Judge James Reynolds became choked up Thursday afternoon as he spoke about the increase in child abuse and neglect cases in the Helena area. Those are the most difficult to oversee when a child has to be removed from a home, he said.
The majority of these cases involve substance abuse.
"I'm not a wizard," Reynolds told a filled courtroom. "I've been looking for the magic wand to fix these cases."
Reynolds hasn't found a wand, but he and his staff have received a grant. With the $600,000 in federal funds, they are starting a Family Drug Treatment Court.
Reynolds hopes this funding will help stop the repetition of dismal circumstances in these households. The specialty court will serve Lewis and Clark and Broadwater counties.
“There are many families the First Judicial District Court serves who are trying desperately to address their alcohol and other drug addiction, while at the same time trying to keep their family together,” Reynolds said. “This model has shown great success nationwide and in Montana, and I’m very optimistic with the additional resources this grant provides that many more families will be helped in the coming years.”
Participants will be parents with a substance use disorder whose children have been placed in the child protection system. The judge already oversees the local treatment court, which utilizes a team effort that will be duplicated in the Family Drug Treatment Court.
"They themselves weren't parented by good parents. That's just the reality of it," Reynolds said at a ceremony Thursday announcing the new specialty court. "We want to break that cycle."
This week alone, nine children have been removed from their homes in the Helena area, Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher said.
Gallagher, a longtime prosecutor, discussion of specialty courts has been going on over the years, but funding and staffing were roadblocks.
"We never thought it would happen -- and it happened," Gallagher said.
In the long run, these courts will save money by keeping children at home and parents out of jail, he said. The funding was secured through a three-year $600,000 federal grant award from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, through the Family Drug Court Implementation and Enhancement Program.
"Do the math over time. We need this," Gallagher said.
"If you're in a hole, quit digging. And we're in a hole."
Reynolds said the new court will serve a maximum of 15 families simultaneously, with impact to about 40 children at any point in time. He said potential candidates will be screened by a team of experts. A multidisciplinary team will be comprised of alcohol and drug abuse experts, family and mental health counselors, child protection representatives, experts in early childhood services and court staff who will work directly with the family on a weekly basis.
The specialty court will join the state's four others, which are in Yellowstone and Missoula counties, Butte-Silver Bow and on the Fort Peck Reservation.
Gov. Steve Bullock said he likes to look at the results of these courts less as numbers and more as the individuals participating.
"We know that drug courts work and we know that the more we treat offenders as potential successes rather than just statistics, the better off our communities and the families involved will be," he said.
The court will home in on the safety of the child while assisting parents in garnering the skills needed to become sober and responsible caregivers. The court team will determine community services and other tools needed to keep the families together and healthy. State Child and Family Services Division experts say that children and youth who have regular, frequent contact with their families are more likely to reunify and less likely to re-enter foster care.
Bullock said the court will play a part in strengthening child protection.
"It can actually be generational successes," he said. "We're doing it individual by individual."
"It affords them an opportunity of hope."