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When a Yellowstone County District judge hears a civil child neglect case, the parents may come to court in handcuffs and jail garb. It's not unusual for one or both parents of foster children to be jailed on drug offenses, property crimes or violent crimes.

Last week at a meeting in Billings, members of the Legislature's Interim Committee on Children, Families, Health and Human Services heard that many Montana parents are in both the foster care and corrections systems. 

Sixty-five percent of Yellowstone County child neglect and abuse cases involve parents who also have criminal cases, District Judge Rod Souza told the committee Friday. Department of Corrections probation and parole officers in Billings have caseloads of 110 or more offenders, Souza said, adding that number is too high and "prevents proactive and effective supervision." 

In the biennial report presented to the 2019 Legislature in January, the Department of Corrections said its probation and parole officers were supervising 10,500 offenders in Montana communities. The DOC said caseloads ranged from 65 offenders to 110 per officer.

The number Souza cited comes from data analyzed by the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office where Deputy County Attorney Corbit Harrington has carefully tracked and summarized every foster child case for years. In 2018, 65.21% involved incarcerated parents/guardians/custodians as a major factor in the removals (nearly a 33% increase from 2017). “Incarceration” includes primary care providers who are incarcerated in jail or prison, under active probation, under active parole or in a crime-related treatment program at the time of the child’s removal or as a result of the facts underlying the removal. 

According to data Harrington compiled annually, the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office filed in 2015 for protection of 188 children whose parents were involved with the corrections system. That number increased gradually in 2016 and 2017 and then jumped to 328 children in 2018. The proportion of Native American foster children whose parents are incarcerated was slightly less (60.2%) than the percentage of non-Native children with incarcerated parents (65.21%).

"The increases in incarcerated parents began around the time the federal and state governments began releasing incarcerated persons back into society at a very high rate, which also coincided with supervision services being substantially taxed and unable to provide adequate supervision of incarcerated parents," Harrington wrote in his report. 

In a Gazette guest opinion published Tuesday, state Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, advocated for a greater investment in re-entry services for offenders leaving prison. Kelker noted that the Justice Re-investment laws of 2017 have not saved the $69 million expected from releasing low-level offenders. She argued that the state's upfront investment of less than $3 million didn't put sufficient resources into helping parolees and probationers get jobs, housing and rehab. Without such help, they are much more likely to re-offend or otherwise violate the terms of their release.

Putting offenders back into the community without reasonable help for them to succeed as law-abiding citizens guarantees that our jails and prisons will stay full and taxpayers soon may be asked to pay for more jail and prison space.

The better way is to put more effort and public money into getting offenders to work, recovery from addiction and raise their own kids. Those who don't want to spend money helping criminals should consider that successful re-entry helps us taxpayers — and the children whose parents don't re-offend because their probation officer has time to hold them accountable for staying clean, sober and out of trouble.

The Children and Families Committee, chaired by Rep. Eric Moore of Miles City was one of two legislative committees that met last week in Billings. The State-Tribal Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, met in Billings earlier last week. Lawmakers from both panels also visited District Court, several local health care facilities and programs serving Native Americans. Most legislative meetings are held in Helena. Thanks to the lawmakers who convened in Billings to hear directly from people in this region.

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