CALLA/GAL Co-Directors

Nancy Mitchell and Anita Nybo recently retired after serving 46 combined years as co-directors of CASA/GAL of Gallatin County, a nonprofit program that helps advocate and find homes for neglected and abused children in the court system.

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When parents abuse or neglect their children, Montana’s child protection system often places parents’ rights ahead of keeping kids safe.

That’s the charge made by two Bozeman women who worked for decades with the courts to represent “the best interests of the child.”

“The system is broken,” said Anita Nybo. 67. “There is no question the system is broken.”

Nybo said state policies too often put a higher priority on reunifying dysfunctional families, or “parental rights vs. what’s in the best interests of the child.” Reunifying families is a worthy goal, she said, but the emphasis should be on the child’s health and safety.

“Overall, the child abuse and neglect system is failing kids miserably,” said Nancy Mitchell, 76. “There needs to be some major changes to protect kids, and they are not being protected right now.”

The two women retired last summer after years as co-directors of Gallatin County’s nonprofit CASA/GAL program, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates and Guardian ad Litem. Nybo was with CASA for 30 years and Mitchell for 16 years.

“We didn’t resign because we’re old,” Mitchell said. “We felt we couldn’t protect children anymore.”

CASA trains volunteers to serve as the eyes and ears of judges in child abuse and neglect cases. Their job is to research each case in depth, talk to the children, relatives, teachers, doctors and others. They report back to the judge with the information gathered and recommendations about what would be in the best interests of the child.

The CASA program spread nationwide after it was started in 1976 in Seattle by a judge who felt that, to help sort out the conflicting stories from attorneys and parents, he needed an independent person to research the situation and recommend what would be best for the child.

When children are taken from their homes because of abuse or neglect, state law requires making “reasonable efforts” to reunify families separated by the state.

But the same state law also says that “the child’s health and safety are of paramount concern.”

In practice, Nybo and Mitchell contend, kids’ safety too often takes a back seat, as the state Child and Family Services caseworkers attempt to create plans for biological parents to get clean, sober, out of jail, into a job or into counseling so that the family can be reunified.

It’s very frustrating, Nybo said, to get a child’s case, read all the caseworkers’ reports, and discover that family services has been working with a family for years and received 30 or 40 reports from teachers, grandparents, neighbors or doctors, “people saying the child is not safe … And the department has never intervened to remove the child.”

“We see how badly damaged they are,” Nybo said. “It breaks our hearts. … Sometimes you read that history and it makes you so angry. They’ve been in that situation for years and nobody intervened.”

Mitchell said time after time, family services caseworkers label reports that a child wasn’t safe as unsubstantiated.

“’Unsubstantiated’ — I hate that word,” Mitchell said.

“We have gotten cases where a child died,” Nybo said, “and there have been years of reports where nobody intervened.”

Opposing critics

The two women said they tried hard to change Montana’s system. They met with local, regional and state supervisors at Child and Family Services, working up the chain of command to the head of the Department of Public Health and Human Services. Nybo shared her concerns with the then-lieutenant governor. She also testified last year with other CASA directors before the governor’s Protect Montana Kids Commission.

The Protect Montana Kids Commission issued a report in May 2016 saying that the system is in “crisis.” But it reached different conclusions about the source of the problems and solutions.

The commission found that there’s a crisis because the number of kids in foster care has doubled in recent years, largely because of drugs, while numbers of Child and Family Services caseworkers haven’t kept up. It concluded the department needs more resources. The governor has asked lawmakers to boost the Child and Family Services budget by some $16 million.

The criticisms raised by Nybo and Mitchell are the exact opposite of the often harsh charges made by Montana family members who are outraged at Child and Family Services for taking away their children or grandchildren.

A Billings woman submitted a petition to the Protect Montana Kids Commission demanding a federal investigation of Montana’s Child and Family Services, accusing it of “corruption, fraud, threats, extracting children for monetary gain, unreasonable delays and child trafficking.” A man who started a website called Children’s Rights Montana accused the department of taking too many kids and being “out of control.”

The criticisms raised by Nybo and Mitchell parallel those made by Congress in 1997 when it passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which sought to overhaul the system by making it easier to remove children from abusive families and speed up their adoption, the New York Times reported.

The 1997 law pushed states to get children into permanent placements after one year in foster care, instead of 18 months, and to terminate parents’ rights after a child had been in foster care for 15 out of 22 months, or sooner in severe cases.

The new law was a reaction to a 1980 federal law that required judges to make “reasonable efforts” to reunite biological families before kids could be put up for adoption. State courts, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, had widely interpreted the old law as an order to keep biological families together “at all costs.”

Sen. John Chafee, the Rhode Island Republican who sponsored the 1997 law, said it was time to change a system that was “always putting the needs and rights of the biological parents first,” and that “it’s time we recognize that some families simply cannot and should not be kept together.”

Chance after chance

Parents do have legitimate rights, Mitchell said, but, “by the time these cases get into court, these parents have had numerous chances … chance after chance.”

Child and Family Services deals with most abuse and neglect cases without ever going to court, they said, so that means the minority of cases that end up in court are the “worst of the worst.”

These often involve alcoholic or drug-addicted parents who fail to get clean, despite being given second chances, who struggle with mental illness or who fail to end an abusive relationship.

Yet children are often put back with an addicted mom who has been clean for only six months. Research shows, they said, that’s not enough time to make sure parents will stick with their treatment plan.

“It sounds great,” Nybo said, to reunify families and put kids back in their parents’ home. It should be the initial goal, but when it comes to families broken by drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence or sexual abuse, it often “does not work, and we’re putting children in very unsafe situations.”

When children are returned prematurely and parents fall back into drugs or abusive behavior, the kids end up back in the system a few years later, when they’re “very emotionally damaged,” Nybo said. Abuse and neglect can change children’s brain chemistry and function for the rest of their lives.

“They will never have a normal, happy functioning life because they’ve been in an abusive situation so many years,” she said.

“We’ve seen things get worse,” Mitchell said. Family services caseworkers “work longer and longer with parents.”

Nybo said it may sound like they’re against parents, but they really aren’t. The best outcome for a child — and their CASA volunteer — happens when parents make dramatic changes and kids can return home.

CASA volunteers often help parents who sincerely want to create a safe home. They have given parents cellphones and gas vouchers, and helped them find housing, clothing and supplies. One CASA volunteer paid for thousands of dollars of dental work for a mother, Nybo said.

“Some parents can get it together. If your child is your No. 1 priority, you can get this done,” Mitchell said.

But too often priority No. 1 “is usually the drugs, the alcohol, the abusive boyfriend,” she said. “And they keep blowing it, time after time.”

In a Child and Family Services’ report to the 2015 Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, it said that every child deserves a home that’s safe and permanent, so if the agency can’t return children to their parents, its staff tries to find a permanent home as quickly as possible.

In 2014, 50 percent of children who left care returned to their original homes, 15 percent were placed with their non-custodial parent, and about 7 percent were placed with another relative.

“This means that over 70 percent of children achieved permanency with family,” the agency reported.

Just under 18 percent of children who left the system were adopted.

Foster families

Many times the better option for the child would be a foster family, the women said. Foster parents can show kids a functioning, loving family, Nybo said, a family that sits down to dinner together, works together and plays together.

“For the most part, we’re pretty satisfied with foster care here in Bozeman,” Mitchell said. “Foster parents do the best job they can possibly do.”

Now, under state and federal law, if a child has been out of their family home for 15 of the last 22 months, the presumption is that it’s time to terminate the parents’ rights.

If that were followed, it would be beneficial, Mitchell said, but a majority of kids are being placed in “kinship care” with grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, shirttail relatives or even family friends.

It sounds good, and it can work, she said, but often the problems of addiction and abuse are “generational.”

Sometimes, Nybo said, they see loving foster parents who want to adopt their foster child. But because of the emphasis on family reunification and kinship placement, state caseworkers will remove the child from the foster home, where the child feels part of a family, and place the child instead with a cousin or someone the child has never met. They’re not convinced that family members are always vetted as carefully as foster parents.

“They can say, ‘Look how many kids we placed with their families… Isn’t that lovely, look what a great job we’re doing,’” Nybo said. But if the cousin was such a great placement for the child, where were they for the past several months, she wondered.

One social worker told her “’Kids are always better with kin,’” but research doesn’t say that, Nybo said. It says if two placements are equal, then family is better. But if a foster family can better meet a child’s needs, she said, “the child will have a better outcome if he is placed there.”

Social workers have told her, “Kids are always traumatized by taking them out of their home to foster care.” But in her experience, some kids are thrilled to be removed from their homes.

They used to get to attend wonderful court ceremonies where foster parents were adopting a child, but now, Nybo said, “We haven’t been to one in two years.”

Frustration

Teachers and other people in the community have called CASA to vent frustrations with Child and Family Services.

They have called the department’s central intake or hotline repeatedly, Nybo said, “and nothing ever happens,” to protect the abused or neglected child they’ve called about.

“Three different teachers said to me, ‘I don’t even call anymore because it doesn’t do any good.’ Yet they’re a mandatory reporter” of child abuse.

She tells teachers “it’s just critical” to keep filing reports, because documenting the history of abuse can help CASA volunteers to persuade a judge to act.

The two women criticized the system, but expressed empathy for the caseworkers who work within it.

“We have social workers who really care about kids, who try their best to help these kids,” Nybo said, but they’re working within the framework they’re given.

“Social workers are overworked,” Nybo said. “They spend so much time doing volumes of paperwork — hours and hours and hours of laborious paperwork…. Just streamline it so they don’t have to fill out 15 forms when they could do one. It’s ridiculous.”

“It’s a hard job,” Mitchell said, but added, “No amount of money is going to help if the focus stays the same — on reunification vs. the best interests of the child.”

The Protect Montana Kids Commission reported that one big reason for the doubling of kids in foster care is the resurgence of methamphetamine.

Drugs play a huge role in Gallatin County’s abuse and neglect of children, said Glenda Noyes, who became the new CASA director last summer. She oversees about 62 CASA volunteers, who work with 79 kids.

In three months last year, 65 out of 91 cases CASA volunteers worked involved meth. Meth and heroin are on the rise, Noyes said.

Of new CASA cases in Gallatin County last year, two were for sexual abuse and five were physical abuse. But 32 were for drug or alcohol addiction.

Noyes can’t talk about specific cases, which by law are confidential

“It’s very sad,” Noyes said. “One of our newer cases, I have dreamt about every night for the last two weeks. … One of the biggest things I’ve learned is how not to cry in court, to be professional.”

Guardian angels

Nybo and Mitchell concede that foster children often do want to go back to their parents, no matter what. Yet some children adamantly opposed returning to their parents.

Mitchell said some kids worry that if they’re not home, their parents won’t be able to take care of themselves. She’s seen a 5-year-old boy teaching a 3-year-old how to use the microwave, she said, because mom is on meth.

Both Nybo and Mitchell have “CASA kids” who stay in touch with them, even as adults.

Mitchell said she was the CASA volunteer for one young man, “Jim,” until he reached 18 and aged out of the foster care system. Now 28, he had been placed in 30 foster homes or group homes.

“Nancy was the only constant” in his life, Nybo said. “Everything else changed –placements, counselors, caseworkers.”

“He was really an amazing kid,” Mitchell said. “He said, ‘If it hadn’t been for you, I’d be in prison today.’”

He was bright and she tried to get him into college. But as soon as he could, she said, “all he wanted to do was find his mother.”

He wrote a poem in appreciation of his “Guardian Angel” at CASA.

“You … stood by my side,

“You … opened your arms wide,

“You took me into a motherly embrace,

“You held my hand through this tiring race,

“You’ve given me everything a guy could need…”

Mitchell framed his letter and poem. It’s on the CASA office wall today, serving as an inspiration to the volunteers who work on behalf of Gallatin County’s neglected and abused children.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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