What is going on with all of the youth violence in Billings, Montana- especially the gang violence? Why are kids doing this? Because they can. That's the message we have heard. If adult offenders aren't facing enough punishment for their crimes, do you think youth offenders will?
We've been covering this topic from a number of angles- the DEA, the Billings Police Department, Sheriffs across the state, and with youth services. After hearing our coverage, one Billings mom decided to share her heartbreaking and frustrating story. Her open letter is below.
Open Letter from a Billings, Montana Mom: (slightly edited with minor edits)
My son is now 19 and is living on his own, but from the time he was about 13-18, it was hell for our family. I knew at an early age that there was an issue with my son. My parents used to joke that at 2 years old he could argue with you about an issue until you'd fully believe him. He knew how to argue, lie, etc. I took him to therapists to get help because I was at a loss. I was always told these were learned behaviors and I was doing something to cause it. I know I'm not perfect, but I didn't teach him to lie, steal, and cheat.
I took him to a couple very good therapists in town from the time he was about 12/13 until he absolutely refused to go, which was about at 16. I also eventually took him to a Psychiatrist who would throw medication at him hoping something would help.
I begged for help. I didn't know what to do. My son would run away, steal from me, sneak out at night, break into rooms that were locked (I have multiple doors in my house that are destroyed from it), fight with me, scare my younger daughter, etc. One day I had a call that someone was at my door looking for their young daughter and she was in the basement with my son (he had snuck her in at night). Nothing in my home was safe. The police were at my house often enough to where we were on a first name basis with many. I had conversations with them and I fully believe they did everything they could. At one point, my son ran away and stole a friends car at the age of 17 and took two 14 year old girls down to WY and back. The family that owned the car tried to press charges that didn't stick. One of the fathers of the girls found me on Facebook and wanted to get help as well.
I was also on the phone almost daily with the Skyview SRO and Deans because of troubles caused by my son on a daily basis. Eventually he just quit going to school and dropped out at 17.
Again, all I wanted was help. We worked with the Youth Court System. We saw the youth hearings officer a handful of times. He would tell my son that if he saw him again, this and this would happen. We saw him again and nothing happened. The program that Val talked about with the discipline for the kids is a joke. My son did these things and he would get 10 hours of community service at Goodwill with all the other troubled youth. They would become friends and exchange tactics and things would get worse.
I tried to get my son enrolled in Normative Services in Sheridan WY or BGBR or New Day in Billings. Private Insurance does not pay for these services. The only way to get this paid is to have Medicaid but I made too much money. To pay out of pocket, it is $550 a day. Which comes out to $101,000 / 6 months or over $200k for a year. How can anyone afford that?
Youth services would not do anything for my son. I constantly begged them for help. I didn't want to put him away in jail. I wanted help. Right before things got really bad, I split from my husband in November 2019... I was doing this as a single parent. January 2020, Youth Court Services finally put him in the Shelter side of the Ted Lechner youth facility that Val runs. Of course, my son was let out a little early because COVID shut everything down. Promises that were made were dropped... I was left alone again.
With the recommendation of the therapists that I hired for my son, I pressed charges when he would steal from me. He would break into my locked room, get into my safe, steal money, and go buy things with it. He would steal my car at night even though I locked my purse, belongings, my daughter, animals, etc in my room at night. Again, nothing was safe in my house.
Eventually the youth Probation Officer hated me. I'm sure most parents don't care and just go with whatever the youth court does. I wasn't going to let that go because I couldn't keep living like this and my son needed help. He has a mental health issue and no one would help me.
We eventually ended up in Judge Souza's courtroom with the Probation officer. My dad and I watched so many court dates for other kids. The court appointed attorney would continue every case. Parents would show up... case continued ... nothing happened. Kids doing terrible things were sent home with their parents. There was absolutely no accountability and no recourse to their actions. These kids didn't care about 10 hours of community service or showing up to court to not have to admit to anything.
I hired a lawyer at one point and had a meeting with the Youth Court System (Probation officer, her boss, the County Attorney for youth, etc). I asked what we could do to help. Still no answers. No promises kept.
The probation officer and court appointed attorney hated me because I wouldn't let things go. I was constantly emailing them with issues. I wanted them to know how bad it was at home. In court one day, they told Judge Souza how much of a terrible place my home was for my child. That he needed to live somewhere else. They let him live with a friend that they did not vet at all. I was on the stand and told Judge Souza that this friend wasn't his friend. It was a girl he was living with and no one knew that. That the parent involved was never home because she worked out of town. No one cared. They let my son move out at 17 and made me out to be a terrible, unloving parent.
I am now a grandma to a beautiful little girl. At the time the mom got pregnant, my son was 17 and mom was 13. This happened when he was under the watch of Youth Court. They didn't care that my son ran away from home, lived with a young girl, and got her pregnant. This was during the same time he stole the friends car. The family of the car tried to get compensation or charge him ... youth court let it go and nothing happened. My son didn't even have to pay for damage.
So, I don't wonder why we have a youth problem in Billings. Its not the BPD. Its the Youth Court System. We are failing our youth by giving them no accountability for their actions. If they are not given consequences, they up their anti and do even worse crimes. Also, the Ted Lechner center is not as great as Val says. The reason they have 20 kids on the weekends, is the police put them there, then Monday morning, they go to court and the court lets them go home unless someone died due to their actions.
You should show up to youth court some day and watch how the proceedings work. It will blow your mind.
Thank you for your time in reading my long-winded story :) I hope and pray that someone can use my story to learn from and maybe things can change. My son is just one of many going through this. I'm amazed that not many parents speak up. I also homeschool my daughter because I know what's out there and what could happen to her because of a lack of respect and accountability that is taught to the kids in our community.
Concerned Parent -
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