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The saddest thing Yellowstone County drug prosecutor Victoria Callender has noticed about a recent upsurge in methamphetamine arrests is that “there are always children.”

“That’s the most horrific part about it,” she said.

Cases that get as far as criminal prosecution involve people who are daily and heavy users. They are usually filthy, and their homes are just as dirty, she said.

“And there are always children there,” Callender repeated.

Someone has to deal with the innocent casualties of one of the most insidious drugs on the market, and it’s usually the Montana Child and Family Services Division.

A child protection worker can respond in minutes, said Jason Larson, CFSD regional administrator in Billings. When these displaced children next turn down a bed — if a relative can’t step in — it is usually in an emergency foster home.

But most children removed from their families aren’t wrenched from parents in the middle of the night by drug agents and child protection workers. In many cases, CFSD has received a confidential call to its hotline (866-820-5437) from a neighbor, a relative or an acquaintance reporting child neglect or abuse. Others, by law, are required to report suspected neglect or abuse — teachers, doctors, clergy and child care providers, for instance.

Each hotline report is assigned a priority for investigation based on the information received. A response has to be made to a Priority 1 call within 24 hours — immediately if necessary, said Hilary Harriet, child protection specialist supervisor in the Billings CFSD office. Priority 2 calls get a response within 72 hours, and those assigned Priority 3 will have a response within 10 days.

Most of what Jennifer Winkley, who works for CFSD in Miles City, sees is neglect. Often meth-abusing parents are in denial that their habit affects their children.

“But they’re not parenting when they are off in a back room doing drugs,” she said.

With little parental interaction, children fall behind socially, Winkley said. Sometimes small children are left to care for even smaller children.

Harriet remembers going into a home to find the child alone with a stranger sleeping on the couch. The parents couldn’t identify the man. The child’s diaper was soiled and its bed soaked. There were moldy bottles in the bed.

“We’re trying to get to it before it gets to that point,” she said.

On initial contact with a family, things can look pretty good, Larson noted.

“The person who answers the door hasn’t been sleeping it off for a day and a half and hasn’t just shot up,” Harriet said.

But there are signs when meth-related neglect is present — children in ragged or too-small clothes, dirty diapers, rotting food or no food in the refrigerator, malnourished and hungry kids, kids and parents in need of a shower and clean clothes.

If a child protection worker believes children aren’t safe in their home, state law gives the worker the authority to remove them.

“The big question we have to answer is ‘Are the children safe?’ ” Harriet said. “It might not be an ideal situation in other eyes, but are they safe?”

It’s a carefully considered process that weighs heavily on protection workers and their supervisors, Larson said.

“Critical decisions are made daily that will affect a child’s life forever,” he said.

No one enjoys taking a child from his or her parents, and reunification is the first goal. One of the most successful ways of doing that is through Family Drug Treatment Court, Larson said. The judge monitors the parents’ drug treatment and sets goals that can include parenting classes, finding a job or, if the family is homeless, finding a place to live.

A report from the Montana Department of Justice said parents involved in drug courts can reunite their families in about one-third the time of those who are not.

But children cannot be returned to parents as long as the issue of safety remains.

Federal law gives the state 24 months to permanently establish children in a safe home, said Susan Corbally, administrator of Montana’s Child and Family Services Division. The idea is to prevent kids from spending their lives in foster care.

That can be a problem in meth families because treatment can take longer than for other addictions, she said.

“We may not always meet federal requirements,” she said.

In recent years, CFSD has changed how it handles cases where children can’t be returned. Under the theory that children will be better off if they remain in their extended family, CFSD looks first for a relative willing to adopt, Larson said.

Child protection workers now start much earlier in the process identifying family members willing to provide kids a new home. Sometimes they get lucky and find a previously absent parent who wants to make a home for the children.

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