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There’s a right way and a wrong way to protect children at risk of abuse. Both are being demonstrated in Montana this year.

In Big Horn County, a well-meaning county attorney is trying out the wrong approach: a “crackdown” on pregnant women who consume drugs or alcohol.

Big Horn County Attorney Jay Harris announced the crackdown after growing frustrated with the rising numbers of babies exposed to dangerous substances before they are even born. Harris urged residents to report “any known instances of pregnant females using drugs or alcohol,” and said he intends to keep pregnant addicts who refuse to kick their habits in jail.

The state Attorney General’s Office opposes this approach – as do the majority of medical experts. The Montana ACLU opposes it on grounds that it’s likely unconstitutional. The legal precedent was affirmed just a few years ago in Ravalli County, when a pregnant woman was charged with endangering her unborn child and a district judge tossed out those charges.

But apart from the solid legal and medical objections to this approach, there’s also the simple fact that it does not result in lower numbers of infants born with drug-related complications. If anything, it makes the problem worse by deterring pregnant addicts from seeking medical attention or pursuing treatment.

Someone who enters jail addicted to drugs or alcohol is going to leave jail still addicted to drugs or alcohol unless she receives some sort of treatment intervention. Unfortunately, as a recent series of stories published in partnership with the Missoulian and the University of Montana’s School of Journalism illustrated, treatment options for addicts in Montana are few and far between. Recovery programs suitable for pregnant women are even more scarce.

The focus should be on expanding existing programs and creating new ones in underserved communities – particularly Montana’s Indian Reservations, where the rates of opioid use among pregnant women are even higher than the general population.

Stronger support is needed for approaches to curb child abuse that have been proven effective, such as that recently announced by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. The new initiative is aimed at reducing the number of child fatalities by providing in-home visits and other services to families deemed most at risk.

More than a dozen children died in Montana in 2017 – even after suspected abuse or neglect was reported to the state. A Child Fatality Review Report released this month showed that of 14 children who died after complaints were made to the state, 10 were younger than 1 year old, two were between the ages of 2 and 3, and two were 4 years old or older. Five deaths were ruled homicides, four were accidental, two were due to medical complications and one death was a suicide. However, five deaths were also connected in some way to drug use by the child’s mother.

The state’s new program will include five dedicated social workers to make sure certain families in the child protection system are given more focused attention. As such, it covers another important facet of the state’s child protection efforts, which already include a critical incident review process, First Years Initiative, and community collaborations with pregnant addicts.

And as part of a larger effort, the new initiative holds promise – but its potential is limited by both a lack of sufficient resources and funding, and the sheer number of children in the state child protection system.

At last count, the number of children in Montana’s foster care system was approaching 4,000. Just one year ago, the number had set a new record at 3,400 children in care. Needless to say, the number of child protection employees has not increased apace.

In any case, such increases are not sustainable. Montana cannot keep throwing money at a system that separates children from their parents. The state must do more to address the root causes of child abuse and neglect. And one of the major root causes is substance abuse.

That means, again, supporting outpatient treatment programs for women who already have children or are pregnant and struggling to overcome their addictions. It means spending a lot less time and money rounding up and prosecuting pregnant addicts – and more time and money building up resources in their communities to help them become better parents.

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