HELENA — Montana’s health department on Friday announced a new effort aimed at reducing deaths due to child abuse and neglect.
Sheila Hogan, director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, is expanding a home visiting program for expectant mothers and young families with “home visitors” who will work exclusively with families involved in the child protection system.
Of the 14 child deaths reported to the Child and Family Ombudsman between mid-December 2016 and mid-December 2017, 10 involved children under the age of 1, department officials said.
Through the First Years Initiative, “we will take tangible steps by focusing on early intervention and education, with the goal of preventing tragedy before it strikes,” Hogan said in a statement.
The Family and Community Health Bureau within the department has contracts for 27 people to provide various types of home visits that help connect young families with prenatal care, teach parenting skills and child development, connect families with community resources and help address mental health issues, domestic violence or substance abuse.
Under the initiative, five people working as home visitors will be added whose caseloads will include families involved with the Division of Child and Family Services.
Health department officials will meet with local health officers and current home visiting teams to develop plans to provide the additional resources to high-risk families, the agency said.
A study commissioned by Congress in 2016 showed that early childhood home visitation services had the most promise in preventing child fatalities and reduces child abuse and neglect, the department said.
The next step of the state initiative proposes asking the newly formed Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission to partner in a public education campaign. The commission, created by the 2017 Legislature and appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, and Attorney General Tim Fox in August, is expected to hold its first meeting in the next few weeks.
A third step of the initiative still under discussion will explore further partnerships with community organizations with the goal of preventing child abuse.
Such collaborations are critical due to recent cuts in state funding, said Laura Smith, deputy director of the health department.
In the coming year, Hogan said, the health department also will partner with the Montana Healthcare Foundation to focus on prenatal and postpartum care for women with substance abuse disorders.
The Division of Child and Family Services has seen a caseload increase and record numbers of children in foster care. Most of the increase was attributed to drug use by caregivers, the agency has said.