Uncommon Ground

Do Right by Montana Kids

I’ve watched four different Montana governors and more Legislatures try to understand foster kids

Nationally nearly six out of 1,000 children are wards of the state and placed in foster care. In Montana the rate is almost triple, nearly 17 of every 1,000 children are foster kids.

Montana has the second highest rate of foster kids in the nation. Outside of Helena, that might concern anyone with decency.

Foster children may live in a group home or are private placements, but mainly the kids live with relatives. The state provides services like health care, living stipends, clothing allowances and educational opportunities. It sounds like a lot. It’s not.

A foster kid spent their central and high school years here at the farm. It was the 1990s, during Helena budget crunch days, as the state cut services. It was yet another ugly time for politics.

In order to save state money, the governor and Legislature decided to cut foster care services like clothing allowances, caseworkers, and taunted councilors with having to certify that a child only needed so much therapy.

It was a big mess, a testament to how politicians valued the life of innocent children. More likely they just didn’t know about foster care. Over time some things have gotten better and some have not.

Today, over 4,000 Montana foster children are in state care. It’s a growing number. In 2008 there were 1,500 foster kids; eight years later the number had doubled.

Montana has some 200 social caseworkers whose job it is to keep tabs on foster kids. The state needs an additional 100 plus caseworkers to maintain a 15 kid to caseworker ratio.

Some 1,500 Montana kids are in foster care because of methamphetamine in the home. In six states, Montana included, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services linked the foster care population increase to the nation’s ravaging opioid epidemic.

Foster caseworkers represent the best of Montana. They enjoy a tremendously difficult job. Most do it well from my experiences, and are shamefully underpaid. Turnover is great as the duties of the job are excruciating.

The Montana Department of Health and Human Services is asking the state Legislature to backfill the funding, which was removed during last year’s revenue shortfall. In addition, the state is seeking to transfer 18 job positions into the foster care system.

Both actions will help, neither sufficient to fully address the growing problem that added 400 foster care children since the last regular session of the Montana Legislature, two years ago.

To the state Legislature, foster kids must seem like dollar numbers in a budget. There’s only so much money, no one has the stomach for new money, and foster kids have no effective lobbying in Helena. It’s a sad state of affairs plaguing innocent Montana kids, from families with few resources.

We spent years as licensed foster parents in Montana, went on to become therapeutic foster parents and found the system chronically underfunded with many good and caring people working at the department.

I’ve watched four different Montana governors and more Legislatures try to understand foster kids. When there’s a state budget crunch all but one governor took money away from those with the least. All the while the number of foster kids increased and the political theater got louder.

On some days it feels like politics is disconnected from reality. The Washington, D.C. politicians are yelling about the need for better health care all the while trying to cut the main funding of Medicaid, which provides the bulk of services like treatment and healthcare.

Foster care is expensive. Deal with it. These innocent Montana kids may not have a loud lobbying group or donate cash to political campaigns. Yet children removed from abusive families are real people with promising futures. Do right by these Montana kids.