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News >  Idaho

Meth boosts child-protection needs

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – Idaho’s child-protection caseload is up 25 percent from a year ago, mainly because of parents who are abusing methamphetamine.

“You cannot use methamphetamine and be a parent – it just doesn’t work,” Magistrate Judge Bryan Murray told legislative budget writers this week. “They cannot deal with the needs of their children. Children are at extreme risk where they are in a home with methamphetamine being used.”

Murray and other law-enforcement and state officials painted for lawmakers a frightening picture of the world of children whose parents abuse the drug. And while there are increasing numbers of substantiated child abuse and neglect cases in the state, the state Health and Welfare Department hasn’t increased its number of child-protection workers since 1992.

The department now wants to add 15 child-protection workers – one of an array of proposals for additional staff in its budget request for next year.

“In our view, the consequences of not funding the child protection program at a level equivalent to the need ultimately will place children at risk,” Ken Diebert, administrator of family and community services for Health and Welfare, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

Lawmakers were chilled by the presentation, part of a weeklong series on the inner workings of the huge Health and Welfare Department, the state’s largest agency.

“It’s distressing to hear the individual stories of the cases that are happening out there,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice chairwoman of the joint committee. “Our job is to make sure that the resources we are utilizing are going where they need to go, and assessing the need for additional resources and where they’re going to come from.”

Keough said that before she knows if the new workers should be added, “I need some more information.” For example, department officials said they hold some positions vacant to move the funding into benefit payments.

New Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, sat front and center for the budget hearing, along with his House counterpart, Rep. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, chairwoman of the House Health and Welfare Committee.

“It’s scary, it’s absolutely scary,” Compton said of the picture officials painted of drug-abusing parents. “It’s beyond criminal. It’s one thing if they screw up their own lives, poison their own minds, but it’s another thing to screw up the lives of these youngsters.”

Col. Dan Charboneau, director of the Idaho State Police, told the story of a young girl who was afraid to go home after school, so she brought a friend. The friend saw several children caring for one another in an unkempt environment with no food, and told her parents. Child-protection officials then discovered five children in the home unattended, and a sixth duct-taped to a post in a crawl space as part of punishment from the parents. Large quantities of drugs were found.

Charboneau also shared another story about state police officers who were readying a meth lab bust and observed a young boy in a skeleton costume periodically running up and down the street. They thought the youngster might be watching for the police. But when they went in, they found the parents passed out on the couch.

The child had dressed himself for a school Halloween party in the costume, but wore no shoes, socks or underwear. He told police he’d been running up and down the street trying to catch the school bus.

Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, asked, “All of the horror stories aside, we’ve got to make this thing work at the end of the day. … What does a 10 percent increase do here?”

The state Health and Welfare Department has requested an overall budget 15 percent higher than this year’s level, but Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has recommended just a 10 percent increase, in hopes that the federal government will provide additional aid to states to cover rising Medicaid costs. Kempthorne warned, however, that if that aid doesn’t materialize, the state will need to cover the additional costs.

Diebert said a partial funding of the department’s request would allow only part of the needed additions.

Compton said it’s easy to lose perspective when looking at the huge budget and thinking about “3 million here, 14 people there.” But the human stories behind the numbers show what’s really happening, he said.

“I’ll never forget the story that the good colonel shared with us about the little kid running around in the skeleton costume,” Compton said.

Diebert said Idaho’s child-protection system is being heavily impacted by the growing use of methamphetamine.

“The children who are coming in to foster care are presenting us with some very difficult medical issues associated with their exposure to methamphetamine,” he said. Many also are suffering from exposure to the toxic chemicals used in the process of making the drug, he said.

Legislative budget writers heard from panels of officials Monday and Tuesday on child protection, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment and welfare, as part of a new effort to examine the Health and Welfare Department’s budget in depth.

Again and again, speakers returned to the problem of methamphetamine and substance abuse. “Ninety percent of our caseload would evaporate if this problem were not here,” said 6th District Judge Randy Smith.

Several speakers noted ties between substance abuse and mental health problems, and the need to address both.

“Our programs provide the resources and protection for some of the most vulnerable people in our state,” Health and Welfare Director Karl Kurtz told lawmakers. “We know you have some difficult decisions to make this session, and hope to provide you with as much information as possible to make those decisions easier.”

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