The state health department must develop a plan to provide preventive services to struggling families so fewer children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care, under a bill endorsed by the Senate Tuesday.

Montana needs the plan to be eligible for federal reimbursement for mental health and substance abuse treatment, parenting skills training or counseling for families whose children are in danger of being removed from their home.

The federal funding is available under the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act, which prioritizes family stability and kinship placement over putting children in foster care or group homes. Services, which must be proven effective, could be provided to families for up to a year.

Montana has about 3,900 children in foster care, a number that has remained stable over the past year, the state health department said.

The bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jessica Karjala passed the state House on March 1 and was endorsed by the Senate 45-4. It faces a final vote in the Senate on Wednesday before being submitted to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

Laura Smith, the deputy director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, told a Senate committee last week that the agency is developing a plan to identify available services with the help of experts from across the department and the University of Montana Center For Children, Families and Workforce Development.

The plan must include how the agency would monitor the effectiveness of the services, the outcomes the state expects to see and how child welfare workers would be trained to deliver the services.

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