State to close fourth office in Park County

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The state of Montana plans to close the Livingston office of Child and Family Services — the fourth state services office to be shuttered in Park County in little more than a year.

On Thursday, The Enterprise confirmed the plan to close the CFS office with the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which oversees the Child and Family Services Division. The office is expected to close on Aug. 6.

The Livingston Office of Public Assistance and the Mental Health Center were closed earlier this year, and the Livingston Job Service office was closed in June 2017.

The Livingston Child and Family Services office serves Park and Sweet Grass counties and, as in the previous closures, the case burden from those counties will fall largely on the Gallatin County office in Bozeman.

“After completing an ongoing assessment of workloads across the state, CFSD is reallocating resources based on the number of kids in care and new referrals received,” wrote DPHHS Public Information Officer Jon Ebelt in a statement to The Enterprise. “Specifically, in Billings caseloads are four times higher than in other areas of the state. We are committed to ensuring the Livingston area has appropriate coverage and continued staffing as we ensure that other areas with higher caseloads have adequate resources as well.”

Of the six positions at the Livingston office, five will be transferred to the Billings office and one to the Bozeman office.

In a July 4 statement, CASA of Park and Sweet Grass Counties, a nonprofit organization that provides volunteer advocates to represent victims of child abuse and neglect, responded to the news of the office closure: “We are shocked and deeply troubled by the State’s decision to close the Livingston Child Family Services (CFS) branch. The removal of this office drastically increases the risk of continued child abuse, neglect, and harm.”

CFS is the state agency charged with investigating and intervening on behalf of children in danger from abuse, neglect or abandonment. Child protective specialists, of whom there are three at the Livingston office, investigate reports of child abuse and neglect and try to find solutions. If a specialist determines that a child needs protection, she or he can ask the court to give the state temporary legal custody while the specialist investigates.

According to the CASA statement, the loss of local specialists will harm local kids.

“Without a child protective specialist (case worker) doing their due diligence in protecting a child’s welfare, we cannot begin to advocate,” the statement reads. “We rely heavily on immediate investigation and services to youth victims in Park and Sweet Grass Counties and this alternative will be devastating to those in need.”

The statement continues: “It seems unrealistic for one office to cover child abuse and neglect reports/cases in Madison, Gallatin, Park, and Sweet Grass Counties and we fear this will have negative implications on our kids.”

Laurie Bishop, a Democrat who represents the Livingston area in the Montana State House, agrees that, like the other recent closures of state assistance offices, the loss of the CFS office will likely hurt the local community — but this time, children may bear the brunt of the pain.

“There’s a difference that happens when the service providers are people who are engaged in and who live in the community they serve,” Bishop told The Enterprise.

Bishop said she understands that the huge state budget shortfall and the budget cuts that followed have forced the DPHHS into a tough position. As she understands it, the Livingston office closure is the result of the agency rearranging what resources it has in order to meet the pressing needs in the Billings area.

“I get that it has to close,” she said. “What I’ll be fighting for is getting DPHHS to take time with stakeholders in our communities, to get them into the transition process early so we don’t harm kids and families in our communities.”