- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

WOLF POINT, Mont. (AP) - On an unseasonably warm day in November, Ken Elliot looked through photos on his laptop as he sat in the living room of the home where he rents a basement apartment.

He paused on one image of his late wife, Jana, surrounded by three kids outside a grocery store in town, reported Lee Newspapers of Montana (https://bit.ly/2gFzcmE).

“Those were Jana’s kids,” Elliot said, smiling. “That’s just what Jana did. She just did everything she could to let them know she was there and she cared.”

Jana Elliot, who was 56 when she died earlier this year, touched the lives of each the children in the photo, like she did for so many in this small community on the Fort Peck Reservation in northeastern Montana.

In her sixth-grade classroom at Northside School here, every student who walked in the door knew they mattered. She gave kids rides to class and took them out to eat when school ended for the day. This year she and Ken became foster parents, bringing several children into their home before Jana died in a July car crash in Colorado.

Many kids here need extra attention, educators and social workers say. The reservation is poverty stricken, and many struggle with alcohol and drug addictions. The combination has left a foster-care gap.

Jana Elliot wasn’t the kind of woman to see such problems and hope they would get better - she took action. Her absence has left a huge hole in this community, one her husband is working hard to find a way to fill.

“Any time you saw Mrs. Elliot, she had kids around her,” said Kathy Adkins, the principal at Northside School. “She was always glowing inside and out, and her energy impacted everyone around her.”

The Elliots moved from Colorado to the Fort Peck Reservation. Ken Elliot went first, in 2011. He does environmental and reclamation work and was assigned a project to redevelop an old refinery on the eastern edge of town. Jana moved in 2013 after their two children finished college.

The couple had no idea what to expect. They came from a well-off area in Colorado to Roosevelt County, where 28 percent of children live below the federal poverty line.

“When Jana and I got here we just decided we’re going to do everything we can,” Ken Elliot, 56, said.

It didn’t take long for Jana Elliott to get started, first substitute-teaching at Northside. She was quickly hired full-time.

Getting teachers in Wolf Point can be challenging. One year Adkins hired two teachers but they couldn’t find housing and resigned before they started.

“This is northeastern Montana,” she said. “We don’t have a lot to offer people. But students need a mentor, someone who checks in with them at the beginning of the day and the end of the day.”

Adkins said Jana Elliot once had a very difficult student with behavior issues. Elliot noticed the girl’s hair was often disheveled, so she got permission from her parents and took the student to a salon, paying from her own pocket.

“That was just a normal thing,” Adkins said. “A lot of these kids, they’re overlooked by family or need another person in their life to show they care. Jana cared.”

Soon Elliot began working with kids outside of the classroom. She and Ken Elliot took groups of kids fishing at Fort Peck and hunting on the plains near town. They made campfires and toasted s’mores.

One year Jana Elliot organized an Easter egg hunt at a park down by the river. Some kids who went had never seen a bridge there that marks the edge of the reservation.

“Everything a parent should do she tried to do. They had never done that stuff,” Ken Elliot said. “The kids just loved it.”

Janice LaCounte, who works at the Child and Family Services office in Wolf Point, was the one who first approached the Elliots about signing up to be foster parents.

“When I asked her, she got this big smile on her face and said, ‘Ken and I have been thinking about just that,’” LaCounte said.

The Elliots sold what Jana called their “forever home” outside Denver and bought the biggest house in Wolf Point to have space to care for children. Ken Elliot moved out after Jana’s death.

The day after the Elliots finished their foster family certification training, they had a request to take in a baby. But what made the family special was their desire to work with children past the toddler stage. School-age kids are often the hardest to place.

“A lot of families don’t want older kids,” said Darci Hunsaker, the family resource specialist with Child and Family Services in Wolf Point. “They want babies and little ones.”

Hunsaker said there are about 25 foster families in the area. That used to be enough, but she’s seen a big increase in the number of children who need placements.

When Jana died, “we really took a hit,” Hunsaker said. “We do need more foster parents.”

Drugs, especially methamphetamine, have had a devastating effect on families here and around the state. Tribal chairman Floyd Azure earlier this year tied two high-profile cases involving children - a girl who was 13 months old was killed and left in a trash bin and a 4-year-old girl who was abducted - to the use of the drug.

“You can criticize, but meth is so bad, alcohol is so bad, and there’s no jobs and no hope. It’s hard to come out of that with no hope. We don’t criticize them because it doesn’t do good to criticize them,” Ken Elliot said. “We’re not here to help parents. We’re here to help kids.”

Statewide the number of children in the care of the state has doubled over the last five years, said Child and Family Services Regional Administrator Eric Barnosky.

In 2011 there were 1,746 children in foster care statewide. By the end of October this year that number was 3,369. About 13 percent of those, 451 children, are in Child and Family Service’s eastern region, which includes Carter, Custer, Daniels, Dawson, Fallon, Garfield, McCone, Phillips, Powder River, Prairie, Richland, Roosevelt, Rosebud, Sheridan, Treasure, Valley, Big Horn and Wibaux counties.

There were 1,103 licensed foster families in Montana. This does not include the number of unlicensed, non-paid kinship placements.

In Lame Deer, Northern Cheyenne tribal leaders said they place children in Miles City and Billings, Barnosky said. The same is happening on the neighboring Crow Reservation.

When children need to be removed from their parents and can’t live with other family members, placing them with Native families on their own reservation is the office’s top priority. It’s also required under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.

But the increase in children in the system means that’s not always possible. Sometimes Child and Family Services staff has to drive children as far as Glendive or Billings for placement, creating a huge strain on kids and parents and staff who facilitate visitations.

CFS is working on an updated plan to increase foster family recreation, Barnosky said. Families drop out of being providers for many reasons, he said, but one of the more common reasons is the need is so great and CFS offices are too understaffed to provide support.

“There’s a lot of good Native foster parents and they’re full,” Hunsaker said. Having a family like the Elliots was just one more good local option.

That the Elliots are white and the kids in their home weren’t didn’t matter, Hunsaker said. “Jana and Ken, they just cared for the kids so much, and that’s what matters most.”

Ken Elliot said he and Jana often had good relationships with the parents of kids in their care. “We’re not trying to take them away from them. They see we take care of them. If you care for the kids that’s a universal language.”

The Elliots took in eight kids before Jana died. Two girls stayed with them almost all of the six months they were a foster family. “We were just barely getting into it,” Ken Elliot said.

The kids that came to them were often traumatized. One girl the family got came to them at 2 a.m. She slept until 5 p.m. the next day, ate and then slept until 8 the next morning.

Ken Elliot was realistic about what he could do for these kids.

“We’re a protective environment until the state can figure out what’s going on. Every day they’re with us is a day in the win column.”

Ken Elliot could no longer be a foster parent after Jana was killed when she was hit by a car in Colorado in July. She had stopped to help someone pick up a bicycle that fell off their car and was struck by a driver who had smoked marijuana earlier in the day. The man was charged with vehicular homicide.

Elliot had stayed an extra week in Colorado to work as a chaplain at a camp.

“It’s just a tough deal, it’s just a shame,” Ken Elliot said.

But he hasn’t let his wife’s death stop him from trying to find ways to carry out her good work.

“What’s important for Jana is important for me,” Elliot said. “She’s not here but kids still need help.”

He hopes to open a group home on the reservation that could take up to 10 children a night. He’s been talking with stakeholders in the community about possible locations for the facility.

Elliot also has a plan to get more teachers to Wolf Point. He wants to buy houses in town to give teachers who move here a place to live while they work in the local schools.

He even has a possible name for the nonprofit he’d like to start - Tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase meaning roughly “repair your world.”

“We need a lot of repairing here,” Elliot said. “I want to stay long enough to figure out what I can do,” Elliot said. “Hopefully I’ll be here for a while.”

___

Information from: Independent Record, https://www.helenair.com


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