Watson Children’s Shelter built a second shelter in July 2010. If they were to build a third shelter, Boehm worries it would be full in no time.

by CHELSEA DAVIS updated May 21, 2016

There’s a sense of helplessness surrounding the rise in child abuse and neglect cases in Missoula and across the state.

Watson Children’s Shelter built a second shelter in July 2010. It’s full, and there’s a waiting list. The shelter is not the first resort, said director Mike Boehm. Most who walk through the doors have suffered “profound abuse.”

If they were to build a third shelter, Boehm worries it would be full in no time.

Child abuse is showing no signs of letting up. If anything, it’s getting worse, according to Missoula County and state data. The increase in child abuse and neglect cases parallels a rise in meth cases – not a coincidence, people in the child protection systems say.

“The status of the Montana child protection system is deeply troubling,” according to a recommendations report released Tuesday by the Protect Montana Kids Commission, established by Gov. Steve Bullock last fall to examine issues in the system. “The system is in crisis and is experiencing an enormous growth in caseload.”

There are a record number of Montana children in foster care this year, according to the report – 3,179. That’s more than double the number in 2008. The commission agreed with the correlation: Most of the spike can be attributed to parental drug abuse.

Of those 3,179, more than 1,000 were removed due to their parents’ meth abuse. That’s up from 230 children in foster care due to parental meth abuse in 2010.

Montana courts handled more than 2,300 child abuse and neglect cases in 2015, up from 1,600 in 2014.

Missoula County’s data falls in line with the statewide trend.

In 2015, 173 child abuse and neglect cases were filed in Missoula County. That’s a stark increase from the 51 cases filed per year from 2007 to 2011.

“Our DN (dependency and neglect) cases are slightly ahead of this time last year,” said Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst.

From 2013 to 2015, the number of meth cases opened in Missoula County rose 137 percent.

“Meth cases are still consuming an inordinate amount of resources,” she said.

Deputy county attorney Kelly Henkel reported that about 80 percent of the DN cases she’s filed this year are meth-related. The rest are alcohol-related, or have elements of mental health challenges and physical abuse. All of those children have been removed from the home, with 70 percent placed with family members or close family friends, and the rest going into foster care.

Court Appointed Special Advocates of Missoula (CASA) saw its cases triple in three years, ending 2015 with 180 cases.

“It’s drugs, drugs and drugs,” said Youth Homes executive director Geoff Birnbaum. “It’s the one thing we know, let’s put it that way.”

‘Flooded with methamphetamine’

On a Youth Homes caseworker’s first day of in-home parent visitations in Lewis and Clark County, their caseload was full.

“The oldest kid was 5 and as young as a month old, and every one of the cases had … drug and alcohol, and mostly drugs,” Birnbaum said. “I think the drugs people are using, starting with marijuana, are stronger than ever before. When you go to Oregon and you get legal marijuana, it’s powerful compared to what it was in the ’60s and ’70s. What that tells you is people aren’t just getting a buzz. They’re gone. They’re not available.”

The number of drug abusers has stayed fairly steady during the years, Pabst said, but the types of drugs and where they come from has changed.

“We’re just flooded … flooded with methamphetamine from Mexico,” she said. “There’s just such a rampant supply. We’re seeing a huge influx in product coming from the superlabs in Mexico versus 10 years ago when we were dealing with meth problems and a lot of it was cooked locally.

“It’s a huge money-making venture for these labs in Mexico. They’ve got state-of-the-art equipment, engineers, chemists, versus when it was just real small-town and inconsistent in 2005 and 2006 when we were dealing with such a resurgence.”

A day at the children’s shelter

At 2 p.m., Quinn Kessler starts her day at Watson Children’s Shelter.

Kessler, an evening case manager, reviews the communication log, where staff write down the day’s events and what’s on the schedule for that night, what appointments are coming up that night, for example, if a child has a visitor.

She’s worked there for 12 years, since she was 18 years old.

“I was three years older than our oldest kid,” she said.

Program director Deboruah Madonna’s story is similar. She started at Watson when she was 19, and has now worked there 28 years. But she’s been connected to the shelter far longer. As a child, she grew up next to the shelter and would play with the children, not knowing why they were there.

Within the first three weeks of a child’s stay, they’re enveloped in services – dental, vision, physical, mental health evaluation, counseling and an educational assessment. Watson works with attorneys, a CASA, Department of Public Health and Human Services and family. Meanwhile, parents start treatment plans and in-home services are put in place.

At 4 p.m., three more staff come in to help Kessler as the children get back from school. There’s an afternoon snack and they unwind from the school day before dinner, appointments and showers.

Dinner is family-style at 5 p.m.

After dinner, it’s homework time. Many are in specialized programs at school because of gaps in their education, so there’s a lot of catch-up work. With all of that missed schoolwork, the kids could be working for hours every night, but that stress isn’t healthy for them, staff say. At some point they cut off the studying and let the kids relax – playing, then quiet time, then bedtime.

“We want them to be kids, because often kids come in here, with the type of abuse or life they’ve had, they haven’t had the chance to be a child,” Madonna said.

Staff also have a rule that every child gets at least three positive reinforcements a day.

“We really try to build the children up while they’re here,” she said. “When you come to shelter care, it’s the uncertainty. If you think about going into somebody’s home, they’re strangers – you’re scared and you’re frightened. We’re strangers to them.”

Watson takes in children up to 14 years old. The average stay is 60 days, though children in the more extreme cases – sexual and emotional abuse –often stay longer. The first choice is for parents to be able to get their children back; second is another family member. But many go into foster care, and others to residential treatment homes.

“They become almost like brothers and sisters here, in a way, because they’re living together,” Madonna said. “I ran into a girl yesterday at Walmart and she’s having her third child and we were talking about other shelter kids that she still is in contact with. She named one of her kids after her because they’re best friends.”

Drug abuse’s shocking reality

CASA of Missoula executive director Jeri Delys had one word for the child abuse and neglect spike – meth.

“If you think about what meth does, how can you take care of yourself, let alone a child?” she said.

The images of the Montana Meth Project’s “Not Even Once” campaign stuck with Delys, but reality was more shocking. When she traveled to Mineral County for a meth dealer’s case, she had a vision of what the person would look like – emaciated, with bad teeth and sores on her face.

Then Delys saw the woman and nearly did a double-take: She looked exactly like Delys’ sister.

“It scared me,” Delys said. “It’s so well-hidden. If you think about somebody who’s intoxicated, you can tell. But the signs of a dealer, what do they look like? I was just in my own little bubble. It was extremely eye-opening to me.”

A CASA is assigned to a child in a DN case. The CASA is a trained community volunteer who becomes the voice for that child, “an independent fact-finder.” They have a court order to interview whomever they need.

Nearly every CASA works one case at a time – though last year CASA of Missoula had to ask some to take on two – and they’re at about 125 CASAs right now. There are 80 kids on the waiting list.

“We’re just seeing a steady increase, which is difficult to manage,” she said. “It’s important that our program be able to keep up and it’s hard, and I think anybody who does this kind of work will tell you the same thing. It’s very difficult.”

In 2013, St. Luke Community Healthcare and Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, both in Polson, started collecting data on newborns at risk for neonatal abstinence syndrome. NAS is essentially withdrawal for a baby whose mother was using opioids during pregnancy. That year, 15 percent to 19 percent were at risk. In 2014, it jumped to 22 percent. In 2015, it was nearly one-third.

By January and February of this year, at St. Luke alone, nearly 50 percent were at risk.

“That really touches on everything we’re experiencing,” Delys said.

She doesn’t know what it will take to slow the rise in cases, or stop it altogether.

“I have no idea. I wish I knew. That’s the $10,000 question.”

‘We’ve got to get better as a system’

Policies need to be enacted to help parents and children before a crisis occurs, Missoula County Commissioner Stacy Rye said at April’s “State of the Young Child,” including universal prekindergarten, flexible work schedules and high-quality childcare.

Many businesses still fall behind in offering parental leave, she said, and daycare isn’t cheap.

“We do more and more each day,” Rye said. “We’re so busy that we’re dazed.”

Birnbaum said publicly-funded daycare would take a lot of pressure off families.

“There’s definitely nurses that would tell you … that we know the kid who goes home that we’re worried about,” he said.

Removing a child from their home isn’t simple, according to state law.

“But the cases we’re seeing, it’s like, what took you so long?” Birnbaum said. “And I don’t mean that negatively, because I think they’re (Child and Family Services Division) trying. But everybody’s full. The hospital’s full, the shelters are full.

“I think we’ve got to get better as a system in getting people to be willing to involve. I think that some of it’s just cultural. People defend themselves as parents. When people call me, the first thing I try to do is to make them realize that everybody doesn’t know what the hell to do with their kid. And if we can do that, I think we’d get more families the help they need.”

Pabst said locally, prevention efforts and addiction treatment must be the top priorities.

“Working with projects like the Montana Meth Project, and schools,” she said. “But it’s hard when it’s such a monumental challenge.”

As meth abuse grows, so do serious domestic violence cases. And while children are not directly involved, being around it “is just as traumatizing,” she said.

“We’ve seen a spike in felony domestic cases,” Pabst said. “What meth does to people from a social standpoint from our professional position is that it turns what would be perhaps petty criminals and turns them into felons. These extremely violent cases we’re seeing more often than not are tied to meth abuse: assaults with weapons, strangulation.”

Birnbaum’s message was simple: We can’t give up.

“I have a former Youth Homes kid who wound up losing her children in her early 20s,” he said. “She had a meth addiction, went to prison for three years and lost custody, came out, stayed sober, filed to get shared custody and got it back.

“It’s possible.”