Agencies and legislators near Livingston are continuing to blast the closure of the Park County Child and Family Services office.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services confirmed the closure of the Livingston office Friday. Of that office's six employees, five positions will move to Billings and one will move to Bozeman, which will serve Park and Sweet Grass counties.
The department cited Billings' average caseload of about 60 children per caseworker, compared to an average of 11 across Gallatin, Park and Sweet Grass counties combined. The state's press release on the issues said the state is "committed" to making sure both counties have the coverage they need, but others are firing back.
Park County Sheriff Scott Hamilton issued a statement on the office's Facebook page saying that the move will be a "disaster" for both Park and Gallatin counties while lauding the office's employees.
"They know families as well or better than we do," Hamilton wrote. "They respond quickly whenever needed for transports, emergency child placements, forensic interviews and more. They live here and are invested in our communities."
He worried about potential delays if children need to be transported to Bozeman, or if workers have to travel to Park County, that would hinder the documentation of injuries, prevention of intimidation and effectiveness of interviews.
“I think the solution is to give Billings more staff for what they need to do, but I don’t see why they would close our office,” he said in an interview. “Instead of having just one place to worry about, now they’re going to have at least three to worry about.”
State Rep. Laurie Bishop, a Livingston Democrat, was tempered but pointed in criticism. She helped organize a meeting with CASA leaders, who act as appointed advocates for children in the court system and already criticized the closure. Hamilton and fellow Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, also attended.
The meeting served "to really ensure that everyone who’s impacted has a full understanding of what that impact is,” she said. “We need to be talking specifically, out loud, that that’s what the effect of this is.”
Bishop was concerned that the opportunity costs of closing the Livingston office would outweigh benefits to reducing Billings' case load.
“If we’re not accounting for that travel part in what it means to be serving cases out of any office, then we’re missing part of the equation,” she said. “We think that the larger goals are better met by a more skilled workforce that not only understands how to do their jobs, but knows their community.”
Redfield, a Livingston Republican, slammed the move as "total mismanagement."
“Just because Billings has an issue … the rural part of the state has to suffer too,” he said.
Redfield said he's spoken to employees at the office, some of whom he's known for years.
“They feel like they’ve been stabbed in the back, I think,” he said.
But Redfield diverged with Bishop when looking at statewide funding for Child and Family Services.
Redfield takes a "zero-based budgets" approach, arguing that every state agency should have to justify every job.
“I think (Child and Family Services) could use a little more funding, but it’s also where they allocate it,” he said. He raised concerns about an excess of administrative positions, and echoed a frequent stance.
“We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem,” he said.
Bishop disagreed, pointing to increases in caseloads across the state.
“The growing caseload is outpacing the revenue that’s being directed toward this particular need,” she said.
Billings Rep. Kathy Kelker, a Democrat with a long history of working on issues involving at-risk children, said Child and Family Services does "absolutely not" have adequate funding statewide.
She cited rises in caseloads that often are tied to drug use.
“The state budget just hasn’t kept up with that at all,” she said.
Kelker was glad Billings, an office that's "already overrun," will get more help, but said closing Livingston's office wasn't ideal.
“It’s a shame. ... It’s not going to be easy, and hopefully it’s not going to be the way it is for years and years,” she said. Things like supervised home visits are “just hard to pull off if you’re in some other community or the staff has to travel.”
Advocates in Billings previously applauded the addition of staff there, saying that the demands of an overloaded office required tough decisions.
For Bishop, the closure follows a trend found in recent budget-related cuts Livingston has endured. She noted the closures of the Office of Public Assistance, Livingston Mental Health Center and Job Service Office, while acknowledging the budget cuts weren't given as a reason for the Child and Family Services Office closure.
The state said the closure was related to an analysis of caseloads.
With Bozeman about 30 minutes away, there's “the attractiveness to thinking that we can just be served by Bozeman,” she said.
If anything, Bozeman's own issues are getting bigger as its population balloons, she said. The city has a staggering growth rate.
“Livingston is absolutely feeling that spillover,” Bishop said. “There’s no indication that that will stop.”
As Montana's 12th largest city — population 7,401 — Bishop views Livingston as a canary in the coal mine for small towns.
According to the state's website, these counties are all served by offices located in different counties:
- Golden Valley.
- Judith Basin.
- Powder River.
- Sweet Grass.
For example, Musselshell County's office also responds to Wheatland and Golden Valley counties.
But a handful of rural counties like Carbon and Dawson don't have extra obligations.
The Livingston closure “doesn’t speak well for any community that’s smaller than us,” Bishop said.
She, Hamilton and Redfield expressed frustration with the state's communication about the office's closure.
Bishop said she's still hopeful that some kind of compromise can be reached. She and Kelker both floated ideas about a satellite office.
“I don’t pretend to have an answer about what exactly that design looks like, but we do think having at least one worker in our community could be useful,” Bishop said.
“We think there’s a possible path forward that could help the department meet their needs," she said. “I have not in my time seen such a clear and united front from Park and Sweet Grass county.”