GREAT FALLS — Marilyn Fritz receives two or three calls a month from Montana Department of Family Services asking her to provide foster care for children being removed from their homes.
A single mom with four foster children, two of which she has adopted, Fritz has to say no to the other children she knows need support.
“It makes me sick to my stomach to say no,” Fritz said.
There were 1,000 more Montana children in foster care in November 2015 than the same month in 2011, according to statistics provided by DFS.
And as the number of child protection cases in Montana continues to grow, there is a shortage of available foster families able to take these children into their homes.
“The dominant factor on these cases is drug abuse — predominantly methamphetamine,” Cascade County Attorney John Parker said.
According to DFS, there were 851 children in foster care in 2010 due to abuse or neglect resulting from parental substance abuse. In early April of this year that number was 1,658.
Local data shows that 59 percent of the 160 cases filed this year in Cascade County have some tie to meth. That’s according to statistics compiled by District Judge Greg Pinski while preparing a Drug Treatment Court grant application.
The data showed 15 percent of the cases were filed due to suspected substance abuse involving alcohol, prescription drugs or other opiates and marijuana. Physical abuse accounted for 17 percent of the cases filed through May 20.
The demand on the foster care system continues to grow, but, finding a safe place away from a dangerous situation is just the beginning for children removed from their homes.
Fritz has provided a home to at least 40 children in the past four-and-a-half years. Her parents fostered children for 30 years.
“I wanted to continue what they started,” she says.
Fritz adopted two of the children currently in her care. J.J., now 13, came to Fritz when he was 9. She took Sam, now 3, from the hospital days after his birth. His adoption was just finalized last November. Her foster children are siblings ages 16 months and 5 months.
J.J. was Fritz’s 21st foster child. She was asked to provide temporary care until he could be admitted to Shodair Children’s Hospital in Helena, the state’s only acute and residential psychiatric treatment facility for children and adolescents.
Fritz had J.J. evaluated locally and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. He stayed with her and began a medication and treatment regimen.
J.J.’s birth mother was only 15 when he was born. Fritz was told she was addicted to opioids — prescription pain pills — and probably took them while she was pregnant.
J.J. recalled times he had to call 911 as a child when she would threaten to stab herself in front of him.
He’s been with Fritz for six years, but he still struggles with emotional issues, a problem she’s seen in all of her foster children stemming from abandonment, separation anxiety and anger management.
“It gets worse before it gets better,” Fritz says of the treatment process.
Fritz says the kids she’s cared for gravitated toward bad behavior even if they didn’t want to. They engage in harmful habits for comfort.
For example, Fritz says, J.J. rubbed a bald spot on his head for years because his mother rubbed his head repeatedly in an attempt to comfort him when he suffered from untreated illnesses.
A young girl frequently masturbated because it reminded her of the only relationship she had with a sexually abusive family member. Another child Fritz fostered kept the last bite of food he ate in his mouth because he frequently went hungry at home.
The 16-month-old in Fritz’s care suffers from reactive attachment disorder, the result of being neglected during the critical early months of infancy. According to the Mayo Clinic, reactive attachment disorder occurs when a child’s basic needs for nurturing, comfort and affection are not met, and the child fails to establish any stable, loving attachments with a caregiver.
The 16-month old was removed from his home at 3 months old and came to Fritz three months after that, but “the damage was done,” she said.
Fritz says the toddler’s condition is improving, yet sometimes he’ll drift off “somewhere else,” rocking, moaning and sucking his thumb, the evidence of how he coped during his earliest weeks. These are typical symptoms of the disorder, along with a lack of social interaction and unexplained sadness or irritability.
“It’s hard to watch the kids go through this,” Fritz says with tears in her eyes. “You feel helpless.”
The child’s 5-month-old sibling has respiratory issues after visiting with his biological mother, “who can’t stay clean,” Fritz says. The father of Fritz’s foster children is abusive, and still involved with their mother, though he is currently in jail.
The proximity of her foster children’s parents has been a concern for Fritz.
“It doesn’t just affect the kids,” Fritz says of a birth parent’s behavior. “It affects me and my other kids.”
The life children lead before their removal also impacts everyone they come in contact with – peers, teachers, care providers and others they form relationships with in the future.
Sleep can be a problem, too, as issues seen in other children such as bed wetting or waking during the night stretch on for years.
Despite the conditions the children endured in their previous homes, being taken from those homes, and the only family they know, is extremely traumatic. The older children feel helpless, with no control over their lives, Fritz says.
Her children receive counseling or therapy, but the progress takes time and the work is constant.
“You go once a week,” Fritz says. “Every other day the foster parent is the therapist, trying to correct behavior.”
Behavior, bad or good, is one of the only things the kids can control after being removed from their homes.
Fritz views her role as “breaking the cycle,” as she figures the parents of many of the children she cared for were subjected to similar treatment when they were young.
It’s hard work, she says, but “it’s where things start to get good.”
At this point Fritz has no way of knowing how long she will be a part of her foster children’s lives. Their cases are still open.
Open cases are Lisa Goff’s business. She is the executive director of Cascade County CASA-CAN, a nonprofit group matching volunteer guardians ad litem to children involved in youths in need of care (YINC) court cases. The guardians appear at hearings on a child’s behalf after they’ve been removed from the home.
“The kids are the real victims,” Goff says. “It’s not their fault, yet they are underrepresented.”
The cases ultimately end with parental custody restored or terminated. Goff says cases involving substance abuse, especially drug addiction issues, can prompt cases to drag on as a parent struggles with sobriety.
“Our first priority is to reunite the family, make them whole,” she says. “But, if a parent can’t stay clean, that’s not an option.”
The staff and volunteers at CASA are seeing the same increase in meth-related cases as other facets of the justice system. According to Goff, 49 percent of the cases CASA has taken in the last two and a half years have a tie to meth, including meth-dependent newborns, children exposed to the drug in some fashion, a caregiver driving while impaired or an instance of drug-fueled domestic violence.
She also says meth was tied to about 24 percent of “re-abuse cases” filed during the first three months of 2016. These cases involve a child who has been involved in a previous YINC case.
The number of YINC cases filed each year continues to rise, but CASA’s volunteer levels remain flat, meaning they can’t assign guardians to every child in the system. This trend began in 2014.
Goff says they need more volunteers. “We need people who can be a voice for kids, advocate for their rights in a state where parents’ rights are paramount.”