Gazette opinion: State must respond to epidemic of child neglect

2013-05-13T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: State must respond to epidemic of child neglect The Billings Gazette
May 13, 2013 12:00 am

Billings and Yellowstone county authorities report a surge in methamphetamine use locally in the past year. Meth is turning up in more police stops, resulting in more criminal charges and putting more children into emergency foster care.

The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office filed 106 felony drug charges in the first quarter of this year, compared with 325 in all of 2013 and 242 in all of 2011. This year’s drug cases are on a pace to top 400 by year’s end.

“And there are always children there” when arrests are made, Yellowstone County drug prosecutor Victoria Callender told Gazette reporter Lorna Thackeray. The felony drug cases Callender sees involve people who are daily, heavy drug users — people who are usually filthy, as are their homes. And that’s where the kids are.

The state foster care system is straining to care for more neglected children. In Yellowstone County alone, there were 386 kids in foster care this March — 108 more than a year ago, according to the Montana Child and Family Services Division of the Department of Public and Human Services. Parental drug abuse is a factor in 69 percent of those foster placements, and meth is the drug in 48 percent of cases.

Statewide, foster care placements are up and meth was a factor in 42 percent of them. Some type of parental drug abuse was a factor in placing 1,134 of the 1,933 Montana kids who were in foster care in March. By the start of May, 2,198 children were in foster care.

When parental meth addiction is involved, children usually don’t leave foster care quickly. The brain’s response makes meth as hard to quit as heroin, Billings Clinic neurologist Dr. Mary Gaddy told The Gazette. Withdrawal can last a year or more and produces terrible depression.

Meth use in pregnancy is especially dangerous. It can result in babies that are born addicted and cause lifelong developmental and cognitive problems, according to Rimrock Foundation psychiatrist Dr. Rick Pullen.

Making a bad situation even worse, the Department of Public Health and Human Services request for additional child protection workers was rejected in the 2013 Legislature. As The Gazette noted in a previous opinion, it was a modest request for 13.5 full-time-equivalent positions.

The request reflected the knowledge that high turnover in the division has been driven by overwork. Caseworkers are being required to serve more children than they can serve well, according to professional social work standards.

“Incomprehensible,” is how DPHHS Director Richard Opper described the decision against funding the 13.5 FTEs.

“They weakened the ability of the department to protect children.”

This is a problem that should receive ongoing attention from the interim committee on children and families. DPHHS will have to do its best to fill vacancies quickly with qualified workers and to better train and support child protection workers to reduce turnover. Reaching those goals will be tougher with limited staff and a growing caseload, but the department must succeed. Montana children’s safety depends on it.

Concerned citizens can help protect kids, too. Talk to and educate your legislators. Consider volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children who have been abused or neglected. Think about opening your home to needy foster children. And if you have reason to suspect that a child is being neglected or abused, call the state child abuse hotline at 866-820-5437.

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