Filling the Gaps for Children in the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

A new option is opening up to help a forgotten need in the Flathead Valley: Intermountain is running an emergency children’s shelter for children up to 12 years old.

“One of the things that’s been lacking in the Flathead County,” says Berni McDonald who is running the children’s shelter, “although it’s lower in population, we have 5 less children in care now than Missoula does.”

McDonald says that of 800 children referred to family services in the Flathead in 2007, 100 were actually taken from their homes.

McDonald says that though the Flathead is working with the same number of children, Missoula has more resources.

She first got involved with the system in 1993 when she took in 2 foster children. 15-years, 65 children, and 2 adoptions later she’s still working with troubled children. She now helps train foster and adoptive parents and just started running the Intermountain Emergency Children’s Shelter. McDonald says at any given time Flathead County has 10 foster parents on the emergency call list, and sometimes there’s no one to take in a child.

“If there’s absolutely nobody, then they go out of the community,” explains McDonald, “If you have a 5 year old, that’s in Kindergarten, they’re having to leave their community, leave their school, and go somewhere else.” Reports of abuse or neglect, or the arrest of a parent can result in the children being taken from the home.

Intermountain started operating as an orphanage and boarding school in Helena in 1909. Executive Director Jim Fitzgerald says it’s the oldest child welfare agency in the state. Over time their services have evolved to focus on mental health. He points out many of the mental health issues these kids are dealing with are issues of grief, loss, neglect, or abuse. He says on average, a foster child in Montana will spend 865 days in care, and move 3 and a half times a year.

“Most adults could not handle what most foster children are subjected to in regards to the amount of moves that they are subjected to and the length of time as a portion of their lives,” says Fitzgerald, “if you’re 7 years old, and you’re going to spend 865 days in care, that’s a monstrous portion of your life, and most of us would not have 3 or 4 marriages in a year and survive very well.”

Intermountain facilitates adoption, and provides training for parents and professionals involved with children who are coming out of traumatic situations. Training for adoptive and foster parents involves giving them the tools to understand and help their kids.

McDonald says the addition of Intermountain into the Flathead will complement the existing services.

“Having Intermountain come in, with everything they’re able to do: you know, the quality of their staff and their training and all of those pieces are just going to greatly benefit our community, because there are holes and gaps,” says McDonald.

Intermountain is hosting their second annual gala event on Saturday, December 13th at the Hilton Garden Inn. Money raised will go towards Intermountain and the new Children’s Shelter here in the Flathead. A specific fundraiser benefitting the shelter is handmade Christmas centerpieces selling for $250. To purchase centerpieces, or make reservations for the gala event, contact [email protected].