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Spike In Child Abuse Cases Alarms Officials

Court news
Spike In Child Abuse Cases Alarms Officials

Child abuse and neglect cases in Montana's district courts have more than doubled since 2010, prompting renewed alarm from court officials and children's advocates.

"It's just astonishingly frightening," said Beth McLaughlin, the chief administrator for the state's court system.

The rising caseload threatens to further burden a judicial system struggling to keep up with it, McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin presented the startling statistics Tuesday while updating a legislative committee on a pilot program intended to help reunite children and their parents.

Across Montana, courts handled more than 2,300 abuse and neglect cases last year, up from 1,600 just a year earlier.

The number of cases in the state's most populous county, Yellowstone, more than doubled just in the last two years, rising from 223 in 2014 to 512 last year.

In the Ninth Judicial District, which encompasses four northern counties near Great Falls, there were just 18 child abuse and neglected cases in 2010. Last year, the number spiked to 114 cases, McLaughlin said.

"I bring it to your attention because it requires more than the court's efforts to do something about it," McLaughlin told members of the Law and Justice Interim Committee. "It's not just an urban problem, but is happening all over the state."

An increase in meth abuse could be the reason behind the rise in cases, McLaughlin said. But she acknowledged that that theory was purely anecdotal, based on comments from district judges.

Experts say a host of problems — drugs and alcohol addictions, mental illness and the stresses from poverty — sometimes collide into situations of abuse and neglect.

"These numbers don't surprise me because that's the reality we're dealing here," said Cass Staton, executive director of CASA of Yellowstone County, one of 14 offices for a statewide group known as Court Appointed Special Advocates For Children, which serves youth who have been removed from homes because of abuse or neglect.

"We are serving more and more kids every year," Staton said. "We're serving more children, but we're not growing fast enough to serve the need."

Children's advocates have been arguing for more funding, not just for social welfare programs but for more resources to help courts and the legal system better address the issue.

On Friday, McLaughlin and officials from the state's Child and Family Services Division will appear before the Legislative Finance Committee to brief them on their growing caseloads.

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