The state health department plans to close the Child and Family Services office in Livingston, transferring those cases to the Bozeman office while reallocating the five caseworker jobs to Billings to help with a large caseload there.
The announcement of the Aug. 6 closure raised concerns among numerous people including caseworkers, child advocates and law enforcement and lawmakers, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports .
Officials with Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) organizations in Livingston and Bozeman say the move would put additional pressure on caseworkers in the Bozeman office, which is seeing its own caseload increase. CASA of Yellowstone County welcomed the move, saying it will help overwhelmed caseworkers in Billings.
Park County Sheriff Scott Hamilton said a Livingston closure would be a disaster for the county, causing families in need of services to suffer and adding to the duties of law enforcement officers.
"Why close an office that is providing great service, only to place that caseload on another office that is already overworked, only to give a few more positions to another office that is also struggling?" Hamilton wrote in a Facebook post. "Won't this mean all the offices will now fail in providing much needed services?"
State Rep. Laurie Bishop of Livingston said she spoke with Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Sheila Hogan to express the community's concerns and asked for a better plan to serve abused and neglected children.
"Telling people you're closing and you can go here or nowhere — that isn't a plan," she said.
Chuck Council, spokesman for the health department, declined to comment Wednesday, saying there was an upcoming staff meeting to discuss options.
The state announced the changes last week. It said the average caseload in the Billings Child and Family Services Division office is 60 children while caseworkers serving Gallatin, Park and Sweet Grass counties average 11 children per caseworker. A supervisor position in Livingston would be allocated to the Bozeman office.
"We are shocked and deeply troubled," said Ann Schilling and Ashley Peterson in a statement from CASA of Park and Sweet Grass counties. "The removal of this office drastically increases the risk of continued child abuse, neglect and harm," they wrote.
Kathi Ellison, a longtime child protection specialist in Livingston, called the news was devastating. She hadn't decided if she would move to Billings to keep her job.
Glenda Noyes, executive director of CASA/Guardians Ad Litem of Gallatin County, said the county already struggles to find enough caseworkers. "In my opinion, they're already overloaded," she said.
The number of children in care of the state agency has increased in recent years, with nearly 4,000 children in foster care. The agency says much of the increase is caused by parental drug use.
Yellowstone County has 950 kids in foster care and adding five caseworkers will help a lot, said Keely McCave, executive director of CASA of Yellowstone County.
The agency also is advertising for a child protection specialist supervisor in Billings.
Closing the child protection office would be the fourth major loss to Livingston, after the recent closures of the Job Service office, the Office of Public Assistance and the Livingston Mental Health Center — which were all made because of state budget cuts.