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Child Abuse And Neglect Cases Weighing Down Montana Courts

Montana District Court caseloads.
Montana Legislative Fiscal Division
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Montana District Court caseloads.

The number of child abuse and neglect cases in Montana is weighing down the state’s already burdened court system.

“It’s significant. It’s actually startling.”

That’s Supreme Court Admin Beth McLaughlin testifying before the Judicial Redistricting Committee Tuesday.

The 2015 legislature asked the committee to see if reorganizing state district court resources could help lighten the workload.

McLaughlin said she didn’t believe the child abuse and neglect numbers when they first came out – there were more than 2,300 last year.

“That’s an increase of over 700 cases in total of one year."

Those cases take a lot of time for judges to review, McLaughlin says.

"Child abuse and neglect numbers are the most time consuming cases in the district court. They, in our workload study, take the most time by the judge far and above anything else."

Child and abuse and neglect cases take priority above other cases because they deal with kids, and the ultimate goal is to get kids back to parents as fast as the child protective services system allows.

"And so what ends up happening if you have that many more priority cases [than] your general civil cases, your ‘Joe Smith’ who’s waiting for their case to be hear, they get pushed back, because you have to deal with these cases first."

"It has a ripple effect on the other parts of the calendar."

That’s Yellowstone County District Court Judge Greg Todd. Child abuse and neglect cases more than doubled in Yellowstone County from 2014 to 2015.

“It is a challenge scheduling matters, and it is a challenge for everyone involved in the system.”

Judge Todd said an upsurge of meth use is a major contributor to the increase in these kinds of cases.

Reports discussed in this week’s judicial interim committee said 21 additional judges are needed around the state to meet workload demands. The report said six of those judges are needed in Yellowstone County. It estimates a total of about eight more judges are needed in Missoula, Flathead and Lewis and Clark Counties.

Committee members said judges, along with supporting staff and resources, cost
about half-a-million dollars each.

Getting Montana’s judicial system to the point where it could comfortably handle current caseloads would cost the state about $10 million.

Judge Todd, who chairs the judicial redistricting committee, doesn’t expect to get that kind of money.

"We’d be laughed out of the legislature. It’d be like going in and saying we want to win the lottery. I think realistically, asking for two additional judges in Billings and probably an additional judge in three or four most populous districts is realistic."

Judge Todd says getting five or six more judges statewide is a good goal for the next legislative session.

Supreme Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin says even with some additional judges, Montana’s problem of child abuse and neglect stretches outside the court system.

"And I know that I sound like a broken record on child abuse and neglect, but the numbers are just outrageous. It is a problem that far beyond judiciary’s control to do anything about.”

In early January the head of Montana’s Child and Family Services Division said her agency lacks the resources and staffing needed to deal with the number of incoming cases.

A recent audit of that agency's work found extensive weakness in their documentation and problems with how the department is investigating cases.

The Protect Montana Kids Initiative created by Governor Steve Bullock last fall has a March deadline to recommended improvements to the state’s child protective system.  The committee last week discussed working past the March deadline.

Members of this week’s Judicial Redistricting Committee were doubtful that a rearranging of resources could help significantly improve district court workload.

The question of funding more judges will be addressed by the 2017 legislature. In the meantime a few redistricting drafts will be drawn up before for the committee’s next meeting in April.

Corin Cates-Carney is the news director at Montana Public Radio. He joined MTPR in 2015 and is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.
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