A newborn became a foster child because the mother disappeared from a Billings hospital after delivery and the father was in jail. She already had two older children removed to foster care and had admitted to using alcohol and illegal drugs during her latest pregnancy. The baby was in newborn intensive care.
A mother who has been involved with the foster care system for 21 years was arrested on a warrant and tested positive for meth. Her 8-year-old child told investigators that she had men in the house who assaulted the child and the mother. The mother denied that and denied recent drug use.
A 2-month-old was brought to a Billings hospital by parents who said the baby had constipation, doctors determined the baby had three broken bones. The father first blamed hospital employees for causing the injuries, then admitted he may have injured the baby. The baby and a 2-year-old sibling were removed to foster care.
A 1-year-old child — the youngest of five siblings — was suffering from multiple brain injuries and was flown out-of-state for critical care. The mother told child protection workers that she left the infant with her boyfriend for 15 to 20 minutes, and when she returned, he was giving the child CPR. The boyfriend, a registered sex offender, had a history of domestic violence and child abuse. The five children have three different fathers. The youngest remained in state legal custody while the four older siblings were placed with their fathers.
Multiply these disturbing stories by 100 and you will have an idea of how serious child abuse and neglect is in Yellowstone County. Last year, 510 civil child abuse and neglect cases were filed here.
That huge number of cases is actually a decrease from 2017 when the county filed on 574 children. The number of abuse and neglect cases doubled and then tripled in the past five years in Yellowstone County.
Statistics released by County Attorney Scott Twito provide insight on why 510 children were legally removed from their homes last year.
- Eighty percent had at least one primary caregiver who abused drugs.
- Among the cases with caregiver/parent drug abuse, 64 percent involved methamphetamine.
- Opiate abuse was a factor in 12 percent of cases.
"More often than not, more than one primary caregiver was abusing drugs," Deputy County Attorney Corbit Harrington reported in analyzing and compiling the county statistics. "We are seeing substantial increases in the number of drug-related cases involving nearly all types of drugs with the most notable increase in opiates although meth is, increasingly, the drug of choice among parents in Yellowstone County."
- Sixty-five percent of the children had at least one parent or caregiver incarcerated or in the corrections system, compared with 42 percent in 2015.
"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," Harrington reported. Parents have relocated or returned to Billings where there are programs for treatment of sex offenders and chemical addictions, housing, an abundance of drugs and "substantially less" risk of having parole revoked, he said.
- Child neglect was cited in 98 percent of all the 2018 cases. Neglect may include depriving a child of housing, food, necessities of life, medical care or protection.
"Nationwide, neglect has been found to be as responsible as abuse to contributing to the death of children," Harrington noted.
Among new cases filed last year in Yellowstone County, 28 percent involved children who had been previously removed from parents' care and returned to one or both parents. Every removal is traumatic for the child, so it is important that re-unification is successful — that the child isn't returned too soon and that the parent has support and services needed (e.g., drug treatment) to be a safe caregiver.
The 2019 Legislature is seeing numerous bills from people who want to reform Montana's child protection system. Certainly, there are problems in the system, starting with under staffing and antiquated computers. CPS critics claim that the agency is too quick to remove children, and conversely complain that it doesn't remove children fast enough to protect them.
These are difficult, delicate situations in which the parents have legal rights and the law requires CPS to protect the children. Kids are almost always better off at home — if they can be kept safe.
The social workers, counselors, probation and parole officers, medical professionals, attorneys and judges who work with these neglect and abuse cases every day see the trauma, the hurting children and the dysfunctional families. Lawmakers should listen to what these knowledgeable and compassionate professionals recommend.
Myriad problems contribute to child neglect, so solutions require a wide range of services: Medicaid for mental health and substance abuse treatment, drug-free housing, job training, parent education, a corrections system adequately staffed to reduce recidivism, enough child protection workers to provide the timely attention needed to keep children safe.
Lawmakers who think that Montana's child protection system is the problem should consult their local county attorney, district judge or substance abuse counselors while they are home for transmittal break. Make informed decisions when you vote on legislation that could be a life-or-death difference for Montana's children.