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 email@example.com or Twitter.com/IR_AngelaBrandt