Wednesday, Mar 9, 2016
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — 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 neglect 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.
"While other states are currently experiencing increases in the numbers of abuse and neglect cases, Montana stands out because its increases are so dramatic and alarming," said Joyce Funda, the executive director of CASA of Montana, also known as Court Appointed Special Advocates For Children. The group has 14 offices statewide to serve youth who have been removed from homes because of abuse or neglect.
While she partly blamed the surge in abuse cases on meth and heroin, Funda wondered if inexperience and the high staffing turnover within Child Protective Services may be leading to more children being taken from parents.
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.