Out of harm’s way

Abuse and neglect | More and more Lewis and Clark County kids face removal from parents’ home, placement in foster care
2012-09-30T00:16:00Z 2012-09-30T17:21:58Z Out of harm’s wayBy ANGELA BRANDT Independent Record Helena Independent Record
September 30, 2012 12:16 am  • 

Last year, the number of child abuse and neglect cases in Lewis and Clark County was up 30 percent.

Even more startling, this year’s reports have already surpassed that number as of last month.

For all of 2011, the Lewis and Clark County Attorney’s Office dealt with 62 cases of children being removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. As of this week, that number has already hit 66, according to County Attorney Leo Gallagher.

If the trend — a more than 40 percent increase — continues, about 26 more cases will be filed by the end of the year.

“It just exploded,” Gallagher said.

Some say the issue is nearing an epidemic, if not already there. It is growing nationally, statewide and locally. Not only are the caseloads growing but the severity of the abuse is worsening, officials say.

“It is rising extremely,” said Pam Young, assistant director of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA). “This just seems to be the worst this year.”

Due to extreme confidentiality, officials cannot discuss specifics of their cases, but Young added that it seems as though along with the increased numbers, the extent of abuse also is rising.

The increase is putting strain on advocates, prosecutors and others who work with neglected and abused children. In most cases, the cases grow but the number of workers does not.

Also feeling the strain are foster care families. More than 125 children in Lewis and Clark County are being fostered after removal from their homes due to neglect and abuse, and the need for placement families — especially those with Native American heritage — also is increasing.

Young said the only real link to abuse is drug usage, which appears to be on the rise, especially with stimulants including methamphetamine and synthetic designer drugs such as meow. Officials say a family history of neglect and the increase in the number of younger and inexperienced parents also is playing a part. While the dire economic situation in the county has added to many parents’ stress, the abusers are all over the charts.

“It’s everybody — all economic and social classes,” she said.

The reason for removal from a home can range from neglect to sexual abuse. Sometimes cases involve siblings.

One family’s fostering

While gazing into his foster daughter’s gleaming blue eyes, Jeff Wald finds it hard to imagine anyone neglecting her.

The baby, nearing her first birthday, has been with Wald and his wife, Hilary, since she was 4 days old. While he cannot discuss the nature of what brought them together, it is obvious there was some sort of abuse involved. Newborns are generally taken from their mothers when there is drug abuse involved or a history of violence or neglect.

The baby coos and playfully grins; she’s wearing a pink ruffled shirt reading “One of a Kind.”

“I just can’t imagine life without her now,” Jeff Wald said. “She is just a perfect little girl.”

The Walds hope she will become part of their family soon through the adoption process.

As of last week, 127 children were in foster care in the county after being removed from their homes.

This is the second time the Walds have fostered a child. The first was a boy who was involved in a high-profile abuse case. While they could not discuss the specifics of his case, the severity of his situation is written across their faces. The 3-year-old boy needed a home, support and love. Going into the situation, the Walds knew it would be short term. He needed more help than they could provide.

Hilary Wald often is asked by people who say they could not foster a child about the difficulty when the child is taken back by officials.

“We are willing to risk a little hurt to help,” she said.

“You have to take a risk to love someone. You have to take a risk,” Jeff Wald added.

While heartbroken by the back stories, the Walds are quick to dispute another misconception that the reason children are removed from their parents is because they are bad kids. It is not the children’s fault they are in unhealthy situations, the couple notes.

They first considered adoption and foster parenting a few years ago.

“We saw there was a lot of need in a lot of kids,” Jeff Wald simply said.

The needs are many

Dennis Molnar, who retired as a state child protection specialist supervisor in December, said some of the issues are generational. In his 10 years on the job, he had seen two and sometimes three generations of a family go through the system.

“It just keeps on cycling. There’s no stability,” he said, adding that education on proper parenting is vital.

“What can we do to break that cycle? I don’t know there really is one thing,” he added.

Through August, the Child and Family Services Division investigated 470 cases in Lewis and Clark County alone, according to the Department of Public Health and Human Services. Reports to the child abuse hotline are at an all-time high as well. Anyone suspecting abuse — be it physical, verbal or sexual — is urged to call 1 -866-820-5437.

“It’s been a dramatic increase,” said Sarah Corbally, Child and Family Services Division administrator.

Across the state, 1,938 children are currently in foster care. Mark Laramoure, southwest regional administrator for Child and Family Services, said while the Helena area is filled with resources, other communities do not have the same offerings. Workers adjust to accommodate smaller towns’ needs, he said.

“Each case is very different as are the resources needed,” said Laramoure, who oversees an area including Lewis and Clark, Broadwater and Jefferson counties.

The record-high caseload has the local CASA chapter maxed out. Every child removed from a home is matched with a volunteer, who works in the youth’s best interest and is the juvenile’s voice in the courtroom during various hearings. Training sessions for new volunteers are scheduled for early in October. Anyone interested can call Young at 457-0797. Again, Native American representatives are especially needed.

Gallagher’s office has one attorney and an assistant working neglect cases nearly full time.

“It’s very difficult to keep up,” he said.

The tally of cases doesn’t always include those in which criminal charges have been filed. Some of the latest accusations include a child severely scalded in a bathtub, a girl being repeatedly thrown against a bed and a child being tossed to the ground.

“It’s not just the amount of the cases. It is the complexity of the cases,” Gallagher said, adding that the county has needed assistance from the state in order to defray the costs of the increasing load.

In order to help with the increased need, the Walds recently put their Helena home on the market in order to purchase a new house with more bedrooms to meet the foster residence prerequisites.

“We say, ‘Just one more.’ And then, ‘Just one more,’” Jeff Wald said.

Their first step to growing their family is to make the baby girl officially their own. It seems she has already claimed them.

Jeff Wald gushed as he recalled the baby’s first word – “Dad.”

“I’m pretty excited about that,” he said.

Reporter Angela Brandt:

447-4078 or angela.brandt@helenair.com or Twitter.com/IR_AngelaBrandt

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(5) Comments

  1. TurboMarge
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    TurboMarge - October 03, 2012 10:03 am
    After reading this article, I was extremely upset with the state agency. I contacted them 9 months ago, to find out what the process is to become a foster parent. They mailed the application packet but the person I spoke to on the phone told me that there was a "huge waiting list" of foster parents in Helena and she left me with the impression and little hope that we would receive a foster child. Very frusterating!
  2. FlamingLiberal1
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    FlamingLiberal1 - October 01, 2012 9:53 am
    Is there any empirical evidence of an increase in illegal drug activity, and if so, it there a demonstrated causation? Or is this just a correlation? Seems to me that financial desparation is on the rise more demonstrably than drug use. Take a look at Food Share's numbers and tell me the economy isn't putting people under stress. But no, it MUST be drugs, right? Sorry. Not buying that one.
  3. fellowhuman
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    fellowhuman - September 30, 2012 1:27 pm
    @ steeline: With due respect, may I ask you where you got your PhD in psychology (or perhaps sociology or anthropology), and from which esteemed, accredited university, steeline? (That’s a facetious question, meant to highlight the hubris of those toeing their party’s line.) With respect to your conclusion that drug use is up because of society’s despair under the current administration, I recall that there was a huge anti-meth campaign in MT when G. W. Bush was in office. I also recall that the national debt had been upped to $10 trillion by the time Bush left office while two foreign wars were being waged. And unemployment was upped to about 7 percent in December 2008, under Bush’s leadership.
    I also have observed that “some people” will take any opportunity to manufacture a cause-and-effect paradigm for a whole host of woes that “they” blame on our sitting president. “I have a hangnail and my father in law has halitosis because that shady, shifty Barak Obama is president. We must restore the right wing’s supremacy so we can get decent manicures and Altoids!”
    And to address this article specifically: I always wonder if, in fact, the crime (in this case child abuse) has really increased, or if people are being more responsible so that such crimes are reported more frequently, more diligently.
    And, I would be remiss in not praiding this generous family who are the subject of this news article. Mr. and Ms. Wald: You are noble people, and on this spinning ball we call “Earth,” we can use a lot more people like you. Bless you. You rock!
  4. PCone1
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    PCone1 - September 30, 2012 12:17 pm
    yeah it's noble.... and where I live, some foster kids are also in danger, so it's no guarantee that the system can protect them.

    This story has nothing to do with who is running for office. That little baby could care less about your political view. Do you really think if we change presidents, no one will be frustrated, suffer from depression, low self esteem and so on? Depending on the administration, families could be in even more trouble.... my family always needed the child tax credit, the credit for child care, the exclusion from taxable income that my flexible spending offered for child care and for medical costs for my kids Dr visits.... all that is on the line right now, possibly at the hands of a man who thinks I don't "care for my family" and I think I deserve "housing and food"... so that's what I think about when you bring the election into every story on the IR site.

    IMO America isn't "wrong" and doesn't need to be "Right". Thanks anyway.
  5. steeline
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    steeline - September 30, 2012 9:42 am
    It is a noble thing to take an abused child into your home. It is a shame that the abuse of drugs and the economy are contributing factors. It is not hard to understand this. The last four years people have been "hoping for change" only to get lip service from a detatched life support system for a mouth, as president. No wonder people are frustrated, suffer from depression, low self esteem on and on. When the bread winners don't have hope for a job, a future for their kids or themselves it is no wonder that abuse happens. As long as we have a government with the policies or lack of policies to affect a positive and dependable change to the young families we will continue to see more and more crimes against family. We need to change course and get America back to real hope. That will only happen when we get someone that can change what has happened the last four years. Ask yourself do we really want more of Obama? Down deep inside the mind of an American they will say no-way. So we have to get America Right and restore the Amercan dream.

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