Child Abuse Up in Down Economy

By Beacon Staff

In recent months, an unprecedented number of alleged child neglect or abuse cases have flooded the Flathead County District Court, stretching resources there and at cash-strapped child protection services thin.

The court dealt with 36 cases regarding alleged abuse or neglect of children in the first quarter of 2009, District Court Administrator Bonnie Olson said. In comparison, there were only 12 such cases during the first quarter of 2008 and 53 total last year. The average first-quarter caseload for the proceeding four years is just a little more than 14.

“The numbers are pretty staggering,” Olson said. “We’re already at more than half what we had all of last year.”

Even 2006 – a year social workers and volunteers describe as one of the worst in local history for child abuse and neglect – was better. There were half the cases in the District Court in the first quarter then as there are now, and 2006 ended with 93.

“It’s a picture none of us want to have to paint for anybody,” Olson said. “But it’s true, and something we need to be aware of as a community.”

The court’s load represents only about 10 percent of the abuse and neglect reports being investigated by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Child and Family Services Division.

While abuse and neglect in 2006, local officials say, was largely the result of rampant methamphetamine abuse, the cause this year is harder to flesh out.

It isn’t stemming from just one population group like addicts, or even one socioeconomic class. And, while alcohol and prescription drug abuse are factors in many cases, they’re not the only cause.

Anecdotal evidence from social workers, court officials and volunteers, however, all points to one overarching force: the bleak economy.

As the recession continues to hammer the Flathead Valley, families find themselves facing sudden reversals in financial stability because of layoffs and reduced work hours.

“There are a lot of people who for whatever reason aren’t able to deal with the stress of the moment and, as a result, are making poor decisions,” said Jamie Campbell, director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a nonprofit organization that trains volunteers to advocate for children in abuse cases.

Financial difficulties don’t usually cause someone who has never been abusive to suddenly become violent, local experts said. But in already abusive situations, it can increase the severity – and the frequency – of the abuse. And for “families on the brink” it can prove a defining push.

To cope with financial stressors, people may also fall back on addictions like alcohol or drug abuse, heightening problems at home.

Even in cases where economic trouble doesn’t spark family violence, it can push a parent into making poor decisions that put their children in jeopardy.

Social workers and child advocate volunteers say they think some parents are cutting corners with childcare, leaving babies and young children home alone or with people who don’t know how, or want, to care for kids. Others may cut back on necessary medications, doctor’s visits or food staples.

Agencies left to deal with the issue are struggling to keep up with the need – often attempting to do so with declining budgets and limited resources.

At District Court, Olson said other types of cases have been pushed back to prioritize those concerning alleged abuse or neglect. “We’re required by law to allocate time for them first,” she said. “That obviously impacts the time the court has.”

Since January, caseworkers at the county’s Child and Family Services Division have been slammed as the number of abuse cases being reported by hospitals, individuals and other entities has nearly doubled.

The office is shorthanded, adding to the pressure. When fully staffed, there are six intake workers to investigate cases as they’re first reported. Currently, there are five – and one of those was just hired in the past two weeks. The four more established workers are handling about 40 cases each.

In total, the agency’s intake supervisor, Pat Sylvia, estimates that there are more than 400 cases at varying stages in the office. “It’s very difficult,” she said. “We get to them all as quickly as we can, but each day we have to reorganize priorities to respond to emergencies first.”

In cases where a child does have to be removed from their family, they face a foster care system where resources are stretched thin as well.

There are about 10 licensed foster families in Flathead County, not including relatives or other adults who are licensed for specific children, Diana Lamers, who licenses and trains foster and adoptive families for Child and Family Services, said.

“When they get full then we have to make decisions that aren’t always the best for the child,” Sylvia said, adding that the goal is to keep children with their siblings and in the same immediate community and schools.

But that’s not always a possibility given current circumstances.

“We need safe homes to place these children,” Sylvia said. The process to become a foster parent includes an 18-hour training course, extensive interviews, home visits and background checks.

Meanwhile, at CASA, the nonprofit that trains volunteers to act as court-appointed advocates for children, the cases are beginning to pile up.

On May 19, the organization will hold “an emergency training session” to try to get the necessary volunteers to meet the need. Each advocate undergoes a thorough screening process and completes 40 hours of training before being matched with a child.

The organization’s primary annual fundraiser is also coming up. On April 27, there will be a silent auction and dinner at Marshall Noice’s Gallery and Caper’s Restaurant in downtown Kalispell. For tickets or a volunteer application packet, or more information, call the CASA for Kids office at 755-7208.

CASA volunteers typically handle just one or two cases at a time and commit to staying on that case until the child is placed in a safe, permanent home. They spend time with the child, monitor their family situation and write reports making recommendations to the judge – independent of parents, social workers or attorneys.

“They’re the only people who work on the case whose priority is solely the child in case and their best interests,” Campbell, the director, said.

Social workers and court administrators call them an invaluable resource, noting that the program is a good way for the public to get involved.

“They have time to be a constant, stable presence for a child and to really go the extra mile to find out what’s going on in the family,” Campbell said. “It’s important for our community to support these children any way we can.”

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