Report finds problems with foster child program, including missing protection and safety plans

Auditors say ineffective oversight, not drug use causes kids to stay in care longer

By: - January 6, 2022 7:34 pm

Parenting illustration (Photo by | CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

An investigation by Montana’s Legislative Auditor released this week shows the state’s foster care system hampered by obsolete software, inconsistent leadership and approach to reports of abuse or neglect, and it dismantles the notion that the rise in foster-care kids is due solely to a disproportionate increase in drug use.

The number of kids in foster care in Montana rose 115% from 2010 to 2019, and many politicians and leaders attributed that historic rise to the resurgence of methamphetamine and the nationwide opioid epidemic. However, auditors largely debunked that notion.

“Statewide the percentage of removals due to parental drug use increased from 18% in 2010 to 40% in 2019. This shows parental drug use has played a factor in the growing number of kids in care,” the report said. “Other states have dealt with similar issues without seeing the large increases in care.”

Instead, the report showed the biggest driver of kids staying in care longer was that it takes the Child and Family Services Division longer to process and manage the cases, leading to kids staying longer and causing the numbers to accumulate.

For example, the average days in care in 2010 was 95 compared to 142 in 2019. The report notes that some of the longer stays in care stem from the courts, which oversee the removal process. In other states, removing a child doesn’t necessarily require judicial oversight.

“Factors such as drug use among parent affect kids in care, but there are issues with the data, and it does not explain why Montana has had a harder time dealing with those issues than other states,” the report said.

The performance audit’s findings concluded that the Safety Assessment and Management System – a proprietary system Montana implemented in CFSD — likely has a great deal with why children remain in the foster-care system.

Montana contracted with a company to implement the system, but has stopped working with it. Yet, with the software still in place, the audit noted there’s no uniform way the department is using it, leading to “SAMS policy being inconsistently implemented.”

The Montana Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the foster-care system and CFSD, said in its written response to the report that it agrees with all of the audit conclusions, but officials declined to talk about the report in more detail with the Daily Montanan until the report is presented to an interim legislative committee next month.

The audit also criticized the management of CFSD for having an “inconsistent understanding” of the SAMS model and it found “many instances of missing documentation … where it was unclear how CFSD controlled for safety during times when they had children in their care.”

The audit report makes a series of four recommendations, which the department concurred with, including updating the SAMS model, providing more training to regional administrators, implementing a data management plan and measuring the effectiveness of prevention plans.

The report also revealed that Montana “ranks last in the percentage of children receiving monthly caseworker visits.”

For example, when auditors reviewed protection plans for foster kids, they found 20 cases where a plan was not done. Safety plans are documents that describe the dangers present in the home of a child and ways the child will be safeguarded against them. 

“This leaves no documented plan for how immediate danger was mitigated,” it said.

Forty-one percent of the case auditors reviewed did not have a safety plan which determines what long-term steps CFSD and the family need to take to remove dangers so the child will be safe.

Even those safety plans varied extremely from different CFSD divisions across the state. For example, in Region 1 had zero percent of the cases include safety plans. Region 1 covers eastern Montana. Meanwhile, Region 4, which covers southwestern Montana, had 100 percent completion.

The audit also pinned some of the blame on CFSD administrators, who in some cases were not even aware of the problem, sometimes due to old software or multiple programs, each with limited capabilities.

“We presented CFSD administration information from our review of removal cases, including missing or incomplete protection plans and missing safety plans,” the report said. “CFSD administration were not aware of these issues or the reasons they were happening. CFSD administration do not have this information available to them in real time to determine why this is happening and to implement data-driven corrective actions.”

Montana saw the highest rate of growth in kids in foster care from 2010 to 2019, and it still has the highest ratio of kids in care at 16 kids per 1,000. Its referral rate is 10% above the national average.

“Montana performed worse than the national average in several categories including permanency in 12 months for children who have already been in foster care for 12 to 23 months and permanency for kids who have been in foster care for 24 months or more. This shows foster children who are in state custody for long periods of time remain in state custody for longer in Montana,” the report said.

Meanwhile, Montana is in the middle of the pack when it comes to recurrence – the number of kids who re-enter the foster program within six months — at 6%.

“The increase in number of kids in care in Montana over the last decade was driven by the fact that there have been more children entering foster care than have been exiting,” the report said.


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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.