HELENA — The state’s Division of Child and Family Services needs to strengthen supervision, make it a priority to better document reports and investigations and complete more investigations within the time frame required by law in order to better protect children, legislative auditors found.
The auditors released a report Wednesday that found the agency doesn’t have access to some of the useful information it needs to effectively manage its work, partially due to an antiquated computer system and partially because it does not use all of the system’s capabilities.
The auditors said the agency could meet the goals with existing staff and an updated computer system.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services, which is where the division is based, agreed the division will make documentation a priority, more clearly outline the role of supervisors and use available data to make management decisions. It has also announced plans to update its case management system.
The department said it is requiring less documentation in some low-risk cases, but it eventually will need more caseworkers.
Department staff “appear to be waiting for other entities such as the Legislature to act and provide additional resources for staff or data analysis” and “appear to have accepted that they will never be able to meet those time frames” with existing resources, the auditors wrote.
Health department spokesman Jon Ebelt appeared to echo that conclusion in a statement Wednesday, saying department officials have been expressing concerns found in the audit to legislators for years.
“It is not possible to continue to meet all of our statutory duties within existing resources,” Ebelt said in the statement. “The current number of children in care is nearly 2,800, which is nearly 600 more than the audit reports.”
“In addition, our child protection specialists currently carry an investigative caseload that is four times the standard set by the Child Welfare League of America. This points to the fact that the primary issue has been lack of resources,” he added.
The auditors looked at a random sample of 351 reports of child abuse or neglect in 10 counties and determined how they were assigned a priority level and investigated. They found numerous cases of limited, inconsistent or missing documentation and widespread examples of department decisions that were not supported by documentation.
In one case, the child abuse hotline received a report of a teenager with a plan to commit suicide. Intake staff did not refer the case for investigation within 24 hours, but said it could be investigated within 72 hours. The case report did not say why.
Department staff said their managers did not set clear expectations for documentation, which auditors note is the way “the department maintains the public’s trust that they are acting appropriately to keep at-risk children out of harm’s way.”
The audit also found investigations had limited supervisory oversight and thus were not uniformly performed from office to office. In some cases, investigations were delayed because caseworkers were ill or on vacation and a supervisor did not reassign the work, auditors found.
Nearly 70 percent of reviewed case reports were not completed within 60 days as required by law, the report said, and there wasn’t adequate documentation to determine why.
The department said there can be numerous roadblocks to a timely investigation, including being unable to locate the family involved, lack of cooperation and more serious allegations taking priority. The agency also noted new comprehensive investigation requirements put in place in 2012 make investigations take longer.
Department management said it is developing better guidance for supervisors, but it still argued staffers are overwhelmed because of an increasing caseload.
However, auditors found that the number of field staff and the number of children in the state’s care have both increased by 10 percent since 2002, the last time the agency was audited. That audit made similar findings about improving documentation, supervisory oversight and the computer system.
The 2015 audit also found that state law needs to be updated to reflect current investigative guidelines.
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