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.
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.
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.”
While the current legislature is taking up a raft of bills around substance abuse, Canfield-Baber worries that the long slate of child welfare reforms his commission envisioned is getting gummed up because of concerns about cost.
“We need to stop looking at this as a dollar amount,” he said. “We need to look at this as an investment in lives of Montana children.”
Back in Lake County, Manley and a cast of community members are hard at work on solutions. Most notably, they are in the very early stages of implementing a “drug court” meant to treat – not simply punish – addiction.
For Gov. Bullock, who sent the state legislature a letter in July urging them to pass laws modeled off the commission’s recommendations, Lake County’s efforts to combat the problem represent a step in the right direction.
“As a father and as governor, protecting the health and safety of Montana’s kids is a top priority – especially those who are born into challenging situations and too small to protect themselves,” Gov. Bullock said in an email statement sent to The Chronicle of Social Change. “Fighting the meth epidemic takes a team effort. Thanks to the lead of Judge Manley and others like him at the local level and at the state level, we’re taking much-needed steps to watch out for the most vulnerable among us.”
When Jay Brewer, a native of Illinois, “woke up” from a seven-year, cocaine-addled blur following the death of his 4-year-old son, he found himself in Glacier National Park, just north of Lake County.
Never having graduated high school, Brewer managed to get himself into college and wound up with a degree in addiction counseling. Today he works as an addiction counselor at Western Montana Addiction Services in the county seat and largest town, Polson.
According to Judge Manley, Brewer is the closest thing to a drug treatment program in the county.
“He’s very good,” Manley said. “But woefully inadequate for a problem of this magnitude.”
Most of Brewer’s clients live on the reservation, where he says cycles of addiction and alcoholism have made the community ripe for the latest explosion of meth use.
“I see kids smoking meth at 8 years old, because their older siblings say it is candy,” Brewer said. “I have an 11-year-old daughter and it just scares me to death. I started smoking weed at 13 or 14, but you have 8- and 10-year-olds smoking meth. It just is blowing my mind away.”
William Davis is a service coordinator at the Sunburst Community Foundation, which provides mental health services throughout the county. Davis says that there are few paths to mental health treatment in county and even less when it comes to addiction.
“It’s a system that is beyond broken,” he said. In the absence of adequate services to help prevent parents from using and to keep families intact, he said that Child and Family Services is often the “only gateway to services.”
There are plans in the works to convert a ranch on the Flathead Reservation into a sober living house, but the lack of services in Lake County and across the state remains a daunting challenge.
“‘There is no doubt that parental drug use involving meth is a contributing factor to the rising number of children in care in Montana over the past several years,” said Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Sheila Hogan in an email. “This issue is having a tremendous impact on the entire child protection system – not just to our agency but the courts as well. However, despite these challenges, we are committed to working internally and with our community partners to ensure that children who are impacted are safe and receiving the appropriate services, and that families are being connected to the proper supports as well.”
A Court Without Judgment
For his part, Judge Manley is turning to an idea that has had success in various jurisdictions across the country: drug court.
In Lake County’s drug court, folks caught up in the system with certain drug charges can opt into the court. If accepted, their criminal case will be put on hold while they go through an intensive program that can take up to two years. As a part of the program, they have to submit to drug testing twice a week, successfully complete a treatment program and attend hearings. If they are clean and sober for at least six months and self-reliant, they “graduate.”
The benefit is that they won’t get a criminal conviction on their record, and their children are spared the specter of foster care when their parents get locked up.
Manley, who modeled his drug court off a similar one in Billings, Montana, points to a 17 percent recidivism rate among graduates of that program, compared with the 75 percent chance that a person convicted of a drug crime will come back into the system in his county.
Other jurisdictions focus more tightly on the family preservation, calling their models “Family Drug Treatment Courts,” or variations on that theme. The prevailing philosophy driving the nation’s 300 or more family drug courts is to offer families therapeutic support instead of the punishment and sanctions that courts typically dole out.
Since the first Family Drug Treatment Court (FTDC) was started in 1993, the consensus among many leading family court judges is that they have been critical in positively changing the life trajectories of otherwise hurting families.
A four-site study on the effectiveness of FTDCs conducted by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children revealed that 43 percent of FTDC children were re-unified with their parents as compared to 32 percent of those children in a comparison group.
But as promising as the practice is, Manley has some serious challenges with getting his plan fully implemented. In September 2016, Lake County was denied a $330,000 grant from the federal Department of Justice. The county re-applied in March.
The same month, the county caught a break when the foundation of Montana billionaire Greg Gianforte cut the county a check for $53,600 to hire a drug court coordinator. Manley acted quickly, filling the position. The Salish and Kootenai tribes, which have been involved in setting up the drug court throughout, donated a computer.
Manley insists that law enforcement needs to take a different course in the face of the evolving addiction crisis. In his county alone, he estimates that the cost of classic drug enforcement, from arrest to incarceration and probation, is at least $400 million a year, dwarfing Lake County’s budget. This, of course, doesn’t factor in the generational cost of children growing up with addicted or incarcerated parents.
“Whether you are a Democrat or Republican and your concerns are more grounded in humanity or concern for the taxpayer, this is one issue that brings it all together,” he said. In Lake County, “we are charting an alternative course.”
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.