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.

“The increases we are seeing in the foster care population, and the rise of parental substance use as a contributing factor, is not limited to one or two states – this is a concern across the country,” said then-ACYF Commissioner Rafael Lopez in statement released alongside the report.

While the opioid epidemic gets headlines across the country, in Montana meth use is a persistent and growing problem.

From 2008 to February 2017, the number of foster children in the state more than doubled from 1,408 to 3,172, according to data provided by Montana’s Division of Child and Family Services. During that same period, the percentage of child abuse and neglect cases involving meth shot up from 26 to 52 percent.

Source: Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services, Child & Family Services Division CAPS Report 5388.2 (updated 02/18/2017). *Open placement counts exclude tribal placements. *Open Placement Counts exclude Tribal Placements.

In response, Montana Governor Steve Bullock created the Protect Montana Kids Commission in 2015, which was meant to find a path toward reducing entries into the overwhelmed system. In May 2016, the body issued a report that repeatedly cited meth use as a driving factor in skyrocketing foster care rates.

“The system is in a state of crisis,” the commissioners wrote.

The report was timed to influence the current legislative session. And while some reforms are moving through the state house, at least one commissioner says that progress isn’t moving fast enough.

“We saw that our system is in turmoil,” said Schylar Canfield-Baber, a former Montana foster youth who served on the commission. “But our turmoil is getting worse. We are losing children. Children are dying.”

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