Havre Daily News
If methamphetamine didn't exist, it would make Heather Ostwalt's job a lot easier. The probation officer handles 80 to 90 cases at a time, she said, and about half them are a result of the drug that is taking control of communities and filling up prisons.
Ostwalt was part of a panel of law enforcement personnel, probation officers and recovery counselors who joined a half-dozen recovering meth addicts on the stage Tuesday night at the Havre High School auditorium to talk about the problem.
Hill County Attorney Cyndee Peterson, who organized the second community forum on meth held in Havre in the span of a month, said prevention is of the utmost importance. Often, first-time offenders are given suspended sentences or probation, but people like Ostwalt are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and often cannot give users the attention they need to get clean.
"I think we have an excellent opportunity with those first-time offenders," Peterson said. "We're talking about something that is so hard to stop using. We're filling up our prisons."
Peterson asked audience members to write to their local legislators about diverting more funding to probation officers and treatment for users, so they can capitalize on their early chances to clean up.
She asked audience members to take what they've learned at the forums out into the community to educate other people.
"The answer is not to throw people in jail," she told the audience of about 450 people. "We've tried to step up prevention efforts. We're taking steps toward treatment, but as a community we need to take steps toward prevention."
Audience member Jim Burrington said after the forum that he was impressed by the focus on prevention.
"There's some concern there," he said. "It's not all focusing on punishing the addict. It's how do we help this person."
Repeated stays in correctional facilities are sometimes the only thing that will force a meth addict to clean up.
"My family could tell me how much they loved me, but it was ultimately my probation officers, counselors and law enforcement" who forced her to clean up, Sue said. Sue was on a panel of recovering meth addicts who spoke at the forum.
"The state of Montana played a large part in me finally settling down," said Daniel, a fellow recovering addict. "I'm getting old, and the time keeps getting worse. I know that they're always back there. They always will be."
While law enforcement agencies will continue working on the meth problem, some are being stretched thin by funding problems and the ballooning number of cases.
Tri-Agency Drug Task Force agent Jerry Nystrom said the agency's caseload is at its limit. The task force has three agents on staff to handle drug investigations across a six-county area.
"Right now, our caseload is maxed out," he said. "At the same time, we're running the risk of losing our funding every year."
One audience member asked the panel why it takes so long to see results after a tip is called in to a law enforcement agency.
Hill County sheriff's chief deputy Monte Reichelt said law enforcement personnel are often looking for pieces to a larger puzzle in order to make a criminal case. That is one of the reasons for a lack of immediate response. He told audience members not to be discouraged by an apparent lack of action. Law enforcement must work through a process, one that often takes time.
"The reason it takes so long is that we have certain criteria to measure the information we receive," Nystrom said. "We don't throw that information away, even if it's anonymous."
An audience member asked what people could do to protect their kids and prevent them from starting the drug in the first place. Communication and discipline are important, Reichelt said.
"Talk to your kids," he said. "Watch who they're hanging out with. Ask where they've been. You're the parent. Set a curfew. They won't like it, but make them live with it."
One step local law enforcement has taken in recent months is to institute a new policy for investigating child abuse and neglect in meth cases, said Havre police Lt. Russ Ostwalt, who is married to Heather Ostwalt. In cases where adults are arrested for meth use or production, the department plans to conduct separate inquiries with the kids in mind.
"(Previously) the children in the house were considered witnesses," he said. "Now, this has changed to where the child is seen as a victim as well. We do an investigation with the child at the top."
When children are found in a home where meth is present, social workers must evaluate their heath and neurological status, conduct an interview and find the children a new home, said Sheila Dugdale, a social worker with the state Child and Family Services Division.
Kids exposed to meth can develop long-term health problems, become drug or alcohol abusers themselves, drop out of school, become financially dependent and have a five times greater chance of being incarcerated, Dugdale said.
One problem with carrying out such investigations is finding the child a safe home. Dugdale said there often isn't another suitable family member nearby with whom the child can stay, so young boys and girls are often sent to foster homes. There is a huge need for foster parents in the area, she said. The lack of foster homes forces social workers to uproot the children even more by sending them to a home in another city.
Havre attorney Bob Peterson encouraged audience members to consider becoming foster parents or court-appointed special advocates. Peterson, who is the CASA coordinator for Hill County, said there is a growing need for those volunteers, who act on behalf of children who are victims of abuse or neglect. The volunteers act as fact-finders for judges, speak for the child in the courtroom and act as a watchdog for the child during the life of a case.
To find out more information about CASA, contact Bob Peterson at 265-3094. People interested in being foster parents can call Doug Miller at (406) 268-3783.