HELENA – State leaders have announced a new effort to reduce child abuse, neglect and deaths in Montana.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services launched the First Years Initiative on Friday. The program will provide new resources for families during a critical period, from before a child is born through the first few years of his or her life.

Leaders say the initiative comes as a response to a recent review of child deaths reported to Montana Department of Justice’s Chief Child and Family Ombudsman. In just over one year, the ombudsman found 14 cases where children died after a report was filed with the state Child and Family Services Division. Ten of the children were younger than one year old.

Story continues below

“That’s not okay,” said Laura Smith, deputy director of DPHHS.

The initiative will include three separate projects that will begin over the next year. The first stage will be the addition of five new home visitors, to work specifically with families that have been involved with Child and Family Services.

“That individual will be able to provide everything from connecting women with prenatal care to teaching families safe practices, measuring developmental progress, screenings,” Smith said.

Smith pointed to a number of studies on the impact of home visiting programs.

“That research showed that home visiting has the most promise in reducing child fatalities and abuse and neglect,” she said. “That’s something to be incredibly hopeful about with this First Years Initiative, so we’re excited.”

A federal grant will pay for the additional workers, who will work as part of Montana’s existing home visiting program. Smith said leaders are meeting with staff and community members around the state to determine which counties the new home visitors will serve in.

One of the next steps in the First Years Initiative will be to partner with the newly formed state Child Abuse and Neglect Review Commission. Montana lawmakers and Gov. Steve Bullock backed a bill to create the commission during last year’s legislative session.

“We view that as a really promising vehicle to help keep kids safe and help families,” said Smith.

Leaders said the First Years Initiative will create a proposal for a joint public education campaign with the new commission.

Another stage will involve a new partnership with the Montana Healthcare Foundation, to work with new and expectant mothers who engage in substance abuse.

Smith said the key goal of the First Years Initiative is to bring all available resources together to address the issues of child abuse and neglect.

“How do we make sure that we are working across medical and CFS and home visiting and all of our resources, and make sure that we are ensuring that those women and families succeed?” she said.