent (74 children) remained in their homes with at least one parent and 43.9 percent (58 children) had been removed from the home or voluntarily placed by a parent outside of the home when their participation in the Diversion Project began. By the end of the 180 days of Project involvement, approximately two-thirds of the cases (involving 88 children) resolved without having to go to court. This is 88 less Montana children removed from their homes and placed in foster care.

These successful results show that with longer time and more resources for DPHHS to work with families facing challenges, parents are able to learn appropriate parenting skills and safely care for their children without their children having to enter the foster care system. This will ideally lead to less associated costs for social programs and criminal justice involvement.  The end result is ideally creating happier and healthier future Montanans.

This upcoming Legislative session, I plan to carry a bill that will expand this program to more areas of the state so that even more families are positively impacted. In the long run, this type of success will lead to less children entering foster care and Montana’s children growing up in safer environments with stronger families. This creates a brighter future for all Montanans.

Rep. Kimberly Dudik sponsored House Bill 64 in the 2017 Legislative session and  House Bill 612 in the 2015 Legislative Session that created and fine tuned the Child Abuse and Neglect Court Diversion Project with the bipartisan collaboration of her colleagues on the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on the Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement, and Justice.