GUEST EDITORIAL: Drug abuse tearing Montana families apart

It’s no coincidence that Montana is seeing an increase in its prison population at the same time that it is seeing an increase in the number of children in state care. Both are rooted in the same problem: a drastic rise in illicit drug use, especially meth.

The situation has reached the point of crisis; drug abuse is literally tearing Montana families apart, and local and state resources are woefully insufficient to keep up with the rising demand on our courts, our prisons and our child welfare systems.

It’s a costly crisis in more ways than one. In addition to the legacy of abuse and neglect being established in this youngest generation of Montanans, the sheer amount of money it would require to provide an adequate number of caseworkers, prosecutors, public defenders and prison guards — not to mention courtrooms, jail rooms emergency shelters — is staggering.

It’s time for a total re-evaluation of the way Montana reacts to child abuse and neglect. Instead of burning up ever-increasing amounts of money putting out more and more fires, local and state resources should be concentrated on dousing the first sparks of parental drug abuse.

Montanans can help at the individual level by providing the critical safety net needed to keep our children safe and on the path toward a brighter future, and we can do this by making use of the tools that are already in place in almost every community in the state.

One thing’s clear: We cannot continue on our current trajectory. At last tally, the Montana Department of Health and Human Services counted more than 3,200 children in foster care. Just five years ago, that number was 1,746.

Department records indicated that about half the children in state care were removed because of parent substance abuse, and about one in three because of meth use. This matches the increase in drug arrests, which state authorities say hiked by 62 percent from 2009 to 2015.

In Missoula County, the number of child abuse and neglect cases swelled from about 50 each year up until 2011, to 173 in 2015. Meanwhile, the number of new meth cases in the county increased by 137 percent from 2013 to 2015.

Similarly, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Missoula, which helps guide children through the legal system, has seen its caseload rise steeply over the past three years. At the end of last year, it counted 180 cases.

The majority — about 70 percent — of children removed from their homes in Missoula County are placed with family members or close family friends. Nevertheless, both emergency shelters for children of families in crisis in Missoula are at capacity, and the folks at Watson Children’s Shelter say there’s a waiting list.

Missoula could open a third shelter, and then a fourth — and build a second jail as well. Or we could dedicate these same resources to bolstering preventive measures.

No one disputes that parents who use illegal drugs put their children at serious risk of harm. In addition to the increased exposure to criminal activity, parents who use drugs like meth often expose their children to these drugs, even if their drug use doesn’t directly lead to abuse or neglect. But parents also cannot care for their children if they are in jail.

Montana has recently begun studying its child protective system and its prison overcrowding problems with real urgency. This has, fortunately, given rise to a promising list of recommendations both for the short term and the long term. Now, voters must make it clear to our next class of elected leaders that this issue is a priority that demands their attention and their commitment to supporting real solutions.

The next legislative session will provide a critical opportunity to ensure public money and resources are being used to the greatest possible effect — and that means stopping the problem at the source, before parents are thrown in jail and their children placed in state custody. Family drug courts, for instance, are a proven effective way of diverting addicts from jail by providing alternatives such as drug monitoring, addiction treatment and parenting classes.

And in the meantime? What’s to become of all those kids pouring into the state foster care system?

They need a safe place to live while their family situation is being sorted out, and they need an advocate in the legal system. Here’s where each and every Montanan can provide immediate, direct help.

Take the first steps to become a foster parent by visiting the Department of Health and Human Services website at http://dphhs.mt.gov/CFSD/Fosterparent.aspx, or call 1-866-936-7837 (866-9FOSTER).

If that level of commitment is too much, consider becoming a court-appointed special advocate. CASAs aren’t required to have a legal background, and training is provided. In Missoula, learn more by going to CASA of Missoula online at http://www.casamissoula.org or by calling 542-1208.

And if neither of those are feasible options for you right now, pledge your support to one of the local organizations working so hard to help so many of Missoula’s most vulnerable children.

— Missoulian

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