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Neglect & Abuse are complex issues

by Patricia Swan Smith
For the Pathfinder

November 4, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

Abuse and neglect within the family is extremely complexsometimes it's easy to spot, sometimes it's not, and at times it's impossible to prove, according to Don Thompson and Loretta Rotellini, Missoula Community Workers.

They were the speakers at the forum about child abuse and neglect held at the Double Arrow Blackfoot Conference Center Oct. 21st. Thompson works in the Seeley Swan area.

The two-hour Department of Family Services (DFS) forum left the audience of approximately 20 people with a lot of information to absorb.

The cases where the children are bruised and/or bloody are easy to prove. Although, blatant proof does not make these cases any easier to work. And often, the more violent, the more volatile the case is to work.

When the proof isn't obvious, the lines that are drawn when it comes to defining abuse and neglect become blurred. Sometimes it's due to the fact that the law's definitions do not always agree with others' perceptions of what's right and wrong.

Example: Should children who are filthy and unkempt be removed from their home? The answer in many cases is no. According to the speakers, if the children's basic needs are being met, removing them would be more detrimental than helpful.

In fact, the children cannot be removed from the home without there being a life-threatening situation. If the case is life-threatening, the case workers can use a 48-hour emergency placement and remove the children.

And while taking the children from the home is the "best" option in many people's minds, it is so traumatic for the children it is often not the best solution, according to Thompson.

But if there is proof of physical or emotional abuse after the children have been removed from the home, the case worker can get a Temporary Investigative Authority which is good for 90 days. This allows the workers to investigate, and in many cases file with the court for temporary custody.

From the time the children are removed from the home, there is a window of 18 months in which the social workers, intervention workers and the family have to work out a solution that benefits the children and the family.

If the situation is not resolved in 18 months, the department finds permanent placement for the children.

The DFS tries to work a treatment plan that will help the family address the issues and problems and resolve them within the home. While it is not always successful, the entire problem is being addressed when the whole family is working with a treatment plan, according to Thompson.

In other cases, the abuse cannot be proven until years after the fact. Example: The parent got the two children out of bed in the middle of the night repeatedly to rant and rave at them. This went on over a period of years. This deprived them of sleep and caused a tremendous amount of emotional damage. It took several years of the children being unable to function in school, and the willingness of the children to talk about what was happening at home to prove that they were in fact being abused.

There are parents who are willing to work on the problems, Thompson said. They allow the social workers to enter the family system and work on long-term solutions for the whole family.

Unfortunately there are parents who are unwilling to discuss abuse or neglect, and there are other parents who will not cooperate even if the abuse was blatant and DFS has stepped in to protect the children, he said.

Teachers and other professionals are mandated by law to report suspected neglect and abuse, and they are not allowed to discuss it with the parents prior to the reporting. Many times, when they do as they are mandated to do, they become the target of the parent's anger.

Many of those who have reported neglect or abuse feel that the DFS workers didn't do anything after they received the report, Thompson said.

This is just not true, he said. Every complaint that is received is checked out. Last year the Missoula office handled 2,023 reports.

But due to confidentially rules, most of the time no one except the family knows that DFS has been involved, he said. It is important for the callers to know that many of the reports prompt a lot of family treatment plans that the public never knows about.

"We don't want people to think nothing is being done," Thompson said. "But we need people to understand how it works. And we aren't always successful. I wish I had a magic wand. But I don't."

It's also important for people to understand that they can remain anonymous when they report a suspected abuse or neglect case. And, the caller does not have to have proof, they just need a suspicion.

To report a case, you may call DFS during office hours Monday through Friday at (406) 423-4100, and after business hours you may call 911 with any report.

Besides working with other professionals, parents and children, DFS works under both federal and state laws, and many of those components change with every legislative session. Keeping up with all of the parties involved and the changes in how they are supposed to handle cases is not an easy task for those working at DFS.

Another aspect of DFS is finding foster homes for children. Seeley has only two foster homes and Condon has one.

The DFS would like to put on a training in Seeley if they could get anywhere from 5 to 10 families to participate. If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, please contact the Family Resource Specialist Joan Bartkowski at (406) 523-4100 Ext. 4107.

There are three types of foster homes. Emergency homes provide a home for children for up to 30 days. Regular foster care offers home to children up to 18 months, but the family is not interested in adopting any of the children. And, the last type is Fost-Adopt families, and they take in children for up to 18 months and are also interested in adopting.

The local domestic violence and sexual assault program, SSTEP, sponsored the Department of Family services forum as part of the Domestic Violence Awareness month.

For more information about help with local violence and abuse issues, or to find out how you can volunteer for local program call SSTEP at 677-3177.

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