The federal government recently approved a plan by the state health department intended to help keep kids from going into foster care by connecting families with proven programs to keep children safe and aid their parents in navigating challenges.
The five-year Family First Prevention Plan incorporates several different programs that work with parents to help keep children safe and in their homes, some of which have already shown success in Montana.
"This is a monumental federal shift in thinking about funding things that work," said Erica Johnston, the Economic Security Services executive director at the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. "I think there's a real opportunity here as we increase families' access to services that help them maintain their household and keep their children safe and family strong. We can really start to see the impact on the lives of the people we serve, and that's exciting."
Three years ago, following record numbers of children in the foster care system, the department's division of Child and Family Services started implementing programs like the First Years Initiative aimed at reaching families with assistance before children were removed from their parents.
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According to the state health department, the number of children removed from their homes and in care elsewhere was 3,021 on Jan. 31. That's down from a high of 4,033 kids who were in out-of-home care in October 2018.
"We're starting to see it work. You can see the numbers coming down over time," Johnston said. " ... What it's done is educate our workforce and our providers that there are supports available. The evidence shows the least restrictive setting and least traumatic experience for a child is to be able to remain in their family unit."
The newly approved prevention plan incorporates services and programs that have already been used in Montana.
- Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, where parents are coached by a trained therapist on behavior-management and relationship skills. The program is for kids ages 2-7. That age range covers 60% of kids in foster care in Montana in the 2020 fiscal year.
- Parents as Teachers, which is a program that comes into homes and teaches new and expectant parents skills to promote child development and prevent malnutrition. The program can also help identify developmental delays and increase readiness for school.
- Healthy Families America, which is also a home-visiting program for new and expecting families. It targets children who are at-risk for maltreatment and adverse childhood experiences.
- Nurse-Family Partnership, another home-visiting program that connects trained registered nurses with young, first-time and low-income mothers from early in their pregnancy until their child turns 2.
The plan also lays out ways to help children who aren't placed in family-based foster care but instead in congregate care settings. While 85% of kids in foster care in Montana are in a family setting and half are with family members, the plan still calls for improvements such as making sure kids who don't need the higher level of care in something like a group home leave that setting as soon as possible. It also requires programs be accredited by a national group.
"Montana has always done a really good job of trying to place kids in least-restrictive settings, finding family members and kin to offer support," Johnston said "Congregate care placements in Montana are not as alarming as they are in some other states."
Having the plan accepted means that Montana can access federal reimbursement for 50% of the costs of services. The state funding was approved by lawmakers in 2021. Johnston said as more families get services before kids are removed, it represents the state moving from spending money on kids in foster care to instead using the funding to keep families together.