The number of child abuse or neglect cases in Flathead County has doubled since 2011 and the number is on track to climb even higher in 2016, mimicking a statewide trend.
Authorities say the increase in cases is likely caused by a spike in drug use and is taxing local resources to the maximum.
In 2011, 51 child abuse or neglect cases were filed in Flathead District Court, according to County Clerk of Court Peg Allison.
In 2015 that number had doubled to 102 cases.
“It is an explosion,” Allison said.
If the numbers of cases filed in January and February are an indication of how the year is going to go, Allison projects that the court could be on track to have 150 cases filed in 2016.
The numbers are not completely unprecedented: There have been spikes in the past where 90 cases were filed in a year, but the steady upward trend grabbed Allison’s attention.
Next door in Lake County, the number of abuse or neglect cases increased from 20 in 2011 to 54 in 2015, according to Chief Deputy Lake County Attorney James Lapotka.
It is a phenomenon that is occurring statewide. Across Montana, courts handled more than 2,300 abuse or neglect cases last year, an increase from 1,600 a year earlier, according to Beth McLaughlin, the chief administrator for the state’s court system. The number has doubled since 2010.
“I would say the bulk of it is that we’re just seeing a real spike in meth use and heroin and opiate use,” Deputy Flathead County Attorney Anne Lawrence said of the local increase.
When Lawrence started handling mental health and child abuse and neglect cases three years ago, she was able to juggle all the cases by herself, with the help on one support staffer. Now, her support staffer is swamped and another attorney catches every fifth or sixth case.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep our heads above water,” Lawrence said.
If the numbers keep climbing, the County Attorney’s Office will need more staff, she said.
Lawrence only sees a fraction of the cases that are actually reported. The majority of cases are handled by social workers, who try to come to a resolution without having to fight it out in court.
Lawrence said one major factor in drug-related cases is the timeline set out by federal law. It basically gives parents 15 months to get their acts together or lose custodial rights to their children. That conflicts with the general nature of treating drug addicts.
“It is not a problem that can be fixed within 15 months — it is a lifelong struggle,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence is part of the Protect Montana Kids Commission, a group created by Gov. Steve Bullock late last year to come up with recommendations about how to improve the state’s Child and Family Services Department.
The group has heard hours of public testimony from all sorts of stakeholders involved in the system, Lawrence said.
Lawrence notes that the problem is not isolated to Montana.
“It is a nationwide trend,” Lawrence said.
In Flathead County, Lawrence has noticed that there has not only been an increase in numbers, but also an increase in the severity of the abuse and neglect involved in the cases.
The takeaway is that the state needs more staffers for virtually every part of the system, she said.
One part of the system impacted by the increased caseload is the volunteer group, Flathead Valley CASA for Kids. Every child abuse or neglect case in Flathead County has an assigned Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteer who acts as a guardian ad litem in the case.
The volunteers undergo screening and training that allows them to advocate for the child’s best interests, which is required of CASA guardians. Each advocate meets with the child at least monthly, but more often weekly, and files reports with judges. Most cases take two years to resolve, but one volunteer has a case that has been going on for 11 years. Advocates typically take on only a single case, but at the moment the system is so clogged that some advocates have taken on more than one.
“The increased number of children is definitely impacting not only us, but everyone that works with this situation,” Flathead Valley CASA for Kids Executive Director Jamie Campbell said. “We don’t have enough advocates. There’s no question. Right now we have 30 children waiting for an advocate. That is a huge number.”
Currently, 75 advocates serve 275 children in Flathead County. That is up from the 45 advocates who served 180 children in 2013.
Campbell said she estimates that her group needs around 90 advocates, if the numbers do not keep skyrocketing. Fourteen potential advocates are currently in training.
Campbell encouraged anyone with an interest in volunteering to contact her at 755-7208. The group also has a very active Facebook page.
Reporter Megan Strickland can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.