Battling meth: A rural Montana county starts drug court to reverse surge of kids in foster care

By Daniel Heimpel

When James Manley came to rural Lake County, Montana, as a district judge in 2013, he knew the meth problem was bad, but he didn’t know how much worse it would get.

Judge James Manley

Three-and-a-half years ago, Manley says the courthouse was processing roughly 220 felony cases a year. This year, he says the county will handle upwards of 500 drug-related felonies, and that at least 400 of those arrested will be parents.

“The destruction to families is incredible,” Manley said. “It breaks your heart to see families torn apart by addiction.”

Lake County, tucked in the northwest corner of the state, is at a breaking point. The jail regularly has inmates sleeping on the floor, the courts are clogged and kids are entering the foster care system at a stunning rate.

While the county is unique in that more than two-thirds of its 1,600 square miles of pristine forest, farms and pastureland sit on the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, its meth problem is part of much larger, and disturbing, trend.

In October 2016, the federal Administration for Children and Youth and Families (ACYF), which oversees foster care nationwide, pointed to substance abuse – particularly meth and opioids – as a driving factor in a steady three-year increase in foster care numbers. From 2013 to 2015, the last year of national data available, the number of children in foster care grew from 401,000 to almost 428,000.

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