The number of child neglect and abuse cases in Missoula County has more than tripled since 2011. -The Missoulian

The number of child neglect and abuse cases in Missoula County has more than tripled since 2011.

The Missoula Office of the Public Defender says there has been a total of 357 open child neglect and abuse cases in fiscal year 2013.

Officials tell the Missoulian (bit.ly/1a0w8KW) that’s up from 283 open cases in 2012 and 95 open cases in 2011.

Regional Deputy Public Defender Dave Stenerson says the increase is denting the agency’s financial resources and overwhelming staff.

“It’s been a big drain on our organization statewide for the last two or three years,” Stenerson said.

The public defender’s office in 2013 spent more than $700,000 on child neglect and abuse cases, adding up to nearly 17 percent of the total amount spent by the office.

Officials said the office is required to hire outside attorneys to represent all the individuals in each case. That means the mother and father have separate attorneys. Sometimes children may also need an attorney.

Stenerson said child neglect cases weren’t considered in the budget when the public defender’s office became a statewide agency in 2006.

“Every two years, we go back and say, `Look this wasn’t included in the original budget, we need more money and we need more people,'” Stenerson said. “The Legislature looks at it and says, `Well, if we increase your agency by this percentage, then it’s going to look bad – like we are growing government.'”

Stenerson said a possible reason for the increase in cases is Child and Family Services increasing the number of cases it petitions to file in the court system. That agency itself has come under scrutiny after some child abuse cases sparked community outrage.

“I think that resulted in a statewide increase of more aggressive filings of petitions, rather than trying to work with families and do this without getting into court,” Stenerson said.

However, Montana Child and Family Services administrator Sarah Corbally said an increase in the number of neglect and abuse reports is whey there are more court cases. The agency in 2010 reported 724 cases in Missoula County. That rose to 835 in 2011 and 843 in 2012.

Corbally said the financial strains of a difficult economy could be part of the reason for child neglect and abuse cases. She also noted that an increase in Missoula of prescription drug abuse and meth could be part of the cause.

Public defender Kelli Sather estimates that 60 percent of the child abuse and neglect cases in Missoula County are dismissed, while 40 percent lead to a child being permanently removed from a home.

She said only a small percentage of her cases are abuse cases. Most of her clients, she said, are dealing with substance abuse, mental health problems or homelessness, tending to lead to child neglect.