One of the most frequent questions I get asked is whether Child Protective Services, or CPS, does a good job of deciding when to remove kids from abuse and neglect situations. As you can guess, there is a wide range of reactions to CPS decisions. On the one hand, parents are understandably terribly upset when children are removed from their care. On the other hand, those who call in the suspected abuse or neglect, called reporters, are often frustrated when a home is investigated and no removal occurs.
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The short answer is yes, I believe CPS, at least in the 13th Judicial District, does a very good of balancing the pros and cons when deciding whether to remove or leave children in a home. Per usual, a little history is in order. It goes without saying that a small percentage of parents, primarily due to chemical dependency issues or mental health issues, have abused or neglected their children since the dawn of history.
In colonial U.S., up until about 1875, child abuse was sometimes handled, if it was extreme enough, thru criminal court. In about 1825, states began allowing private social agencies to remove neglected children, often placing them in orphanages or almshouses. This system of nongovernment intervention occurred until about 1962, when today’s government CPS system began.
The actual child abuse or neglect is remarkably similar thru the years. Most cases center on neglect. Actual abuse, such as physical abuse or sexual abuse, is found in a minority of cases. Neglect, where family dysfunction is high, and parents are just not capable of caring for themselves, let alone a child, is the norm. One of the epiphanies I have had since I have become a judge is there are people who cannot care for themselves, so how could they care for a child?
I don’t want to get too wrapped up in statistics, but a few are worth repeating. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families reports: “The national estimates of children who received an investigation…increased 7.4% from 2010 (3,023,000) to 2014
(3,248,000)….Three quarters (75%) of victims were neglected, 17% were physically abused, and 8.3% were sexually abused….For 2014…1,580 children died of abuse and neglect at a rate of 2.13 per 100,000 children.”
In Yellowstone County, the increase is much more startling. In 2011, 176 children were involved in abuse and neglect cases. That figure increased to 452 children by 2015, and 2016 is starting off as even worse. Drugs are by far the primary cause of removals, accounting for 64.38% of removals. Meth is the most popular drug abused, but opiates, marijuana, and prescription drugs are also noticeable on the list. Alcohol was the primary cause in 20.8% of the removals. One or both of the parents were incarcerated in 41.59% of the cases when the child was removed. Statistics are similar across Montana, with increases across the state, primarily due to drug abuse.
Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Corbit Harrington recently testified before the Legislative Finance Committee and carefully went thru every one of the 452 children removed in Yellowstone County in 2015. His well-researched summary, which I would encourage you to read, is available thru the Billings Gazette at: billingsgazette.com. Just search for this article and look for the 32 page summary attached.
As I think you will see if you read the case summaries, every case represents a real child and a real family in crisis. The best solution is a family member stepping in to help. This often happens, thankfully. There should be a special place in heaven for grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren. However, in far too many cases no family is available to help. While the State (you and I) are poor substitutes for family, it is better than nothing.
At the risk of stating the obvious, children are our most important ingredient for our nation’s future. And, while I wholly believe families should remain intact, there are times when parents simply are unable to care for their children, to the significant detriment of those children. Our CPS does a nice job of finding that balance, and, perhaps just as important, helping parents address the issues they are dealing with so they can become better parents. Finally, CPS has made good strides in returning children to their parents, under the watchful eye of CPS, sooner. I the one area I would still like to see addressed is more unsupervised visits quicker. Overall, however, we are moving in the right directions, for our children, and our society.
Judge Russell Fagg has been a District Court Judge for 21 years, handling over 25,000 cases. Fagg is past president of the Montana Judges Association.
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