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Statewide Growth In Child Protective Custody Orders Brings New Challenges

Montana Child and Family Services sign in Helena, MT.
Bree Zender
Statewide Growth In Child Protective Custody Orders Brings New Challenges

Filings for child protective custody cases in Missoula County are at an all-time high.

The local county attorney’s office last year filed 195 new cases. That’s an almost four-fold increase from just 2011.

Missoula Deputy County Attorney Jessica Finley says many of these cases are fueled by drugs.

"We’re talking about methamphetamine mostly," Finley says. "More cases are involving heroin, which I didn’t see before in years past, but the majority of dangerous drugs that impact the safety of the children in the cases that we file is methamphetamine.”

According to Finley, some parents who are using these powerful drugs are either too high or too strung-out to adequately raise their kids. She says some of these addicted parents are getting involved in violent crimes as a result of their drug use.

"But also we’re seeing the parents who are using drugs are exposing their child, or children, to drugs," Finley adds. "We’re seeing the children (themselves) testing positive for methamphetamine and the metabolite, amphetamine.”

It’s a big problem and it’s not unique to Missoula.

"No. Not at all. It is statewide," says Nikki Grossberg, a regional administrator of the state health department’s Child and Family Services Division.

Montana currently has almost 4,000 children in foster care.

Grossberg oversees CFS services in Missoula, Lake, Ravalli and Mineral counties.

“We’re extremely busy, along with all of our staff," Grossberg says. "Yellowstone County and Cascade County also have seen a surge of kids coming in for care because of drug use and domestic violence. I think that’s a piece that we have definitely seen an increase in, as drug and alcohol use has increased. Domestic violence and the level of domestic violence has increased, which also impacts children’s safety in the home.”

Last week, a new panel met for the first time to investigate deaths in Montana child protective services system. Twenty-five kids in the system have died since 2015.

At the same time, the state health department is carving $49-million dollars from its budget. State lawmakers mandated that to help balance the state’s budget.

But Grossberg says, compared to other health department divisions, the Child and Family Services budget emerged mostly unscathed.

“So we’re not seeing the impacts as significantly immediately, but based on the cuts and how they’re impacting the other divisions and the other agencies, I believe it will trickle down to Child and Family Services over time," Grossberg says.

That’s what Nicole Tucker fears. She works for Consumer Direct Care Network, a state contractor that provides mental health and case management services. She pleaded with state officials during a recent public hearing to reconsider cutting over $12-million-dollars that funds that work.

“Please, please stop cutting – stop reducing or unbundling services that are there to help the most vulnerable kids," Tucker said.

State-funded health services lost not only millions of state dollars last fall, but millions more in federal matching funds. That money is used for programs that Child and Family Services Regional Administrator Nikki Grossberg says could help keep troubled families intact.

“A lot of these services are provided prior to – without- our intervention; children’s mental health services, chemical dependency services," Grossberg says. "There are many families that have issues that don’t rise to the level of Child and Family Services (intervention). They’re maintaining their own health and their children’s health by utilizing these services that have now been impacted by the budget cuts.”

Montana’s state health department is developing two federally-funded pilot projects to help address the growing need for services during this budget crisis.

The funding for both are part of ongoing federal grants.

One is a $500-thousand a year program to create addiction recovery teams.

“They’d be housed in Child and Family Services’ office and be able to provide evaluation and support to families very early on in our cases, which is a significant need," Grossberg says. "We know families make the greatest amount of change when they’re in that crisis phase. The sooner we can get services to them, the better.”

The First Years Initiative, meanwhile, will use $300,000 federal dollars annually to create five home visitor positions to serve around 125 families involved in the state child protection system. Those visitors will check in on at-risk expecting and new mothers.

Of the 14 child deaths reported to Montana’s Child and Family Ombudsman last year, 10 involved children under the age of one.

“Home visiting has shown a lot of promising research around helping families and preventing child abuse and neglect," Grossberg says.

The health department and its service providers are waiting to see how the state budget cuts will ultimately shake out.

Montana’s drug abuse problem, meanwhile, shows no sign of slowing. It’s tearing families apart and leaving experts, like Nikki Grossberg, wondering about the long-term impacts on both the traumatized children and society.

“It’s a great question," she says. "I don’t have an answer for it. It’s a huge question that would take a community and multiple levels of systems to be able to answer and commit to.”

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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